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Homelessness and Shameful Waste

Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, NYCOne of the worst and most underreported aspects of the homeless crisis is the amount of money wasted by cities in their attempts to not deal with it, or to handle it in ways ranging from sloppy to deeply criminal. Boise, Idaho, for example, really knows how to flush dollars down the toilet.

Briefly summarized here is a story reported by Rebecca Boone for Associated Press. Back in the 1990s, the city worked with an agency called Community House (CH), but the relationship was rocky, and in 2003, the city announced that its shelter would hitherto be run by the Boise Rescue Mission, which serves only men. The much more vulnerable women and children would be left out.

Boone writes:

Community House filed a complaint under the Fair Housing Act contending that the move amounted to discrimination against the homeless women and children currently living there because it would leave them with no place to go.

The city went ahead with its plans, so CH filed a federal lawsuit, and the jury found that the city had violated the state constitution and engaged in retaliatory behavior, and, most of all, discriminated against women and children. Eventually, Boise was ordered to pay $1 million dollars to CH. But all the attorneys who have worked on the case for seven years need to be paid, too, and they intend to charge the city nearly another $2 million for their fees.

But the city intends to have the discrimination and retaliation case overturned, which would leave both CH and the lawyers unpaid, and, incidentally, pile up even more legal fees. Not to worry, a spokesperson assured the public. The party line is, even if the worst happens, and the monetary award is upheld, it won’t cost the citizens, because the city’s insurer will pay.

Does that make any sense? Surely, it’s the taxpayers who buy the insurance policy, and will continue to do so after the rates are raised, in the wake of a big payout. If that isn’t the way it works, someone please explain. And what has all this expenditure on legal talent accomplished, as far as actually putting anybody under a roof?

Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, NY, a story is brewing whose ugliness increases daily. We know about it due to an impressive series of articles by investigative reporter Andrew Rice. The basic fact is that more than 45,000 New Yorkers are in the homeless system, some housed already at a monthly cost of $3,300 per unit, which is more than the market rate in Manhattan.

Of course, the price is described as including “services,” which mainly seem to consist of a hefty security staff. If the amount includes nurses, counselors, dietitians, and other personnel who do something for the residents, other than keep the rowdy ones in line, such expenditure would be justified. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. Rice explains how they do things in New York:

Shelter contracts can work in a variety of ways. Sometimes a property owner like Lapes bids directly and then subcontracts to a service provider. Sometimes, as is the case in Carroll Gardens, a service provider bids after having identified a property to lease. Few landlords, though, are willing to turn their buildings into shelters. That means the city must pay a premium, sometimes to sketchy characters.

The big story right now concerns Carroll Gardens, a building originally containing 10 apartments, that is being remodeled into a 170-bed shelter. What’s not to like? Several things, apparently, including pervasive secrecy and the invocation of “emergency contract rules” rationalized by the need to finish the work in a hurry before winter sets in.

That is the clearest aspect of the tale, which quickly devolves into a complicated mess concerning the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) and several unsavory characters, none of whom deign to return the reporter’s messages. Rice has been tracing all the people who stand to make money off the current project, and it’s not looking good.

He writes:

D.H.S. prepares to award a no-bid contract worth millions of dollars to the agency’s recently departed commissioner, who appears, in turn, to be renting the building that will house the shelter from one of his newly established nonprofit’s own board members… While few specifics […] have been disclosed, public records indicate that the bidder has an unusually involved relationship with the building’s landlord, who stands to profit from the deal.

The building appears to be owned by Alan Lapes, a convicted felon once characterized by the New York Post as “the public face for bona fide bad guys.” More than 20 shelters are run for the DHS by a shady outfit called Aguila Incorporated that was accused by the Comptroller of overcharging the city by almost a million dollars last year. And who is in charge of Aguila? The former DHS commissioner, a fellow named Robert Hess, also boss of Housing Solutions, which has three board members, two of them business associates of this Lapes character.

Then, there’s Amsterdam Hospitality, headed by Stuart Podolsky, whose expertise in previous ventures consisted of terrorizing tenants out of rent-controlled apartments (thus causing a great amount of homelessness) so the buildings they were driven from could be turned to much more profitable uses. Not surprisingly, Lapes also used to work for them, and all kinds of dicey things went on in the shelters he supervised. Rice says:

In recent years, scandals involving politically connected nonprofits and public-service contracts have led to corruption indictments and tough new state regulations on executive compensation and oversight.

Here, too, the legal costs have been ridiculous, including those incurred in several more lawsuits along the way, which Rice catalogues. Really, the whole sordid story deserves to be read in its entirety, and not just read, but studied and taken to heart as an object lesson, by any city that truly intends to house the homeless, and not merely enrich a battalion of attorneys and a legion of thieves.

Reactions?

Source: “Lawyers for homeless shelter seek almost $2M,” Idahostatesman.com, 10/25/12
Source: “A New Carroll Gardens Homeless Shelter Built on Old Relationships,” CapitalNewYork.com, 10/15/12
Source: “The controversial landlord behind a mystery-shrouded Carroll Gardens shelter project,” CapitalNewYork.com, 10/18/12
Source: “Hidden in a Carroll Gardens shelter project, an owner with ‘terror’ on his resume,” CapitalNewYork.com, 10/22/12
Image by TijsB.

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“Housing First” Offers Precious Opportunity

Interesting ConversationThe fictional character of Dracula was inspired by the real Prince Vlad of Romania, sarcastically described here by Robert Davenport in his Roots of the Rich and Famous:

Realizing that the plight of the homeless was an important problem in his country, he had all of the homeless people invited to a huge feast in a specially prepared building. They were then fed until they could barely move, at which point Dracula had the doors closed and the building burned down, thus ‘eliminating’ the problem.

We have come a long way since then, and some locales have made more progress than others. Last week, House the Homeless blog looked at the advantages of housing the homeless, especially the small percentage who place a disproportionate strain on the budgets of jails and courts.

And fire departments. Last year in Albuquerque, for instance, nearly 80% of one fire station’s calls (3,000 of them) rendered aid to homeless people with substance addictions. Is it really in a city’s best interest to employ fire trucks for anything but fires?

In the same city, the “Heading Home” initiative was planned to create publicly funded housing for the 75 most vulnerable homeless citizens. A single individual had logged 120 emergency room visits and 30 inpatient stays within a single year, at a cost of more than $100,000.

Malcolm Gladwell mentions a study undertaken by the University of California’s medical center in San Diego. It lasted a year and a half, and concentrated on 15 chronically homeless people who were either mentally ill, addicted, or both. Guess how many ER visits they collectively racked up? A total of 417. One man came in 87 times during that period. Those 15 people, in that time frame, averaged medical bills of $100,000 each.

As surveys show, a great percentage of people experiencing homelessness also suffer from chronic illnesses and disabilities. According to federal law, anyone who shows up at an emergency room has to be evaluated and treated. While this is a good thing, it also leads to medical centers being inappropriately forced to serve as de facto temporary housing. Barbara Williams writes:

At hospitals, the homeless know they can get a hot meal and escape the cold or rain for a few hours when shelters are full. Emergency rooms have become such a lifeline that some return to the same ER every few weeks, while others rotate among hospitals so they don’t show up too often at the same facility…

Some call it “working the system,” but the system is the only game in town. If a patient spends three nights in a hospital, Medicaid considers the person eligible for a nursing home. But even if a hospital wants to go that route, it’s often hard to justify a three-night hospital stay, in order to fulfill that requirement. In some states, such as New Jersey, the law mandates a “safe discharge” plan. That means somewhere to stay, a way to get meds, and followup office visits if necessary (and we will be talking more about “safe discharge”).

A reader from Rochester, NY, describes the limited efforts that cause schizophrenic and bipolar tenants to be “dumped” into state-subsidized apartment buildings where they frighten or even threaten the tenants who are merely old and/or disabled. Three successful suicides had been completed since she lived there:

It is interesting that the state gives them food stamps to use, gives them vouchers for furniture and clothing, but does not provide the one essential of having someone make sure they take their meds.

It is counter-productive to insist that people be addiction-free before they can be housed. The most success has been achieved with a “housing first” policy. Supportive care ensures that people who need meds do indeed take them, and performs many other services that prevent the disbursement of large amounts of money in the near future. Plus, on the do-the-right-thing side of the equation, merely providing a roof is not enough, not when the tenants use it to jump from.

In Denver, the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless began a “housing first” program in 2003. When the results were compiled, they showed that emergency-room visits decreased to such an extent that the taxpayers paid 73% less for the care of each participant — averaging only $31,500 per person. Portland, ME, found that permanent supportive housing reduced the cost of mental health services by 57%.

Heather Scoffield reports on Canadian research which proved that bringing the chronically homeless who are mentally ill into supportive housing cut the expense by more than half:

One study shows that taxpayers pay between $66,000 and $120,000 to cover the basic annual costs for prison or psychiatric hospitals for just one homeless person… For chronically homeless people who are frequent users of social services, the annual savings are $25,899 per person.

When substance abuse is the only issue, “housing first” offers a strong possibility that the person will re-enter the larger community, making space in the facility for someone in greater need. Often, however, those with mental illness might never become self-sufficient. But at least supportive housing can keep them out of the costly emergency rooms and prison cells. How often does the chance come along to do good AND save money? Really, it’s a no-brainer.

Reactions?

Source: “Housing Homeless Saves Public Money,” DailyLobo.com, 04/25/11
Source: “Why problems like homelessness may be easier to solve than to manage,” Gladwell.com, 02/13/06
Source: “More homeless in NJ using hospital ERs for shelter and food,” NorthJersey.com, 05/25/12
Source: “Housing First: County poised for major shift in dealing with homelessness,” TDN.com, 05/14/11
Source: “Cheaper to buy homeless their own place,” The Province, 09/25/12
Image by Ed Schipul.

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Do It Now and Save Money

39 arrestsDo what? Get people experiencing homelessness under a roof. Even the most expensive supportive housing is cheaper than what it costs to keep a person on the streets. This has been demonstrated over and over again. Amazingly, many people, even those who are already moved by compassion to act, are not aware of the facts.

If a piece of clothing is torn, the hole is likely to catch on something and rip even further. But if it’s sewn up quickly, it’s much less work to repair. That is why “A stitch in time saves nine” is a venerable old saying. When the social fabric is torn, the adage is equally true. Sure, money is tight, but spending a dollar now will prevent the spending of many multiples of that dollar. One stitch instead of nine. And the beauty part is, the savings begin immediately.

The people mainly concerned here are the chronically homeless, meaning, on the streets for more than a year, or with a history of four or more episodes of homelessness in the previous three years. Often, there is a component of mental illness and/or substance addiction. Overall, less than one-fifth of people experiencing homelessness fall into this category. But their care accounts for more than half of the resources set aside for homeless assistance.

Budget-wise, the law enforcement and medical establishments take the biggest hit. Courts get jammed up, fire departments are affected, and the cost even extends to public libraries, some of which have added extra staff and new programs to cope with their patrons experiencing homelessness.

Whether agencies are funded by city, state, or federal government, the same people pay for all the damage, and they’re called taxpayers. It has been proven that a lot of social problems can be alleviated with a lot less of the taxpayers’ money. Of course, people experiencing homelessness pay taxes, too. Like everyone else, they pay sales tax on what they buy. And they have their own special tax, embodied in the ordinances that cities everywhere are instituting. They get fined for Breathing While Homeless. Not surprisingly, they mostly can’t pay, so homeless people are thrown in jail and become a big expense to everybody else. Then, they wind up back on the streets again and cost the citizens even more.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The answer is “housing first,” an idea which took flight in New York City in the 1990s. People are encouraged to get off street, into subsidized housing, with no strings attached. They do not have to get sober or un-addicted first. It’s a come-as-you-are invitation.

The always-emphatic Kirsten Anderberg puts her own spin on it:

No one makes sobriety a requirement for middle class people to live in, own, or inherit houses. That clean and sober requirement to live in housing is a bar a majority of middle class people could not meet yet they demand it of the poor. The double standard where the middle class can act irresponsibly… but if you are poor, you need to be a damned angel to get any help, needs to be examined.

The majority of “housing first” clients take advantage of the opportunity to pull themselves together and become productive members of society. In a story that gives some very detailed instances of success, Amy M.E. Fischer writes:

The Housing First approach takes chronically homeless people off the streets and places them in their own apartments, without the usual hurdles of screening and strict rules. They are assigned a caseworker whom the landlord can contact at any time… The program […] pays part or all of the rent on a decreasing basis, depending on the case… Case workers slowly ratchet up the expectations for addressing their problems and becoming self sufficient.

In January, The Christian Science Monitor‘s Andrew Mach reported that in the previous year,

[…] the number of so-called permanent supportive housing units in the United States exceeded the number of emergency shelters for the first time. The reason is simple, advocates say: Permanent supportive housing not only removes the stigma of homelessness but is also cheaper than other alternatives, studies show.

Yes, cheaper. In Los Angeles County, Project 50 saved $238,700 over two years by locating Skid Row’s 50 most long-term, substance-abusing individuals and housing them without requiring that they sober up first. The program then went on to help many more.

In 2009, a study called “Where We Sleep: The Costs of Housing and Homelessness in Los Angeles” looked at more than 10,000 people and arrived at these numbers:

— Cost of a homeless person on the streets: $2,897 per month
— Cost of a person in supportive housing: $605 per month.

In Denver, CO, a “housing first” program brought down jail costs by 76%. In other words, to only one-quarter of the previous high. In Seattle, a similar project saved nearly $30,000 per year per tenant. A study by the University of Pennsylvania showed the yearly cost to the taxpayers of one homeless person with severe mental illness on the street: $40,451. Placement in supportive housing saved an impressive $16K per capita.

CBS’s Phil Hirschkorn recently reported on a shelter called “Safe Harbor” in Tampa, FL. Its founder, Sheriff Bob Gaultieri, told the reporter that while jail costs $106 a day, the shelter costs $13 a day for each resident. Cowlitz County, WA, decided to try “housing first” in 2011, and there are many more examples. According to the Na­tion­al Alliance to End Home­less­ness, four American cities have achieved stardom in this area — Chicago, IL, Norfolk, VA, Quincy, MA, and Witchita, KS.

Philip Mangano was in charge of homelessness policy under President George W. Bush, and he helped to pioneer “housing first.” Eventually, Mangano was able to gather figures from 65 cities where the concept was being tried. He found that the annual cost of keeping one person on the street is between $35,000 and $150,000, whereas the yearly bill for supportive housing is more like $13,000 to $25,000. In other words, supportive housing at the high end is still cheaper than street homelessness at the low end.

This spring, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan came out in favor of “housing first,” saying:

The thing we finally figured out is that it’s actually, not only better for people, but cheaper to solve homelessness than it is to put a band-aid on it. Because, at the end of the day… it costs about $40,000 a year for a homeless person to be on the streets.

It’s a shame that more taxpayers in more cities can’t see their own long-term good staring them in the face. Of course, there is always the NIMBY, or “Not In My Back Yard” factor, when the feeling is, “Sure, help the homeless — just don’t do it near me.” This works against society’s need help people off the street-hospital-jail-street merry-go-round.

Reactions?

Source: “Middle Class Denial of Privileges is Offensive to the Poor,” Portland IMC, 05/21/10
Source: “Housing First: County poised for major shift in dealing with homelessness,” TDN.com, 05/14/11
Source: “How to curb chronic homelessness? First, a home!,” The Christian Science Monitor, 01/25/12
Source: “Building Housing For Homeless People Saves L.A. County Money, Study Shows,” North Hollywood-Toluca Lake, CA, Patch, 06/07/12
Source: “Tampa area has nation’s highest homelessness rate,” CBS News, 08/26/12
Source: “HUD secretary says a homeless person costs taxpayers $40,000 a year,” PolitiFact.com, 05/05/12
Image by Elvert Barnes.

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People Experiencing Homelessness Are Easy Targets

Homeless dudeAustin, TX, needs more shelter space for homeless women, and a petition gained enough signatures to have the idea added to a health and human services bond package that will soon be voted on. Journalist Jazmine Ulloa wrote:

Richard Troxell, founder of the advocacy group House the Homeless, said that list reached 3,700 names last month. In conjunction with an ad-hoc women’s task force, the group has presented a proposal to City Council to expand the women and children’s shelter in East Austin.

The need for additional facilities has been apparent for a many years, but what brought it to the forefront was the murder of Valerie Godoy in June. She was found in a park, beaten and unconscious, and died soon afterward. On October 1, the police announced that a 41-year-old man, Jeffrey Lee Howard, had been arrested and was being held on bail amounting to half a million dollars. They’re not saying much about either the motive or the evidence. Ulloa says:

Howard was not homeless but would utilize resources and frequent areas used by homeless people… Howard seemed to be new to the park and might have known Godoy but did not have a relationship with her…

With all the other problems that confront people experiencing homelessness, that’s another one — members of the larger community who hang around looking for prey, whether it’s a woman to rape or a man to hire for a “bum-fight” video or worse. In addition to Valerie Godoy, murder has been the goal of Austin predators at least two other times this year. In both those cases the victims were men. Every year there are homicides, and, in a larger sense, the deaths of many more homeless people might be viewed as slow murder performed by an uncaring society. Richard was also interviewed by Morgan Chesky of KVUR television news.

Here are a few random examples from the last couple of years in America. In Texas, a sex offender wanted to convince the police that he was dead, so he shot a homeless man in the head, put the body in the trunk of his car, and set it on fire. In California, Henrietta Sholl was found dead in a budget motel, forcibly smothered by a pillow. In Nebraska, three 17-year-olds punched and kicked William Morgan to death in a park. In Hawaii, Gordon Lindberg was beaten to death.

In San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, after two homicides and several different kind of attacks on people experiencing homelessness, the best solution the authorities could come up with was to toughen enforcement of the no-sleeping rule, and consider totally closing the park at night. That’s supposed to encourage homeless people to stop offering themselves up as tempting objects to be killed. Oddly enough, when someone is murdered inside a house, the city fathers don’t pass a law forbidding people to sleep in houses.

In Mississippi, James Anderson (who was black) was beaten by a gang of white kids who then ran over him with a pickup truck. In Florida, somebody killed Angel Gonzalez with an ax and claimed to have eaten his brain and an eyeball. In Colorado, John Carlos Martinez died soon after being found beaten in a park. In Illinois, Richard Gibbons was killed by a fire extinguisher that was dropped on him from the top of a parking structure. In New York, an attack on a homeless man was reported by Barry Paddock and Bill Hutchinson:

The violent lunchtime knifing […] was captured on a witness’s iPhone video camera and shows the incredible restraint cops took not blow the armed suspect away. About a dozen cops from the nearby 23rd Precinct station house rushed to the scene, drawing their weapons and ordered the suspect to drop his knife even as he continued to stab the victim… One cop eventually ended the standoff by grabbing the suspect by the back of his pants and dragging him off the victim.

Another newspaper reported this with a totally different slant, implying that the police were hoping the attacker would go ahead and finish off the homeless man. Reporters and members of the public all have their reasons for suspicion. Sometimes it seems to be open season on the homeless.

In November of last year, at a Chicago subway station, a youth attacked a homeless man and brought a friend along to videotape it for showing on a sleazy website. Last January, after homeless men were killed in the California cities of Placentia, Anaheim, and Yorba Linda, volunteer Guardian Angels from other parts of the state converged on Orange County to make night patrols. It’s insane, and the worst part is that so many of these hate crimes against the homeless are done by teenagers. In Fort Worth, TX, Robert Bradley was stabbed to death. Nearly a year later, three youths and two underage kids were taken into custody.

The day after that announcement made the news, two Indiana teens old enough to be named, along with two juveniles, were arrested for the strangling death of Marcus Golike. All four killer kids came from the same foster home. And how did they wind up there? If we look into their pasts, what desperate situations did their birth parents face? Why were they not able to house or hold onto their families?

Reactions?

Source: “Man arrested in death of homeless woman in June,” Statesman.com, 10/01/12
Source: “Latest Attack Re-Ignites Night Hours Debate For GG Park,” KTVU, 04/22/11
Source: “Horrific Harlem stabbing caught on video,” NYDailyNews.com, 10/17/11
Source: “Teens arrested in strangulation of homeless man,” SFGate.com, 06/29/12
Image by Kai Hendry.

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Everybody’s Gotta Be Someplace, Part 2

man sleeping on park benchFrom Costa Mesa, Orange County, CA, an online commentator known as Ladya Oo writes:

I have a friend who is temporarily living in his SUV while he desperately looks for housing that he can afford. Costa Mesa police just gave him a $1,000 ticket for sleeping in his SUV.

Not long ago, the Homeless Task Force — which was only established last January and has already been disbanded — recommended demolishing a picnic shelter in Lions Park. The reason, of course, was that homeless people congregated around it. Housed people visiting the community center, rec center, and library were inconvenienced and discomfited by their encounters with the unhoused. Journalist Sean Greene quotes Councilman Gary Monahan:

That picnic shelter, it needs to go […] as fast as we can get it done.

Way to problem-solve! Unbelievably, the city could not find a better use for $60,000 than the demolition of a picnic shelter. Lions Park will be revamped with “family-size” picnic shelters, a running track, and a playground. They’re going to spend over a million on that project. They hired two rangers for the park, tightened up bicycle parking regulations, and closed the library for four months worth of renovation.

The city’s latest count only found 60 “street” or “out of care” homeless people, but claimed there were at least 18 encampments, “some of them large.” So the math has got to be off, somehow. Only two years ago, one of the local soup kitchens reported feeding 300 people per day. There are about 120 “sober-living homes” and a number of motels for temporary housing, including a dozen that are defined as “problematic,” and the rules governing them have been tightened.

Whatever the number of homeless people in Costa Mesa, 28 of them have been branded as chronic offenders who commit major nuisances like public drunkenness, public excretion (and/or indecent exposure), smoking in a public park, and illegal camping. In the first six months of this year, the 28 chronic offenders racked up 112 citations and 24 arrests.

The city developed “partnerships with local residents and business owners to collaborate and reduce the impacts associated with chronic individuals,” and an “ongoing integrated law enforcement/legal strategy to ensure that chronic offenders are prosecuted to the greatest extent of the law,” all of which sounds a bit ominous. But that’s nothing compared to this classic quotation from Costa Mesa’s Assistant CEO, which makes the homeless sound like an infestation of cockroaches:

Unless you are reducing the numbers, they are scattering to other places.

And how are things working out? Well, the tickets for smoking and other infractions, and the cessation of programs distributing food there, have encouraged the homeless to abandon Lions Park. People with nowhere to go started turning up around the historical society and a nearby condominium complex. A recent report says:

Administrators at Tuesday’s City Council meeting blamed the homeless population’s dispersion for the recent increases in burglary, drug use, vandalism and other crimes on Ford Road.

To be fair, Costa Mesa also made some positive plans for actually alleviating the homelessness situation, which can be found in the “City Council Staff Report” (PDF).

In August, merchants in Austin, TX, felt buyer’s remorse over the installation of many benches during a multi-million dollar downtown beautification project. Problem is, homeless people insisted on sitting on the benches. Seven police officers patrol the area during the day and, Jessica Holloway reports:

They say enforcing the no-sit, no-lie ordinance is a never-ending cycle.

A park was shut for remodeling, and the homeless, it is said, have increasingly penetrated the downtown area. Businesses want all the services in central Austin to move away and take the homeless with them. And the benches were removed at the end of August. Is the city cutting off its nose to spite its face? No doubt. Throwing out the baby with the bath water? Absolutely.

An amazing, exuberant book, called Street Reclaiming: Creating Livable Streets and Vibrant Communities, rests on an important philosophical basis. Author David Engwicht reminds us that public streets and squares were the birthplace of democracy and the central stage for the democratic process. The city, he says, ought to be a collective enterprise with the street as its lifeblood. The streets ought to be a place of socio-diversity, a marketplace of ideas and bastion of free speech, a feeder of creativity. Public places should be everybody’s outdoor living room, the “social and cultural epicenter of neighborhood life.” This is why in its glory days, Venice, CA, was visited by sociologists from all over the world.

Reclaiming the streets does not mean kicking out the homeless, but including them. Healthy street life supports informal support mechanisms, human-to-human interactions. When this is taken away, people must rely on government agencies or charitable organizations, and help is depersonalized. Marginalized people, who may or may not be homeless, include senior citizens, eccentrics, children, the disabled, the “ethnic.”

Engwicht writes:

As a person with paraplegia reminded me one day: ‘There is an old person or disabled person in every one of us just waiting to get out.’

How do those on the margin get to contribute their invaluable gifts to society? Or, to change the question, how does mainstream society access this diversity of life experience held in store by those on the margins? Almost exclusively through spontaneous encounters… To destroy the spontaneous encounter realm of the city is therefore to rob ourselves and the city of the contribution these people on the margin have to make.

The greatness of any city can be judged by how well it integrates those on the margins into community life.

Media Bonus: “Everything Must Change
The actual song starts about 3 minutes in. If you can ignore the background noise, the guy has a voice so rich you can imagine the whole orchestral arrangement behind it instead.

Reactions?

Source: “Costa Mesa to demolish picnic shelter that attracts homeless,” The Orange County Register, 05/02/12
Source: “Homeless blamed for crime increase,” Daily Pilot, 09/06/12
Source: “City considers removing benches at new homeless hotspot,” KVUE.com, 08/23/12
Source: “Street Reclaiming,” Amazon.com
Image by grendelkahn.

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How Libraries Cope With Homelessness

campLast week, House the Homeless looked at public libraries and the difficulties that arise when the library becomes the default day shelter for people experiencing homelessness in a community.
Well, where are the homeless supposed to exist all day? As we have mentioned before, “Everybody’s gotta be someplace.”

Libraries have been stepping up to meet the challenge. From various parts of the country, we hear of public libraries that teach homeless people how to use computers, or print up cards with information on whatever services are available throughout the city. Some libraries respond by sending out a bookmobile, or providing a story hour at the local shelter. Some even let shelter addresses be used to get library cards. They start book clubs, show movies, or devote space to a social-services information center. In San Francisco, the library put a full-time social worker on the staff.

On the other hand, some libraries have taken extreme steps to change their physical environment in such a way as to discourage lingering. In one place, where people had been sitting or sleeping on the deep windowsills, they put up spiky iron railings.

A community might think it very important to educate library personnel in how to educate the homeless in the proper uses of library restrooms. Of course, no one wants their child to go in there and find some unfortunate street person stripped down and taking a sponge bath. But people do need to wash. That might be something that cities could devote more attention to.

Ironically, in the District of Columbia, from which our nation is governed, the public library’s “offensive body odor” policy was declared unconstitutional. Any such rule has to be enforced across the board, not just against people who appear to be homeless. Otherwise, it’s “poverty profiling.”

A couple of years back, plans for the renovation of the Madison, WI, Central Library sounded welcoming. Judy Keen wrote:

Accommodating the homeless is a key part of a $29.5 million redevelopment… Architect Jeffrey Scherer, who devised the Madison renovation plan, says incorporating the needs of the homeless is a recent trend. In Madison, seating will be rearranged to suit varying preferences of homeless patrons and restrooms will be moved within staff sightlines.

It wasn’t really explained how moving the restrooms so the staff can watch more closely is really an accommodation to the homeless. Anyway, the library’s brand new FAQ page asks, “Will the homeless still hang out at the new library?” The answer includes these items:

1. The architectural design for the new library eliminates the current outside open space by the main entrance on the northeast corner of the library (at N. Fairchild and W. Mifflin) where many homeless are known to congregate. That entire corner will be reclaimed by the new library.

2. The library will provide inside space for a variety of social service agencies that will help the homeless find more permanent housing, treatment, and work, making them less likely to remain homeless.

3. The library will offer programming for the homeless, such as book clubs and movie matinees, and require codes of conduct to address issues such as hygiene and behavior to prevent their presence from distracting or intimidating other patrons.

The Public Library Association maintains that libraries have a moral duty to help everyone participate fully in our democratic society, even the homeless and poor. They offer a wonderful educational page covering the legal implications of library rules, along with the ethical obligations that go along with a free society.

Amy Mars explains that it’s acceptable to regulate behavior and appearance, when those factors interfere with the rights of other patrons, and their ability to use the library. But the rule must be against the behavior, not the person, and equal enforcement is the key. Mars writes:

This means that if sleeping is prohibited, it cannot be enforced only against the homeless; it must be enforced against all patrons, including children, teenagers, the elderly, prominent community members, and so on.

And this brings up another point. Disruptive behavior is not always caused by inebriated miscreants. People suffering from epilepsy, schizophrenia, autism, Tourette syndrome, and other medical conditions can cause disruption, and so can the library’s most generous private donor, if she happens to have a heart attack while at a board meeting. Library staff members need to be trained to, at the very least, tell the difference between a situation needing an ambulance call and one needing a police call.

Mars quotes attorney Mary Minow, who drew up the handy “FEND” “best practices” guidelines:

First Amendment: Libraries must protect the right of free speech.
Equal Enforcement: Policies must be applied consistently.
Notice: All policies should be clearly posted or distributed.
Due Process: A well-defined appeals process must be available to patrons who challenge library policies.

Reactions?

Source: “Libraries welcome homeless to ‘community living rooms,’” USA TODAY, 12/13/10
Source: “Library Service to the Homeless,” PublicLibrariesOnline.org
Image by Internet Meme.

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Homelessness and Public Libraries

Seattle Public LibraryWhen the Democratic convention took over Charlotte, NC, one of the preparations was the closing of the downtown public library for a week. The public library is one of the great American institutions. The library has also turned out, in many cities, to be a focal point for the conflict between homeless and housed citizens. In Madison, WI, the main library is such a popular hangout, people experiencing homelessness always know where to find their friends.

This summer, in Gloucester, MA, exasperated library employees told Nancy Gaines about the problems they experienced with homeless patrons — not all, but maybe 10%-15%. The staff faced an ever-changing stream of challenges, and two or three police visits a day, interspersed with the occasional ambulance. The city’s homeless shelter was, of course, only open at night. Several churches stepped up, on a rotating basis, to provide a space for people to exist during the daylight hours.

Bethlehem, PA, instituted new policies last year to strictly prohibit many activities, such as washing up in the restrooms and sleeping. In fact, it’s even against the rules to bring a sleeping bag inside. The situation had been dicey for some time, but reached critical mass when a van started dropping off a group of homeless people every day. The library maintains that its function is not to be an adult day care center, and it is correct in that. But everybody’s got to be somewhere.

Last winter, word came from Atlanta, GA, that not dozens, but hundreds of people experiencing homelessness were hanging out at the libraries every day. In Lubbock, TX, the architecture of the main library became a problem because people were using the partially protected space as a shelter, an urban cave dwelling.

The same thing happened in Fort Collins, CO. A new main public library was built in 1974, with overhanging sections all around, that were originally filled with substantial bushes. When the economy started to slide, people stored their belongings, and sometimes themselves, among the foliage. Eventually, all the big bushes were uprooted and much skimpier and lower plants were installed.

Seattle, WA, made news in 2009 when it became the first library system to hire an outreach worker. At one point, the library was spending over $300,000 a year on services and security relating to homelessness. Last month, when the Seattle’s public library system ran out of money and shut down for more than a week, journalist Matt Driscoll asked, “Where Do the Homeless Go When the Library Is Closed?” More people showed up at the Urban Rest Stop, a center with shower and laundry facilities, which was already operating at peak capacity.

Another agency, Compass Housing, which offers a number of amenities, also had increased traffic. Normally, Driscoll says:

While there are rules and security measures in place designed to keep the Central Library from becoming a full-on shelter, it’s commonplace for the homeless to seek refuge at computer terminals and amidst the stacks during foul weather – or even just to pass the time until real homeless shelters open in the evening.

At one point, the satirical publication The Onion ran an article stating:

In addition to the destitute citizens who have long sought shelter here, the ongoing recession has forced hundreds of newly homeless Americans to seek refuge among the library’s shelves.

The headline read, “Census Finds Enough Homeless People Living In Public Library To Warrant Congressional District.” When you can’t tell the difference between satire and reality, a society is in real trouble. On the other hand, what an opportunity this central gathering place offers, for engaging people and bringing them into the community, rather than pushing them farther into the margins. Where political activism is concerned, the popularity of the public library among people experiencing homelessness has a definite upside. It’s a great place to register voters, and put a dent in the disenfranchisement that is spreading through America like a plague. In fact, why not designate all libraries as polling places?

In Petaluma, CA, the situation improved in the spring when the town’s soup kitchen was relocated. E. A Barrera interviewed librarian Doug Cisney, who described problems like drunkenness and fighting which have now decreased. In all fairness, the librarian also said most of the homeless library users are well-behaved and considerate, even helping clean up the surrounding landscape. Cisney is quoted:

I can ban an individual from the library if it is determined that person is disturbing others. We have very clear policies that make soliciting, begging, dressing inappropriately — as in bare feet, bare chests, disturbing outfits — and excessive problems with body odor or decorum unacceptable. But you have to use that power with good judgment. A person’s excessive use of cologne or perfume can be as unpleasant as someone who has not showered in a week.

Good point.

Reactions?

Source: “’Homeless’ visitors posing issues for library,” GloucesterTimes.com, 06/18/12
Source: “Homeless patrons prompt Bethlehem Area Public Library’s behavior policy,” LehighValleyLive.com
Source: “Where Do the Homeless Go When the Library Is Closed?,” SeattleWeekly.com, 08/31/12
Source: “Census Finds Enough Homeless People Living In Public Library To Warrant Congressional District,The Onion, 12/22/10
Source: “Homeless no longer a problem at library,” Petaluma360.com, 04/06/12
Image by moyix (Brendan Dolan-Gavitt).

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Charlotte and Its People Experiencing Homelessness

DNCA while back, House the Homeless blog looked at how cities prepare for the Olympic Games, political gatherings, and other large-scale events. Mostly, they take extreme measures to remove street people, giving them bus tickets to anywhere else, or corralling them in an area unlikely to attract tourists. Sometimes they’re kept off the streets by relatively benign means, like free tickets to museums or movies.

If their papers are not in order, it’s easy enough to just turn them over to la migra. Tales are told of increased arrests and imprisonments for petty violations. Makeshift shacks and lean-tos are of course demolished, and the Potemkin Village syndrome comes into play. (Supposedly, when the ruler of Russia, Catherine the Great, was touring around to inspect her country, some functionary named Potemkin traveled ahead and built impressive-looking facades of prosperous villages, like film sets.) In those circumstances, people very much resent being moved around like dirt swept under a rug.

In the county that contains Charlotte, NC, site of this year’s Democratic Convention, about 5,000 people are experiencing homelessness, and fewer than 1,000 regularly sleep in shelter beds. Some live in cars.

Apparently quite a few fall under a slightly different definition of homelessness, where technically the person has a place to sleep, even if it is a very insecure and temporary position on somebody’s couch. It is estimated that fewer than 100 hardcore, long-term homeless people live totally outdoors. The situation has certainly not been improving. According to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, in 2010, family homelessness in Charlotte increased by 36%, and in 2011, increased another 21%.

During the convention planning, Mark Price kept track on behalf of the Charlotte Observer. A group called Charlotte Center City Partners took a great deal of interest in humane alternatives. The director of the local Men’s Shelter met with the convention promoters; and took on extra staff and trained them to help the street people understand the rules and restrictions that would apply during the convention. There were a lot of places you couldn’t go with a backpack or a shopping cart, but also plenty of information about how to stay out of trouble.

The city passed a new law against camping on public property. The transit center was moved to a temporary location several blocks away, and the main library was just plain closed for the duration. To make up for the loss of these hangouts, the Homeless Resource Center prolonged its usual hours, and other venues figured out ways to allow for more people to be present during the days.

Many homeless advocates foresaw that the biggest impact would fall in the “transition housing” category, mainly the economy-class motels where low-income families exist crammed together in one room. It would be particularly harmful to school-age children, because almost none of the families have the transportation necessary to get their kids to school from anyplace but where they’ve been living.

But Charlotte planned ahead. A $20,000 fund was raised by businesses, churches, and the government, to help with rent. Thirty-six churches figured out how to provide for nearly a 100 extra beds on the average convention night. As David Jamieson reported for The Huffington Post, motels multiplied their rates as much as tenfold, for the convention period. He and others spoke with some displaced people, most of whom admitted that they were behind on their rent anyway, and seemed not to blame the business owners.

Because the economy is so slack and the opportunities so few, people end up in these “transitional” situations for years, long enough to take a philosophical attitude about being moved out for a week or more. (Or is that just a journalistic Potemkin Village?)

Jamieson has some good news:

Not every motel, however, chose to pounce on the short-term windfall. Monica Wojtkowski, general manager at an Extended Stay America near the airport, said the hotel didn’t raise rates or ask current guests to leave. ‘This is just the philosophy we had. We want to maintain good public relations,’ she said.

When the president’s outdoor speech in a stadium had to be moved indoors, Mark Price followed the story. For whatever reason, the food could not follow to the new venue, so Second Harvest mobilized, called all the soup kitchens and shelters to see how much their refrigerators could hold, and delivered 7,500 pounds of fancy catered vittles to the people experiencing homelessness.

The Charlotte Observer opined:

After the Democrats pack up and hit the campaign trail, 3,000 or more homeless adults and children will still be here. Both of the city’s primary shelters are often over capacity, and nonprofits such as Crisis Assistance Ministry are working overtime to keep people in their homes. It’s tragic that Charlotte — a can-do city, as landing the DNC attests — can’t-do on homelessness. More than four years after Charlotte and Mecklenburg governments endorsed a 10-year plan to end homelessness, the community has made little progress in implementing a comprehensive strategy to truly fix the problem.

Unfortunately, the current situation seems to follow the Waterbed Paradigm. Remember waterbeds? You can sit on one, and the water will be suppressed. It will also create a bulge in some other part of the mattress. The dent you make by sitting on the waterbed is an illusion. There may be less of it in one spot, but there is still the same amount of water in the bag.

In a recent speech, President Obama said:

The young woman I met at a science fair who won national recognition for her biology research while living with her family at a homeless shelter — she gives me hope.

Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around?

Reactions?

Source: “Charlotte won’t hide the homeless during the DNC,” CharlotteObserver.com, 08/21/12
Source: “Charlotte Homeless Outside DNC Cling To Motels,” The Huffington Post, 09/05/12
Source: “Let’s help homeless beyond DNC week,” CharlotteObserver.com, 08/27/12
Source: “Local charities benefit from 8,000 pounds of food leftover from DNC’s canceled stadium event,” CharlotteObserver.com, 09/07/12
Source: “Remarks by the President at the Democratic National Convention,” WhiteHouse.gov, 09/06/12
Image by Stevebott (Steve Bott).

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Political Parties Make Homelessness Worse Than Ever

Convention Center, TampaTampa, FL, and Charlotte, NC, each received $50 million in federal funds for security at their national political conventions. Charlotte purchased more than $300,000 worth of bicycles for its cops, and lavished over $700,000 on a “command center upgrade.” Tampa bought itself a new armored SWAT vehicle with a price tag crowding very close on $300,000, and spent more than a million buckaroonies on spy gear, including video linkage between helicopters and the police down below.

If you’re anything like the people at House the Homeless, every time you hear numbers like that, your mind automatically translates the figures into how many meals, how many socks, how many months of rent for a struggling family whose kids need a table to do their homework on and a roof under which to do it.

And how have the homeless been faring, in the two cities thronged by visitors including America’s best and brightest?

On August 24, Elisabeth Parker reported on the mindset of local authorities in Tampa, which was preparing for the Republican National Convention. Bob Buckhorn, the mayor, said that the city had set no policy with the intention of removing people experiencing homelessness. A police spokesperson said there were no plans to displace the estimated 700 chronically homeless people from the downtown area — except for the streets that would be closed to all pedestrians.

The entrenched downtown dwellers represent only a small fraction, because the greater Tampa area contains around 16,000 homeless people, and about a fifth of them are children, which divides out to about 3,200 homeless children. How does a major political party have the nerve to hold its big self-congratulatory bash in a city with 3,200 homeless kids?

A team from Hillsborough County’s Homeless Coalition passed out flyers with maps detailing the closed areas, while police officers were advised by their department’s homeless liaison to recommend that people go to the shelters. But according to people on the streets, the Salvation Army shelter was already full, two public libraries where many were accustomed to sit out the days had been closed, and police told people to remove their belongings from hiding places in the shrubbery.

Tampa also expected to cope with 15,000 protesters in town for the convention — strangely, almost the same as the number of Greater Tampa’s homeless residents. Various news sources reported that 10-day vouchers would be available for the Good Samaritan Inn, yet when the owner of the inn was contacted, he told a confused tale of someone showing up with a voucher that was then rescinded by a county official, and no more had been seen since.

Technically, the homeless are allowed to be nowhere — their only acceptable posture is upright and in motion. A deputy gave a quotation about how it’s always somebody else’s property, whether it’s public property or not. There’s a very basic question here. Doesn’t public property belong to the people? Isn’t that what “public” means?

A woman who works with the homeless heard numerous stories of people being “run out” of downtown. When the reporter contacted the police department to confirm or deny, it had nothing to say. By August 28, Jason Cherkis was telling The Huffington Post:

The convention has cost the homeless not just regular sleeping spots and peace of mind. In some cases, it has cost them their belongings. The homeless used to squat near Trinity Cafe along the street. The police recently put a stop to it […] just prior to the convention, city garbage collectors showed up with a police escort. They moved down the street throwing away any belongings left unattended. In one instance […] a woman claimed her possessions but the city workers tossed them anyway.

Homeless people reported being chased to at least a mile away from the convention site. Parks were off-limits, and apparently, police warnings were spread the old-fashioned viral way, by regular speech. The word was going around: stay away, only sleep north of the overpass, don’t be caught walking around with a backpack. Everybody seemed to know somebody who had been charged with trespassing. According to the rumor, the police imported from other towns might be relatively soft, but the Tampa police would be ruthless.

But the next day, BBC reporter Daniel Nasaw related a mirror-image version of that story. A Tampa police spokesperson told him that the extra out-of-town police were the ones the homeless needed to be wary of, unfamiliar as they were with the city’s relatively lenient treatment of the homeless. (Seems like the strangers must have been given some kind of briefing before being turned loose on the streets of Tampa. Couldn’t that information have been included?) Nasaw wrote:

Secret Service and police have blocked off a swathe of downtown Tampa, set up check points, erected security fences, and otherwise disrupted the ordinary flow of pedestrian and automobile traffic. Security […] has created hassles for everyone who lives and works in the city. And for the city’s large homeless population, the convention presents a major disruption in an already tenuous existence.

Pastor Tom Atchison, the founder of homeless services organization New Beginnings, pointed out how millions had been spent by the city for law enforcement and security, while no provisions were made for the people experiencing homelessness, whose lives are already tough enough. Typical was homeless veteran Ernest Grandison, who told Nasaw that people were prevented from reaching soup kitchens and other necessary destinations, and that the security cordon downtown added an hour and a half to the walk to his usual Sunday breakfast church. He told the reporter:

Now, if you stop to rest on a bench, they pull up and say, ‘You need to leave’.

Reactions?

Source: “Downtown homeless get directions for how to cope with RNC,” Tamps Bay Times, 08/24/12
Source: “Tampa Homeless Say They’re Barred From RNC Convention Site,” The Huffington Post, 08/28/12
Source: “Tampa homeless ‘sidelined’ by Republican convention pomp,” BBC News, 08/29/12
Image by Azalia_N. (Azalia Negron).

0

Deceased People Experiencing Homelessness

Metairie-Cemetery

The coroner can usually identify the bodies, but most of the time their families don’t collect the remains. So once a year, in autumn, the county… buries them in a single grave at Evergreen…. The cemetery keeps people’s remains for four years, he said, in case anyone wants to claim them, although few do.

Daniel Costello wrote this six years ago, about Los Angeles, where there is a 30-day window during which a body can be claimed before cremation. Then, the ashes are separately kept for a while, just in case. Costello viewed the storage room in which 1,600 small maroon boxes were shelved. In each box, identified with a name tag if applicable, someone’s ashes were stored. Once the four-year wait was over, each pile of ashes would be decanted into a mass grave, the name tag discarded, and the box thriftily reused.

Last year, Los Angeles laid 1,639 people to rest in just this way. Supervisor Don Knabe told a reporter:

These are individuals that, for one reason or another, have no one but the county to provide them with a respectful and dignified burial. Some are homeless. Many are poor. Some have no families to grieve for them. Regardless of what their status in life was, each one of their lives mattered.

Some feel that, having ignored homeless people in life, the authorities should at least provide some kind of marker at each mass grave listing the names, rather than just the year. More could and maybe should be done to denote the resting place of so many unclaimed humans.

To pick a random American city, last month Mike Owen reported for the Ledger-Enquirer of Columbus, GA, on proposals that would cost the city an estimated additional $10,000 per year over what it already pays for indigent burials. The director of public services, Pat Biegler, put forward two ideas, one of them aimed at squeezing more use from the city’s Porterdale Cemetery.

Only about a thousand more burial plots are available, and with an average of 81 poor and forgotten people laid to rest there every year, at this rate, the cemetery will be full in 12 years. What Biegler suggests is to start employing the practice of cremation, which is the norm in many other places. Because of the religious implications, permission for cremation has to be given by a family member, and looking for them can be a long and complicated process. But part of the problem is, of course, that many people who become “indigent remains” do not have any locatable relatives.

However, even if only a portion of the total could be cremated, the plan would be to bury three sets of ashes in each plot, thus maximizing the use of space. (As we have seen, Los Angeles manages to fit more than a thousand into each plot.) But… Before the remains are buried, the processing of the body must be considered. For a straight burial, the casket costs $225 and the funeral home gets an additional $125 to cover its overhead. Cremation, at $600, costs nearly twice as much, though that may change if the city goes along with Biegler’s request to raise a standard burial payment from $350 to $400.

This story’s reader comments included an expression of incredulity that cremation costs more than burial, and an objection to burying three sets of cremains in a single burial plot, and the suggestion (maybe facetious and maybe not) that it would be more cost-effective to bury bodies vertically. The subject also unleashed ugly contentiousness. No matter what plan the authorities settle on, a goodly number of people will be riled up about it.

King County, WA, encompasses Seattle and about two million residents, and is nowhere near being one of America’s wealthiest counties. As of the 2010 census, median income for a family was $87,010, and about 10% of the residents qualified as below the poverty line. Carol Smith presciently wrote that an “invisible indicator” of a failing economy is the annually increasing number of unclaimed bodies housed in the morgue.

Smith interviewed Joe Frisino, chief investigator for the Medical Examiner’s office, whose job is to locate the relatives if possible and determine their wishes. Frisino often relies on Mary Larson, a nurse at the Pioneer Clinic, to help with identification. She also helps organize the annual group services, which sometimes memorialize as many as 200 unclaimed people. The nurse, an easel painter who often portrays her homeless friends in works of art, is quoted as saying:

We meet wonderful, very, very interesting people.

To qualify for indigent burial in Travis County, TX, a person has to either be unidentified, or possess under $2,000 in assets and no insurance. These days, that includes a lot of people, especially among the homeless. In Austin, Andrea Ball reported earlier this month on the inauguration of a second indigent cemetery:

For decades, Travis County has been arranging and paying for burials of low-income people. Travis County Health and Human Services and Veterans Services Department pays funeral homes about $850 per burial… The county provides the burial spot and arranges a small service. They also have staffers who work with surviving relatives.

Business and multimedia journalism student Michelle Chu notes that as an alternative to buying the 97-acre parcel of land for the new cemetery, the county considered privatizing indigent burial by contracting with funeral homes. She says:

Privatization would have increased the cost from $850 to about $4,500 per burial.

That would be an astonishingly exponential increase. Even more astonishing is to hear such an admission in a state where privatization is generally considered to be a good thing.

Ball tells us that in Travis County, cremation has not been the policy up until now, not even when requested by the decedent’s family, although that may change. Apparently, in other parts of Texas, a cremation can be had for as little as $200. In 2011, Travis County was responsible for 145 interments, at a total cost of $130,000. If the cremation alternative is adopted, it would have to be authorized by the next of kin, and not even considered in the case of an unidentified person.

In her piece, Ball quoted Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless, who sees the proposal as meeting changing needs while retaining sensitivity and respect for the deceased and their families.

Reactions?

Source: “Homeless in Life, Nameless in Death,” LA Times, 06/25/06
Source: “L.A. County to bury homeless, poor unclaimed by family members,” LA Times, 12/06/11
Source: “City considering cremation of indigent remains to save cemetery space,” Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, 07/31/12
Source: “Indigent Remains,” KUOW.org, 12/23/09
Source: “New cemetery for Travis’ indigent, and perhaps a new option: cremation,” Statesman.com, 08/08/12
Source: “A New (Final) Home for Indigent Residents,” Travis County in Transition, 2012
Image by Loco Steve (Steve Wilson).

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