Are the Kids All Right?

shadow-boy-playingFor a lot of Americans, their mental picture of a person experiencing homelessness is a scruffy man standing on a corner with a cardboard sign. Few stop to consider that close to half of the homeless population is made up of people who probably won’t be seen in such a public place. They are families with children, who now comprise 41%, or about two-fifths of the homeless total, and who are considered to be the fastest-growing homeless demographic.

Aside from visibility, there are other differences of course. Individuals, especially those termed chronically homeless, are more likely to suffer from mental illness or have substance abuse issues. But among displaced families, unemployment is the major cause, with low-paying jobs running a close second. Somewhere between one-third and one-half of homeless adults actually are employed.

To form a comprehensive picture of the situation, just go to the search box on this page and enter the term “living wage.” Plenty of people work, even full-time, and still can’t afford a place to live. When children are in the picture, things get complicated, because obviously someone needs to take care of them.

While it seems incredible that this should even need to be spelled out, Martha T.S. Laham notes:

People who are living in poverty are at greatest risk of becoming homeless. Demographic groups that are more apt to face poverty are also more vulnerable to homelessness.

Since 2010, Laham reports, family homelessness has been reduced by 15% thanks to “Opening Doors,” the Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness. (The chronic and veteran improvement rates are higher.) This is discouraging, because the program’s stated goal was to eradicate child and family homelessness within 10 years. Since it’s been 6 years already, a 15% reduction is not the number we might have expected, and certainly hoped, to see at this point in time. Why is child and family homelessness such a seemingly intractable problem?

It is easy to say, as decent people do, that safe, affordable housing is a basic human right. But we don’t seem to be making it happen. Homeless families face multiple barriers, one of which is transportation. We always seem to hear so much about the trend-setting places like California and New York, both of which have their own distinct cultures, but this illustration comes from a more modest place — Asheville, North Carolina.

When journalist Mark Barrett reported on local conditions, he talked with a mother who lived with her four children at the Western Carolina Rescue Ministries shelter. To coordinate with the city bus system, they all had to wake up at 4 AM on school days. Barrett also spoke with shelter’s executive director, Pastor Michael Woods, who confirmed that:

[…] a shortage of child care and the amount of time involved in using city buses to get to school or work make it much more difficult for homeless parents to find work… A mother “has to be there to put her daughter on the bus to go to school and she has to be there to pick her up, so she can’t get a job.”

Even when government money is available for rent vouchers, many landlords just don’t want formerly homeless families for tenants, and won’t rent to them. Another hitch is that landlords can be as picky as they please, refusing anyone who has ever paid a single utility bill late, or who has had a run-in with the law for even the most minor, victimless violations. Homeless families can rarely boast of spotless credit histories, especially if they took on debt in a desperate but failed attempt to stay housed.

Richard R. Troxell, co-founder of House the Homeless, reports that contrary to the mantra “Family First,” many shelters, starting with the Salvation Army in Austin, will demand that the homeless father and mother be separated in order to get services. “Mother remains with the children, Dad is sent to another facility clutching his wedding license and holding back tears,” says Troxell. “It is when they are down and out that the family truly needs the comfort and support of one another.”

Along with all the obvious practical aspects of living in a shelter, a single mother worries about less tangible issues. Because of the public nature of their lives in shared spaces, a mom can’t shield her kids from unwelcome influences. With no private space to retreat to, it’s hard to have intimate family moments, or sentence a child to a needed “timeout.”

Kids also can’t be protected from the foul language or wacky ideas of adults in the environment, or from the bullying of other children, or even their cold germs. If one kid gets sick, the whole shaky structure of coping mechanisms can fall apart.

What kind of a country are we building, when so many children grow up with instability, insecurity, and downright chaos? When they are grownups, 10 and 20 years from now, how will America look? As a nation, we really need to ask ourselves more often, “Are the kids all right?”


Source: “Fastest-Growing Segment Of The Homeless Population May Surprise You,” HuffingtonPost.com, 06/07/2016
Source: “Homeless families face multiple barriers, speakers say,” citizen-times.com, 06/30/14
Photo credit: Bryon Lippincott via Visual Hunt/CC BY-ND


The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

homeless-on-thanksgivingThe housed people of San Francisco, and the businesses they run and patronize, are upset. For one thing, they pay for the weekly removal of an estimated 12.5 tons of garbage from homeless encampments. That sounds like a lot, but it turns out to be not even a truckful, according to John a. Bates via Answers.com:

The truck I drive is a 2005 Mack LE600 with a McNeilus 32 cubic yard packing body and I average weights ranging from 14.5 tons (multiple bulky items) to 18 tons (little or no bulky items). The most weight I have put on this truck in one shot is 21.74 tons.

A skeptic could formulate questions. How much of every ton of “trash” actually consists of wanted and needed personal property like blankets, sleeping bags, and tents? Are the garbage numbers ever padded, like, for instance, the notoriously inflated drug raid totals that turn up every now and then, just to make a better story?

The crews remove a lot of human waste, too, and steam-clean the sidewalks for sanitary purposes. All this costs the taxpayers $4.7 million per year, and a reasonable person might ask why the beautiful and exquisitely civilized city by the bay doesn’t use some of that money for restrooms, or at least port-a-potties.

The SF Homeless Project is part media blitz, part conceptual “human catastrophe” prevention effort, around which many events were planned by numerous agencies and charities. Over 70 media organizations pitched in to raise awareness, starting last Wednesday, and Alissa Walker of Gizmodo has collected information on numerous aspects of the citywide campaign.

Remember our post about Airbnb? The company was founded in 2008, the same year that is generally acknowledged to have launched the recession that pushed homelessness to the top of the problem list. Only the most adamant conspiracy theorist would see a connection, but still…

The company ferociously resists any attempt to curb its voracious appetite. Proposed legislation known as Proposition F sought to impose a few restraints, and to require hosts to report their taxable income. But Airbnb reached into its $30 billion pocket and bought enough influence to defeat the attempt.

Maybe San Francisco’s current wretched housing situation stems partly from the fact that “the city is Airbnb’s most avid user.” Michael J. Coren writes:

A new Statista analysis found San Francisco has nearly double the listings per capita (9.8 per 1,000 inhabitants) versus any other city, based on InsideAirBnB data. (Airbnb cited its own similar statistics on San Francisco when we asked for confirmation.)

This fall, the city’s voters will have the opportunity to approve even more drastic anti-homeless measures. They will decide whether to pass a referendum designed to banish all homeless camps and tents from the streets. Kriston Capps cuts to the heart of the matter:

The ballot is a heinous way to decide the fate of San Francisco’s nearly 7,000 homeless residents. A referendum enables the city’s most callous voters to indulge in indifference, but that’s not even the worst of it. A referendum asks many more voters to accept a short-term solution to homelessness by pushing them out of sight and out of mind, which helps to foreclose on the possibility of a viable long-term structural solution.

And now the words from Richard R. Troxell, President of House the Homeless:

This week in LA a drunken woman drove onto a sidewalk and ran down a person experiencing homelessness.

After he crashed through her wind shield, she drove for a mile with the man collapsed in her passenger seat. Sound familiar? In 2002, Gregory Glen Biggs met a similar fate when a nurse’s aid, after a night of partying, did the same thing. However, she drove all the way home with the man still impaled in her windshield.

She parked in her garage and lowered the door. For three days she talked to him explaining her sorrow. Upside down and bleeding out for three days, he finally died. The nurse’s “aid” then got her cronies to dump his body in a park where homeless folks gather, knowing he would not be noticed too quickly.

Then while at another party, she retold the story in a cavalier fashion. Aghast and disbelieving the story, a listener contacted the police. The story was uncovered and the judge set her bond at $10,000. We were incensed and got the bond reset. Mr. Gregory Glen Biggs was an unemployed bricklayer in Fort Worth trying to turn things around at the time.

Post Script: The Coroner later said that the original injuries were not life-threatening and that had Mr. Biggs been brought to the hospital he would have, in all likelihood, survived.

I am saddened beyond explanation. So little has changed in so many years.

In longer form, this dark story also appears in Richard’s book, but to offset the grim realities, Looking Up at the Bottom Line is packed full of positive and uplifting accounts of many amazing accomplishments.


Source: “Tons of waste removed from San Francisco Homeless Camps Weekly,” ABC7news.com, 06/29/16
Source: “How much can the average American garbage truck hold?,” Answers.com, 2016
Source: “The Best and Worst Ideas from San Francisco’s Big Homelessness Project,” gizmodo.com, 06/29/16
Source: “San Francisco has a love-hate relationship with Airbnb,” qz.com, 06/30/16
Source: “One More Threat to San Francisco’s Homeless: San Francisco Voters,” CityLab.com, 06/29/16
Photo credit: Franco Folini via Visualhunt.com/CC BY-SA


A Glimpse Into Homeless Populations

sao-paoloThe 2015 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress, available as an 80-page PDF file, is the most recent and comprehensive federal report on homelessness in America.

In any discussion of homeless statistics it is important to remember that information-gathering in this area is not an infallible science. House the Homeless has discussed the many difficulties before. All statistics come with caveats, or should, but for the purpose of this post, we take the AHAR numbers on faith.

Another problem connected with such endeavors is expressing the final numbers in meaningful ways. One person experiencing homelessness may belong to many subgroups: female, veteran, Hispanic, family member, disabled, and so on. It is beyond the scope of this post to thoroughly examine the numbers in all groups and all their implications.

Perhaps most worrisome is the subcategory known in the report as “Chronically Homeless Families with Children.” Almost two-thirds of people in this classification were staying in shelters (64%, or 8,412 people), and the rest lived in unsheltered conditions (36%, or 4,693 people).

Since 2007, the overall “families with children” number decreased in 32 states while it increased in 18 states and DC. More than half of all the homeless people in families with children are accounted for by five states: New York, California, Massachusetts, Florida, and Texas. It is said that between 2014 and 2015, the “chronically homeless families with children” number by 14%.


Of all homeless people in families, 48.7% — that’s almost half — are African American. Of that number, almost exactly half live in shelters. Different as they might seem, families have something in common with veterans. A total of 12.8% of the people in the U.S. identify as African-American and 15.45 as Hispanic, yet 56% (well over half) of homeless veterans belong to one of those two groups. The technical term for this is “over-represented.”

Children are relatively easy to keep track of because of mandatory education. But the census-availability spectrum has another end. Veterans who don’t want to be counted, or are so far out of touch that they don’t even think about it, are a slippery and elusive bunch. In some of America’s gnarliest backwaters small bands of dedicated vets search for their lost comrades in order to connect them with services.

Nationally, since 2009, the total number of homeless vets is said to have decreased from 73,367 to 47,725, which is encouraging. On the other hand, the percentage of homeless women vets has risen disproportionately to their number. Female vets are twice as likely, or even three times as likely, to be homeless as any other population group.

Particularly worrisome is the fact that “About one-half of all veterans experiencing homelessness who have participated in VA homeless assistance programs are involved in the justice system.” This overlap is the basis of the vicious cycle that many veterans are caught in. Their lives alternate between incarceration and the streets in classic “revolving door” fashion.

It’s hard to discover whether incarcerated vets and VA hospital inpatients count as homeless. On the darkest side of the equation, it has been pointed out that many vets have evaded showing up in the homeless statistics by committing suicide.

Older and Elder

Almost all housed Americans hold some kind of mental stereotype that probably doesn’t match up with who the people experiencing homelessness actually are. Many picture a brash young panhandler, or a teenage girl who meets men at truck stops. Shockingly, more than half of the homeless population is older than 50, but the distribution across decades is not smooth. “Older” persons between 50 and 64 constitute a big demographic bulge. The National Coalition for the Homeless says:

There is a relatively low percentage of ‘elder’ (aged 65 and over) homeless persons’ among the current homeless population. This smaller proportion may be due to the increased availability of successful safety net programs, which only kick-in at a certain age including:

  • Subsidized housing — Available at age 62
  • Medicare — Available at age 65
  • Social Security benefits — Available at age 65

Still, the waiting lists for subsidized housing are long, and a basic problem faced by many people lack of documentation. A person can spend decades on the street with no paperwork, but for many, the attempt to hook up with services sets off a chain reaction of bureaucratic demands and Kafkaesque frustration.


Source: “The 2015 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress,” HUDexchange.info, November 2015
Source: “Veteran Homelessness Facts,” DVNF.org, undated
Source: “Breaking the Cycle of Veteran Incarceration and Homelessness: Emerging Community Practices,” USICH.gov, undated
Source: “Elder Homelessness,” NationalHomeless.org, undated
Photo credit: Ben Tavener via Visualhunt/CC BY


Puzzling and Alarming News Stories


Granted, the situation described in Fort Worth, TX, in May was dire, with residents being attacked by “transients,” especially after a tent city in nearby Dallas was forcibly depopulated. But still, this headline is worded in a pretty offensive way: “Families, business owners ‘fed up’ with homeless in Fort Worth.” According to this insensitive phraseology, both business owners and families are totally separate and distinct populations, not overlapping with “homeless” at all.

True, there are not many homeless business owners. But there are plenty of homeless families, despite this headline pretending that “homeless” and “family” are radical opposites like “acid” and “alkaline.” This headline implies that they are mutually exclusive terms. It tries to give the impression that families are never homeless, and people experiencing homelessness are never families.

And another thing: If housed families are “fed up” with homelessness, imagine how homeless families feel about homelessness. Would “fed up” be an adequate term to describe how a parent feels about being unable to shelter and protect and nurture his or her own children? Would “fed up” be strong enough words to describe how it feels to see no future?

A matter of interpretation

Then, there is the type of headline that makes false promises. “Solve homelessness by addressing its root causes” gives the impression that some hard-hitting journalism will follow, pointing a finger perhaps at the cabal of bankers that caused a worldwide recession in 2008, or the cynical mortgage brokers who allowed the housing market to lose all semblance of sanity, or the businesses that refuse to pay their workers a living wage.

But at what is the finger pointed? What are the identified root causes of homelessness? Mental health issues and substance abuse, and people. Journalist Richard R. Bebout writes, “People with persistent mental illness and substance-use disorders make up a disproportionately high percentage of the District’s homeless population.”

Well yes, they do. But is it possible that isn’t where the real blame lies? Rather than people with mental health issues, maybe the problem is a system totally unequipped to handle mental health issues. Maybe the problem is a country that, unlike every other developed nation in the world, staunchly resists the idea of creating a universal healthcare system.

Maybe the problem is a government addicted to war. Maybe the problem is a society that alienates more and more of its members every year, to the point where they shun reality in favor of a drugged stupor.

There are a lot of candidates for the causes of homelessness, and somebody out there can make a pretty good case for any one of them. But mental illness and substance-use disorders are not simply causes of homelessness. Those two conditions are equally the result of homelessness. Substance abuse and mental illness are symptomatic of much larger problems that are the true causes of homelessness.

In the old days there were workhouses, insane asylums, orphanages, and prisons where society’s unwanted members could be warehoused, and mostly they were horrible places. At the same time, for many families, a lower cost of living and more spacious homes allowed for options. In the old days, more families could afford to donate a spare room to an ailing relative, and maybe even shelter another relative to help care for the first one.

Here is another eye-popping, jaw-dropping piece of news, this time from Great Britain. After one sentence of run-up, the important part is in bold print:

Section 21 eviction notices served on 3 February at the block, which also contains owner-occupied flats, state:

All tenants are being asked kindly to leave Carpenters Place and find alternative accommodation so that the company can continue with helping the ever growing need of homelessness.

At least here there is no doubt about what is happening, and no blame is directed at medical conditions. Alon Aviram writes:

Termination of private-sector tenancies was the leading cause of homelessness in Bristol last year according to government statistics…


Source: “Families, business owners ‘fed up’ with homeless in Fort Worth,” KHOU.com, 05/20/16
Source: “Solve homelessness by addressing its root causes,” WashingtonPost.com, 05/20/16
Source: “Bristol firm profiting from housing homeless — by kicking other tenants out,” TheBristolCable.org, 05/27/16
Photo credit: Ben Tavener via Visualhunt/CC BY


Seattle — What Were They Thinking?

seattleAt the beginning of this year Seattle, Washington, already had a couple of safe-parking zones in the Ballard, Interbay and Sodo areas of the city. People could park their RVs and live there on a permit that was renewable each week. The city provided trash removal, portable toilets, and case management (if the person chose), with money made available after the mayor declared a state of emergency. It cost the city around $270 per month per vehicle to run a “zone.”

Also, in January, the city announced that it would open two “safe lots.” Unlike the “zones,” the safe lots would allow people to stay for a month at a time. Rather than optional, case management would be mandatory. The “safe lot” concept is different from the “zone” in other ways. The safe lot comes with water, electricity, a communal cooking tent, and full-time security staffing.

Opening the Ballard safe lot in February had consequences. One was that the Ballard “zone” closed, making its residents homeless again. The Ballard safe lot was never meant to be permanent, and indeed the land is only available until August, when the safe lot may be relocated or the idea may be abandoned entirely.

And the unexpected cost of the first safe lot changed the city’s mind about opening a second one. The planned second site, in Delridge, would have cost nearly the same amount, but would have held only half the number of vehicles.

Two safe zones had their time extended for two months. All in all, the net gain, in terms of improving the lives of actual humans, was not very impressive. Daniel DeMay writes that “city staff didn’t know exactly how much such a project would cost”:

[…] about a month after the Ballard lot opened […] it became clear that the cost was a lot higher than anyone expected.

[…] one parking lot, with about 20 vehicles in it, was costing the city $35,000 per month, and that’s on top of the setup costs of $24,689

[…] the city is renting the lot from Seattle Public Utilities at a rate of $7,522 per month

[…] the largest cost is staffing — almost $19,000 per month, due to the need to have 24-hour staff on site…

The monthly cost pencils out to about $1,750 per vehicle — more than the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Seattle.

This story quotes city official Sola Plumacher as saying, “We have never done a safe lot. We didn’t really have a sense of what the costs were.” But why? How can this be? Has no other city ever undertaken a similar project? Doesn’t shareable information exist about the costs on some government website? Why is it necessary to reinvent the wheel? Couldn’t someone have made a phone call to learn the hourly rates for whatever type of rent-a-cops were needed? Isn’t the pay scale of a case manager a known element?

More questions: Why can’t Seattle Public Utilities take $1 a month instead of more than $7,000 a month, for land that nobody else would pay to rent anyway? For decades, the film industry has trained experts to estimate the cost of a project with pinpoint accuracy. Couldn’t a city hire one of them?

Seattle is a big place, with many homeless interventions going on. The Safe Parking pilot project started back around 2011 and yielded a grand total of seven parking spaces,  provided by two churches. At the time, it was estimated that between 500 and 1,500 people lived in vehicles on any given day, so the scale of the problem is evident and has only become worse.

This year, while bemoaning the unanticipated cost of one safe lot with a 20-vehicle capacity, the city was also planning to clear out “the Jungle” and evict 300 people  without even vehicles to live in. Guess what happened in May? On the Interbay land where 25 RV-dwellers had been living, the lease ran out and a call was issued to friendly mechanics to come and help the people with un-drivable vehicles get out of there within a week.

Sure, it’s always easy to “Monday morning quarterback” the other guy’s mistakes until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes, and so on. But really, Seattle? Really?


Source: “City had no idea ‘safe lots’ for homeless would be so costly,” Seattlepi.com, 03/31/16
Source: “Program to help homeless living in cars off to slow, steady start,” SeattleTimes.com, 12/25/12
Source: “Homeless in Seattle’s Interbay area have one week to leave RV ‘Safe Lot’,” q13fox.com, 05/26/16
Photo credit: tiffany98101 via Visual Hunt/CC BY


Why Homeless Kids Are Everybody’s Problem

kindergarten-in-sessionAt the end of 2014, the National Center on Family Homelessness reported that America contained 2.5 million homeless children. The data came from the Census Bureau and the U.S. Dept of Education, which apparently defined homelessness as having no fixed residence, or living in accommodations not meant for human habitation (like garages, storage lockers, etc.), or in “some kind of temporary housing,” or as being on the verge of losing their housing.

One reason for the difficulty of discussing this issue is that various agencies define homelessness in different ways. The Dept. of Housing and Urban Development doesn’t recognize “doubling up” with another family as technically being homeless — or at least, sets up more hoops to jump through when a family is in this situation.

In one way, this is quite fair, because at least they have a bathroom and cooking facilities and even enough space to lie down and sleep — unlike a family living in a car. Still, the “doubled up” situation soon becomes untenable for both hosts and guests.

Another complication is that the people most likely to take in a homeless family are probably poverty-stricken themselves, and if they receive assistance to pay for their housing, Section 8 rules forbid sharing. To take in relatives or friends is to risk losing one’s own housing, and once a family is kicked out of the program, it is highly unlikely that they will ever get back in. So the end result is a large number of “invisible” homeless families who, even if they are counted in the statistics, probably can’t expect help that really makes a difference.

Last month, for CNS News, Susan Jones compared the 2009-10 school year figure with the 2013-14 number and found a 38.44% increase in the number of homeless students nationwide. The U.S. Department of Education recognizes four types of homeless students. One is sheltered, which includes those waiting for foster care placement. Another is “unsheltered,” and fortunately only 3% of these kids fall into that designation, which encompasses abandoned buildings, public spaces, and homeless “camps.” Another subcategory of homelessness is for kids residing in a hotel or motel; and the fourth is the “doubled-up” option.

Then, the Dept. of Education defines four other subgroups, according to personal circumstance rather than living situation. Any given child, in addition to being a part of one of the living situation categories, might also belong to more than one of these subgroups:

Homeless children with disabilities comprise the largest subgroup, followed by homeless students with limited English proficiency; unaccompanied homeless youth who are not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian; and migratory children (related to seasonal agricultural work).

The grim news is that every one of those classifications contains a larger number of kids every year. They are more likely than securely housed kids to suffer from poor nutrition and extended periods of hunger. They are also more likely to fall ill, and this includes mental illness. Among homeless children of school age, the mental illness rate is estimated at 40%.

Homeless kids’ access to healthcare is limited, and they are less likely to have opportunities for healthful exercise. Parental supervision might be inadequate, and what supervision there is, might be abusive or even violent.

The stress level that many such children experience has been called toxic. It interferes with brain function, and kids who experience mental and/or physical trauma in early childhood have even been found to have smaller brains.

Given all this, keeping up in school is bound to be a challenge. As one small example:

The Minnesota Department of Education found that only 24 percent of homeless or highly mobile fifth-graders were proficient in math while 61 percent of all fifth-graders were proficient.

The earlier this kind of stress begins, and the longer it goes on, the worse the outlook becomes for their ability to comply with societal norms, to sustain personal relationships, to be employable, and to avoid addiction. Prof. Abigail Gewirtz, director of the Institute for Translational Research in Children’s Mental Health, says that formerly homeless children are “worse off” than those who never experienced homelessness.

Cathy ten Broeke of Heading Home Minnesota notes that even if the housing situation is remedied and becomes more stable, there is a lag time and it takes a while to catch up. This quotation is from Prof. Ann Masten of the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development:

I feel it’s the issue of our times in the United States, how to invest in child development and address the inequality that’s undermining our future. The well-being of these children affects everybody.


Source: “2.5 Million Children Are Homeless in US, New Data Reveals,” ChristianPost.com, 11/27/14
Source: “America’s Homeless Kids Crisis,” TheAtlanticCities.com, 11/01/13
Source: “1,301,239: Number of Homeless Students in Nation’s Public Schools Up 38% Since 2009-10,” CNSNews.com, 04/12/16
Source: “Child homelessness can have long-term consequences,” SCTimes.com, 06/04/16
Image by woodleywonderworks


Why Do Homeless People Need Cell Phones?


Window reflection selfie by Ace Backwords.

Believe it or not, this question puzzles many housed people. In fact, some are more than puzzled — they are angry, indignant, scornful, and totally clueless.

Jeremy Reynalds, Ph.D., is the founder and CEO of Albuquerque’s Joy Junction Inc., the largest family shelter in the state of New Mexico. He asked some housed people how they felt about seeing a cell phone in the hand of a person experiencing homelessness.

One respondent said that it’s fine, as long as the phone is only used for essential communication. (Maybe that should be added to the list of violations that the police check for. No open containers; no more than one trash can full of possessions; and no non-essential cell phone use.)

An example of a very unreasonable response was, “If you can afford an iPhone, you can afford food.” Several questions come to mind.

How was this lady so sure that what she saw in a homeless man’s hand was an iPhone? There are many brands of cell phones, in a wide variety of price ranges, depending on the instrument itself and the usage plan.

And even the classy iPhone is sold at a discount in used and/or refurbished condition. Or maybe what the guy had was a cheap, disposable, no-contract phone. Maybe it was a free Lifeline service phone (aka Obama phone).

Many factors

It’s helpful to remember that just because a person has friends or family, that doesn’t mean living quarters are automatically available. There can be a hundred reasons why even the most compassionate, caring relative or friend can’t offer a place to stay. But maybe some supporter, unable to offer more substantial help, decided to spring for a cell phone. Why should anyone begrudge that?

Or maybe the person recently became homeless through some catastrophe, and has lost everything else of value. Even if it is the latest, greatest iPhone, can he really be expected to sell such a useful item for the price of a few meals?

Many reasons

When Reynalds asked Joy Junction residents and homeless Facebook friends why they have cell phones, the most frequently mentioned reasons were potential work, family connections, and possible emergencies. When children go to public school, a parent needs to be reachable in case of sickness or misbehavior. If a grownup winds up in the hospital, a family member or pastor needs to be called.

Medical appointments need to be made and confirmed. A person needs to be reachable, because getting to an appointment can be difficult for a homeless person, especially with no car. To make a heroic effort to be someplace, and find that the doctor or agency cancelled the appointment, can be crushing.

A phone helps with prescription renewal. It lets a person be free from an anxious spouse for a few hours, with conversational reassurance available. It lets a person check the weather report, to know whether it’s worth fighting for a shelter bed on a particular night.

A phone can mean everything, especially if it does more than simply make and receive calls. It can function as an alarm clock and a calendar to keep track of appointments and deadlines. With the Internet, a person can find information about available services, along with locations, hours, and requirements.

Craigslist and other “classified ad” applications can help find housing and odd jobs. Freecycle can help find needed items.

A woman spoke of using her phone to read the Bible. A man wrote:

When I became homeless, the first thing I did was sell my guitar and buy the cheapest Android phone possible. I viewed it like going into battle; wanted to set up communications right away.

This whole debate is reminiscent of the old saying, “Give a man a fish, food for a day; teach a man to fish, food for a lifetime.” Possession of a mobile phone is the metaphorical equivalent of knowing how to fish, because this one device could potentially provide “food for a lifetime.” In fact, Jeremy Reynalds called the cell phone “the first tool necessary toward helping them get back on their feet.”

BONUS QUOTE from Ace Backwords:

You don’t have a bathroom, or a bathroom mirror, and rarely see how you look during the course of the day…

It’s also sort of existential. As in: “Who the hell IS that guy?” and “What does it mean to be a human being alive on planet earth amidst an infinite universe while staring at a photo of one’s face in a cellphone?”


Source: “How Do You Feel when You see the Homeless With a Cell Phone?,” JoyJunction.org, undated
Source: “Face Bookwords,” WordPress.com, 11/03/12
Image by Ace Backwords


Myths About Homelessness

homeless-boatbuildersA few American cities have reached a kind of homelessness boiling point, and San Francisco is one of them. The latest count, more than a year old, determined that 6,686 people experienced homelessness in the city at that time. In the San Francisco Chronicle, Heather Knight notes that “There are about 700 homeless people living in 100 encampments around San Francisco,” and goes on to enumerate the myths of homelessness.

The first myth to fall is that San Francisco is overburdened with homeless people because of its generosity, which is predicated on the notion that people are voluntarily homeless. According to that school of thought, if the city would summon the will to exert “tough love” by cutting services, people experiencing homelessness will change their minds and pursue a different lifestyle.

According to the myth, the services offered by a compassionate city act as a magnet to draw an opportunistic crew of dispossessed people from everywhere. On the contrary, a survey showed that 71% of San Francisco’s street people had formerly been housed in the city.

They were trying to establish lives there, and they experienced setbacks. Knight says:

So a few hundred of the 6,686 homeless people in San Francisco came for our great homeless services — a sizable chunk, but nowhere near the majority.

Matthew Doherty, executive director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, came to San Francisco recently and said just about every city he visits claims it’s a magnet for homeless people because of its robust services. Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, Ore. — you name it.

This suggests that if other communities would do more, the hub cities would not have to absorb so many abandoned and disenfranchised individuals.

Myth 2 — “A lot of people just want to be homeless” — contains a kernel of truth. A small percentage of rough sleepers actually insist on a nomadic life, for reasons that range from schizophrenia to PTSD to reckless adventurousness. Unfortunately, some folks are “treatment resistant” because of inadequate excuses for treatment they have been subjected to in the past. Most shelters don’t let partners stay together, or allow pets, or provide safe storage for belongings. Even if a shelter bed costs nothing, the price may be too high in other ways.

But if everybody stayed in full compliance with the rules, there wouldn’t be enough beds for nearly 7,000 San Franciscans. Despite Myth 3, that there are plenty of beds, the city only has 1,200, and at any given time more than 600 people are likely to be on the waiting list.

Myth 4 holds that if only the homeless people were gone, the streets would be pristinely clean. According to this myth, college students, tourists, and housed people never toss litter on the sidewalk, pee in the bushes, dispose of unwanted possessions inappropriately, or let their dogs deposit feces in public places.

Myth 5, according to Knight, is a particularly hurtful one, that the Coalition on Homelessness is getting rich off the current situation and only wants it to become worse. This is related to Myth 6, which has to do with the mathematics of how the city’s homeless services budget is distributed. We needn’t go into San Francisco’s particulars, but it is a good reminder that in any city, someone needs to keep a close eye on how the homeless money is spent.

Next is Myth 7 and its rebuttal:

Myth 7: If a homeless person wants services, he or she can get them immediately.

You’d hope this would be true in a city that spends $241 million — a whopping amount — on the problem. But it isn’t.

A homeless person can get a one-night emergency shelter bed quickly. But anything else — supportive housing, longer-term shelter beds, mental health care, substance abuse services — requires a waiting list. If the waiting list is even taking new names. Some are so long, they’re closed… All waiting lists for housing beyond shelter take years.

Myth 8 on Knight’s list is that “We’re all just one paycheck away from being homeless.” She believes that the average person, if faced with homelessness, would be helped by friends or family members.

Unfortunately, in the real world, housed people are not willing to get rid of their pets just because an animal-allergic friend needs a place to stay. They keep their spare room empty in case their college-student kid decides to visit, or keep it filled with stuff owned by another relative who doesn’t want to pay for a storage unit.

People receiving Section 8 help are forbidden by the government from sharing their living space. Housed people have a lot of different reasons for being unable to help, so Knight’s assessment might be overly optimistic.


Source: “What San Franciscans know about homeless isn’t necessarily true,” SFChronicle, 04/01/16
Source: “Myths, like homeless problem, not going away,” SFChronicle.com, 04/08/16
Photo credit: Dale Simonson via Visualhunt.com/CC BY-SA


Heroes of Healthcare

homeless-on-the-benchIn case you missed it, we strongly recommend this very thorough overview of the latest development in reducing the horrendous amount of damage that has resulted from traumatic brain injury.

“Survey Links Brain Injury to Medical Causes of Homelessness To be Addressed with Hormone Therapy” describes the efforts of endocrinologist Dr. Mark L. Gordon of Millennium Heath Centers, who has made it his mission to certify 500 doctors in hormone replacement therapy. Dr. Gordon is collaborating with special forces veteran Andrew Marr and the Warrior Angels Foundation, and with House the Homeless.

But what does this have to do with homelessness? Our readers will remember that traumatic brain injuries have been suffered by an astonishing number of people experiencing homelessness, including a large humber of veterans.


Now let’s celebrate some other people who work at the intersection of medicine and homelessness. California is always a good state to look at, because a lot of things are tried out there first before being adopted in other parts of the country. Five years ago, when Alameda County received a $300,000 federal stimulus grant, the money went to replace the old worn-out mobile health bus with a “flashy RV with the ability to treat almost every small to medium-sized medical problem on the spot.” The plan was for it to travel among 28 locations in the county, which includes Oakland, Berkeley, and several other cities. The current schedule can be found online.

In San Diego, the St. Vincent de Paul organization has been holding the line against poverty and homelessness for some 60 years. They have had mobile clinics for a long time, but homeless healthcare is only one facet of the many services, which include rental assistance, education, job training, mental health, food, clothing, addiction treatment, case management, and child development. The Village Family Health Center exclusively serves homeless patients, including care in the specialized areas of dentistry, pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology, and psychiatry.

Dr. Chris Searles, the former director of clinical outreach, once described the frustration of knowing that, for every patient who eventually would be seen, there were rough sleepers who could not muster up the trust to present themselves, and others who did not identity themselves as having a problem. Equally dismaying, then and now, are the many people who need multiple medications just to maintain, but who can’t afford to pay several hundred dollars a month for pharmaceuticals.

Dr. Searles told reporter Randy Doting:

We see a lot of people with skin infections. We see people who make their living from canning (gathering cans for recycling) in dumpsters get impetigo… [D]ifferent types of skin infections and a lot of respiratory problems…

Sometimes it takes seven or eight times before they’re ready to make an appointment…

We see people who’ve lived with untreated schizophrenia or bipolar disorder for years, and sometimes the very thing they need to be treated for is pushing them away from the clinic. A paranoid schizophrenic who doesn’t trust easily is not going to want to go to a doctor…

Serving as medical director of Homeless Health Care LA, Dr. Susan Partovi espouses the same take-it-slow philosophy, and told journalist Usha Lee McFarling that street medicine is all about developing relationships. This is done by listening respectfully, moving gradually, and most of all, waiting.

In Los Angeles, “Skid Row” is famous worldwide for its huge concentration of people experiencing homelessness, and an awful lot of the residents are very sick with everything from scurvy to the virulent MRSA infection. For over a decade, Dr. Partovi has visited the area often, helping in any way she can. Often, this help involves exercising a skill that has caused her to be known as Queen of the Abscess. The practice of street medicine offers many intangible rewards, but glamour is not one of them.


Source: “Roving Medical Bus Provides Health Care to Alameda County’s …,” CBSLocal.com, 10/01/11
Source: “Alameda County HCHP Homeless Services Calendar,” Alameda County Public Health Department
Source: “St. Vincent de Paul Village, Inc.,” AllianceHealthCareFoundation.org, February 2012
Source: “A Transient Doctor for the Homeless,” VoiceofSanDiego, 06/10/11
Source: “Her office is Skid Row: A doctor tends to the staggering needs of the homeless,” StatNews.com, 05/13/16
Photo credit: Indavar via Visualhunt.com/CC BY-ND


Homelessness and Hypocrisy


The cops used to come by a few times a year, now it’s twice a night.

That is what Ray Lyall, resident of the Denver streets, said to LA Times reporter David Kelly. The police “come by” to roust people who live outside, tell them to move on to another location, and, often, throw away their belongings. Kelly also includes a quote from an official who asks, in a rhetorical sort of way, “Who could have foreseen the great recession?”

The question sounds disingenuous, until the reader understands that the speaker works for a city agency with an agenda. On the contrary, in the days since 2008, it has become clear that the crippling economic crisis could have been, and was, foreseen by the people who engineered it. But as long as they and their friends profited from the recession, at the cost of everyone else, they didn’t care. Bennie Milliner also said this:

The homeless problem was greatly exacerbated by the housing downturn and the bursting of the housing bubble.

… To which Kelly adds:

Now the opposite is true. The Denver-Aurora metro area has seen a 26% increase in home prices over the last two years, one of the highest in the country.

Consider that telling phrase, “Now the opposite is true.” In other words, both general prosperity and the lack of general prosperity are causes of homelessness. Any society in which both things are true is a society that has something basically wrong with it.

This point of view is not unique. Kelly notes that “critics believe the city is applying bandages when major surgery is needed.” The American Civil Liberties Union says that Denver, other Colorado cities, and municipalities all over the nation are criminalizing homelessness.

Scorched earth policy

A particular type of news story has become very common as it emanates from one city after another. There is a fire at a homeless encampment, and immediately the citizens cry for the camp to be abolished, and police and city workers do a “sweep” to push all the inhabitants out of the area. Makeshift shelters are torn down; tents, tarpaulins, and bedding are loaded into trucks and taken to the landfill. The fact that there was a fire (or some other incident) is used to justify making a gigantic leap to the idea that no settlements should exist.

There are much better reasons for society to decide that it is not good for people to experience homelessness in random encampments. The best reason for camps to be abolished would be if the inhabitants had some other place to go and live, but this is seldom the case. When something bad happens in a shantytown, housed people have a thoughtless, knee-jerk impulse to tear down the impromptu village.

But strangely, when there is a conflagration in an apartment building, nobody goes public with a demand to abolish all apartment buildings. When a private home catches fire, citizens don’t rise up and agitate for bulldozers to move in and level neighborhoods of single-family dwellings.

This comparison could be extended almost endlessly. When a school, grocery store, or church catches fire, no sane person proposes that schools, grocery stores, or churches should be banned. Kelly also quoted the manager of the Denver Rescue Mission, who confided that the encampments wiped out by authorities were “rife with gambling, drug dealing and prostitution.” Steve Walkup went on to say:

But they’ll probably rebuild their shantytowns. One will go up and another and another.

But pause and consider… A certain Nevada locale is rife with gambling, drugs, and prostitution, yet hardly anyone suggests nuking Las Vegas. When an outdated structure is demolished, very few people shake their heads and say, “But they’ll probably rebuild their hotels and casinos. One will go up and another and another.” Of course they will. Only a very naive or oblivious person is surprised by anything that happens in such a capital of commerce, because that is its nature.

And what happens in any city where thousands of people have nowhere to live should not be surprising either. Of course, camps form. Small communities are established, and in those rough-and-ready colonies are all kinds of humans, including people with a work ethic and moochers who just want to coast; and conscientious neighbors, and careless jerks who allow fires to start.

There are some virtually helpless people, and some who can cope with anything life throws at them. Some whose ideals and principles never waver, and some desperate enough to try anything. In short, people experiencing homelessness, who live in camps, are pretty much like people in rowhouses and highrises, except more exposed and vulnerable. Otherwise, the differences are superficial.


Source: “As Denver enjoys boom times, the homeless go into hiding,” LA Times.com, 05/06/16
Photo credit: gruntzooki via Visualhunt.com/CC BY-SA

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