Do 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.
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.
Austin, 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?
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.
Last 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.
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.
When 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.
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).
Many citizens and groups give enormous amounts of time and money, and even face the wrath of the law, to make sure that people experiencing homelessness have something to eat, and they deserve all the support they can get. Outside the realm of food, other goods and services are offered to street people by an array of organizations and maverick individuals.
In the Canadian city of Windsor, chiropractor Dean Tapak shows up once a week at the Windsor Essex Community Health Centre and treats low-income clients for free. He is affiliated with the Street Health, a program that provides showers, dental care, and other health-related services to about 4,000 people. Dr. Tapak personally helped more than 200 clients.
The California community of Los Gatos-Monte Sereno annually recognizes the police department’s Crisis Intervention Team, including an Officer of the Year. Last year, that honor went to Leo Coddington, a cop who takes the trouble to learn the names of the town’s homeless residents and figure out how to help them.
Coddington is particularly aware of the needs of homeless veterans, having graduated from West Point and spent 12 years in the army himself. After joining the police force, he took a 40-hour continuing education course in police interaction with vulnerable populations, and became part of the Santa Clara County Collaborative on Housing and Homeless Issues. Journalist Sheila Sanchez interestingly points out that Coddington is a “housing first” kind of guy, who believes the most effective way to help is to get people under a roof first, then address their mental disability, post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction, or alcoholism.
The same attitude of meeting people where they are, without expectations or judgment, is shared by another man who does similar work in Los Angeles and credits the philosophy of TV personality Oprah Winfrey as his inspiration. Unlike the police officer, Troy Eric Isaac is not bankrolled by taxpayers, but by a philanthropist who supplies the funds that Isaac uses to help the homeless.
Journalist Kevin Ferguson describes Isaac is “sort of freelance homeless advocate” who walks around the inner city looking for need and figuring out how to meet it. For one, the answer might be to sit with the person and sing a song. For another, it might be to make phone calls every day checking on the availability of a room with a long waiting list.
There are also philanthropists in the Canadian city of Vancouver where, in this case, the donors allocated $30 million of their fortune to the homeless, under conditions so particular that the local law had to be changed to accommodate them. Namely, if the city could figure out how to put an existing facility back into working order, the anonymous couple’s gift would be structured in such a way as to take care of the annual operating costs without the need for further government support.
The old Taylor Manor was originally built as a home for the elderly, but has not been used for that purpose for at least a decade. The renovation will take about two years and at least $14 million of public funds and corporate donations, and will eventually house 56 (no longer) street people with “complex mental issues.” Reporter Jeff Lee tells us that Vancouver’s homeless population almost doubled in a year, and quotes Prof. Kerry Jang of the University of British Columbia:
Many of our staff have been out there and we see the suffering every single day. And every day I feel hopeless because what can we do? We put [people] into hospital for a while and they are let back out on the street again with no hope. It is just a revolving door, a revolving door, a revolving door.
At St. Colette Church in Livonia, Michigan, a group has a dual-purpose ministry. Mainly, for people experiencing homelessness in Detroit, they crochet or knit sleeping mats to serve as insulation from the cold and damp of the ground. Secondarily, they make the mats from “plarn,” which is plastic yarn made from cut-up retail shopping bags. It takes as many as 700 bags to make each sleeping mat, so that’s a lot of recycling. About 40 parishioners have signed up, of whom about half turn up at any given weekly meeting. Reportedly, a Chicago church has actually published a DVD with full instructions on how to make these mats.
Throughout America, thousands of faith-based groups, from venerable giants like St. Vincent de Paul to the little mat-knitting club, work to help the homeless. Perhaps wanting some favorable press too, a number of Austinites founded their own group with the motto, “Toiletries and more, under the freeway — without the preaching,” and a homepage that misspells “sporadic.” Their website lists the specific items they distribute: toothbrushes and toothpaste, soap, shampoo, TP, hand sanitizer, disposable shavers, socks, gloves, granola, and bottled water.
Water is also distributed by ThirstAid of Maricopa County, Arizona, through a program that has been very successful in the past years. The heat there is brutal, and the water saves lives. Before the end of September, they reckon they will find the money for, and give out, 500,000 bottles of water. Half a million — man, that’s a lot of plastic bottles headed for the landfill, and it raises a question. Could this be done in a greener way? Couldn’t people, instead, be given canteens or camping-style water bottles, and provided with sources of clean drinking water from which to refill them? Just asking.
But, getting back to Austin, the exigency of events made the Emergency Whistle Defense Program one of the most important stories in the Texas capital. The ability to produce a loud distress call empowers a person experiencing homelessness alone in the night, or any time. The program is giving away whistles and teaching the signal — three blasts, and pause before repeating if necessary. The distribution of “thunder whistles” has been covered extensively by local television, including stories by radio stations NPR and KLBJ, News 8-YNN, KEYE-TV, and KVUE-News 24.
They all interviewed House the Homeless President Richard R. Troxell on the value of such noise as a deterrent to violence. Omar Lewis of KXAN-News 36 also interviewed Vincent Godoy, father of Valerie Godoy, murdered in Austin in June. FOX 7 TV‘s Derrick Mitcham said:
According to the Austin Police Department, violent crimes against the homeless population make up 38 percent of all violent crimes downtown.
Nope, it is not too late to sign the new women’s shelter petition!
Source: “Homeless helped by chiropractor,” The Windsor Star, 02/25/12
Source: “Town Cop Recognized for Work With Homeless,” Los Gatos, CA Patch, 03/29/11
Source: “Helping the homeless any way he can,” SCPR.org, 01/13/12
Source: “Anonymous wealthy couple’s $30-million gift to help homeless in Vancouver,” The Vancouver Sun, 06/29/12
Source: “Parishioners make sleeping mats for homeless from plastic bags,” Hometownlife.com, 08/05/12
Source: “Atheists Helping the Homeless,” AtheistsHelpingtheHomeless.org
Source: “ThirstAid: Human Services Campus Water Drive,” Cassaz.org, 06/11/12
Source: “Sounding alarm on violence on homeless,” KXAN.com, 08/06/12
Source: “Advocacy group to help homeless blow whistle on crime,” MyFoxAustin.com, 08/06/12
Image by quinet (Thomas Quine), used under its Creative Commons license.