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Counting the Homeless, Sort Of

Confucius ChristmasBack in 2005, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) activated a plan that would attempt to get a handle on the number of Americans experiencing homelessness. Each community would be responsible for counting and reporting their totals. These “point-in-time” surveys would ultimately determine how much federal money would flow to the community to address the problem. There seems to be a fair amount of latitude in how they go about it.

The enumerators might be volunteers or paid. In some places, they go around on foot, but a lot of the counting is done “drive-by” style. The count is supposed to include people who sleep outside; in substandard housing (no toilet, or washing, or cooking facilities); in HUD’s transitional housing programs; and one-night-at-a-time shelters.

Confusingly, on alternate years there is supposed to be a “full count” that includes couch-surfers squeezed in with family members or friends, people scheduled for release from corrective custody or hospitals, and those in permanent supportive housing, although HUD no longer considers them technically homeless.

The first time Los Angeles County did a homeless census, they scheduled it over three days, and used both temporary employees (at $10 per hour) and volunteers, some driving their own vehicles. The 1,200 personnel went out in pairs, into a territory divided into 500 pieces.

Carla Rivera reported in the LA Times that the overall project also included “an in-depth survey of 3,300 homeless people and a telephone survey of households.” It would be interesting to know more about that. Did they just call a random sample and ask, “Is a homeless person sleeping on your couch?”

Since the weather forecast threatened rain, the expenses included a sum for “hundreds of parkas to hand out” — to the enumerators. (Surely the reporter meant ponchos, not parkas.) The bureaucracy also had to rent a bunch of vans.

At any rate, the whole enterprise cost $350,000 out of the funds available to combat homelessness. Could the actual homeless people have used that money? Most certainly, but they must look on it as in investment in their future.

Another thing about the forecast rain, Rivera says:

… [T]he threat of wet weather probably drove some homeless people into hiding places.

There were further difficulties. A lot of homeless people who wanted to apply for the paying jobs were turned away. Enumerators were told by a police officer that Burbank had no homeless people, and to go away.

In Santa Monica, one team was twice challenged by the police, and anyway, they only found about a dozen people experiencing homelessness. To anyone who has ever visited the area where Santa Monica intersects with the ocean, this is an astonishing claim. Also, there were rumors that the local law enforcers had rousted the people experiencing homelessness just a few days before the “point-in-time” census.

In the Antelope Valley, where the government has been quite active in creating homelessness, a whole census tract:

[…] was scrapped after canvassers found the mountainous road washed out… Early morning was chosen because it is easier to locate homeless encampments in the daylight in the rugged rural terrain… [O]ne large census tract in Pacoima was abandoned because teams didn’t have transportation.

More recently, Mary Flynn shared tales how the 2013 count was conducted, in different parts of California:

In Contra Costa, volunteers counted those visible from their vehicles, while more direct interaction with the homeless population is left to the teams of qualified outreach workers who venture to the known encampments of homeless people.

The 120 volunteers went around during the day, though the director contrasted this with the technique used at a previous posting in San Francisco, where the census was done in the middle of the night. The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness is eager to have more accurate numbers on “transitioning youth” between the ages of 14 and 24, but how accurate can the enumerators be about ages, when their observations are based on drive-by sightings?

Santa Clara county took to heart this emphasis on the young, and rather than in the early morning, sent its teams out in the afternoon, when more kids would be readily apparent. This county used homeless youth as enumerators, on the grounds that they would more readily recognize their compatriots. Apparently, young homeless people are not as easy to identify by sight, because they try to avoid the homeless “look.”

According to HUD regulations, the count has to be made during the last 10 days of January. California is one thing, but in most parts of the country, this is not the time of year when you want to be out on the roads trying to catch sight of people who have burrowed as far as possible into the crannies and crevices of the landscape to escape the cold. In midsummer, the picture would be much different, so this the wintertime census is an excellent way to keep the total minimized, on paper anyway. And California is not alone in its erratic methods — there is much more to be said on this subject.

Reactions?

Source: “Homeless Count or Are Counted,” LA Times, 01/27/05
Source: “In annual homeless census, counting youth is a challenge,” HealthyCal.org, 02/21/13
Image by Wonderlane.

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Young and Homeless in New York

Security BlanketsHouse the Homeless has been looking at the ongoing mess in New York City, bad enough before the catastrophic weather events hit, and not getting any better. To suggest that conditions are worse for any particular demographic group is specious, because human misery just can’t be quantified that way. There is plenty of it to go around and dish out a share for everybody. But the the kids are, without a doubt, having a rough time.

They are homeless for a lot of reasons. The little ones are, hopefully, still with their dispossessed parents who, without a roof of their own, are keeping the family together somehow. There are “throwaway” kids, whose parents don’t mind their departure because they are unwanted reminders of previous failed marriages, and runaways who escape physical abuse or other intolerable conditions. There are young people whose sexual orientation is unacceptable to their parents, and others who have “aged out” of the foster care system.

In June of last year, homeless advocacy groups reported 17,000 minors in New York City shelters every night, and Mayor Bloomberg maintained that the city’s shelters offered a “much more pleasurable experience than they ever had before.” A Huffington Post writer gave an example of this idyllic existence as experienced by a 9-year-old child:

The girl and her mother, having been relocated to a shelter in uptown Manhattan, struggled to wake up at 4:45AM every morning to avoid being late for school in Brownsville, Brooklyn. But despite their efforts, Whitnee Layne said her daughter was at the risk of being suspended because no matter how much they tried to arrive on time, the difficult commute was just too much.

In October, the nice round number of 20,000 kids in shelters was reported, and journalists were compelled to make comparisons with the Great Depression. There are towns with total populations smaller than the number of children sleeping in New York City shelters, struggling with overcrowding and broken families and poor nutrition and interrupted schooling and inadequate medical care.

As AlterNet‘s Tana Ganeva had already pointed out the previous year, as many as 65% of the families that apply for shelter space in the city do not get in, so the bureaucracy’s numbers don’t include “homeless kids who are not sleeping in shelters because their families have been turned away.” In that same time frame, New York Magazine‘s Noreen Malone noted that the city’s public schools enrolled nearly 43,000 students without fixed abode. And that was before Hurricane Sandy and massive flooding.

Nationwide, at the present time, about 1 million public school students go “home” to shelters, cars, vans, abandoned buildings, cheap motels, church basements, garages, or odd corners in the homes of relatives or friends. The destabilizing effect of homelessness affects the young in numerous ways, impeding their normal mental and psychological growth and physical well-being.

The National Center on Family Homelessness estimates that homeless kids are four times as likely to have delayed development and twice as likely to experience learning disabilities, and these disabilities are often unrecognized and untreated. More than a third of these kids wind up repeating at least one grade.

A lot of things that housed children take for granted homeless children don’t even know about. They don’t have computers or quiet places to do homework. They probably don’t get enough sleep. Kids whose circumstances force frequent transfers to new schools are only half as likely to even graduate from high school. Kids who don’t graduate are twice as likely to become poverty statistics and join the ranks of second-generation homeless, and the long-range effect of that is a life expectancy of nine years less than average.

In grade school, middle school, and high school (if they make it that far) homeless kids are anxious and depressed, and prone to behavioral problems. They can’t concentrate in class. Inadequate sleep, hunger, and fear of the future, says Carol Smith of Enumclaw, WA, Patch.com, leads to “increased levels of stress hormones such as cortisol, which can wreak havoc on young brains.”

Tana Ganeva says:

Homeless kids get sick more often and with stranger and more serious ailments than poor kids who have homes, suffering respiratory infections and digestive infections at significantly higher rates.

These children tend to withdraw from social interaction and have what are called “attachment disorders.” They might even be shunned or bullied by classmates who look down on them. Any friendships that they manage to create are likely to be broken by frequent relocations.

But while there is plenty of research showing how homelessness affects children, there isn’t much on what schools could be doing to better the situation. For the Christian Science Monitor, Michelle D. Anderson interviewed Joseph Murphy of Vanderbilt University, author of Homelessness Comes to School, whom she quotes on the subject of the Mckinney-Vento Law:

Before the law was passed, only about 25 percent of homeless students were in school. Today, that number is 85 percent… The law requires that schools waive typical requirements, such as proof of residency… It also waives requirements mandating that parents provide medical, immunization, and academic records, and requires schools to offer transportation options.

Sounds good, right? So good, in fact, that caring attorneys were moved to create Project LEARN (Lawyers Education Access Resource Network) to provide legal advocacy to homeless families when school districts are ignorant of, or simply ignore, the law. According to their website:

Across the country, children are being kicked out of school when they become homeless. It’s not something you hear talked about much. Maybe that’s because homelessness in general is ignored in our public discourse. This may even be the first time you’re hearing about it.

But not the last. The whole situation is a ticking time bomb whose eventual results are set to tear the entire fabric of our society to shreds.

Reactions?

Source: “Homeless Children In NYC Shelters Rises To 19000, Near Great Depression Highs,” The Huffington Post, 09/10/12
Source: “How One GOP Plutocrat Helped Make 20000 Kids Homeless,” AlterNet, 11/29/12
Source: “There’s Been a Surge in Homeless New York City Students,” New York Magazine, 9/8/11
Source: “Homeless Children Face Emotional, Developmental Hurdles,” Patch.com, 06/08/11
Source: “Schools facing rise in homeless students,” The Christian Science Monitor, 04012/11
Source: “Homeless children shouldn’t be kicked out of school,” HomelessnessLaw.org, 03/01/12
Image by elizaIO.

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New York City Gets Worse

Blanket ManLet’s recap. In New York City, there was a program that helped employed, formerly homeless parents to pay rent, and the city terminated the program. Then, they tried to make a rule requiring single homeless people to document the fact that shelters are their only option. With breathtaking arrogance and cruelty, the administration forged ahead with the forbidding of surplus food donations to shelters, by churches, synagogues, and other institutions.

In June of last year, municipal shelters were serving 43,000 people every night. The city opened more shelters, which cost more than continuing the Advantage program would have done. Each housing unit, holding two or three people, costs the city around $3,300 per month. Since Mayor Bloomberg took office, his policies have succeeded in increasing the number of people experiencing homelessness by 36%, according to the Coalition for the Homeless.

Before Hurricane Sandy in October, at least 46,000 shelter beds were occupied nightly, and of course that doesn’t even begin to count the people with nowhere to sleep at all. The approaching storm made it necessary to close up the subways, so that reliable refuge of the chronically homeless was gone.

Then suddenly, there was a whole additional population of newly homeless people whose usual residences were washed away by the flood, or were under water. Some of them, old and helpless, came from nursing homes. Despite the desperate need everywhere, the city retained its right to be picky about accepting food donations.

A November story by Nina Bernstein for The New York Times tells how when the storm hit:

… [C]ity officials ramped up emergency spaces to shelter thousands more people, mostly in public schools and colleges. Amid complaints of chaotic, unsanitary conditions, it then scattered hundreds of those people to $300 hotel rooms, from Midtown Manhattan to remote parts of Brooklyn and Queens. This week, officials closed all evacuation centers but two on Staten Island. Now they plan to rely solely on hotels, even as they brace for a new wave of people displaced from storm-damaged housing where they are facing winter without heat or hot water.

It was crisis after crisis. In January, The Huffington Post writer Maura Mcdermott told how nearly 1,000 Long Island families were on the verge of being ejected from FEMA’s emergency program that was keeping them in hotels. Their stay had already been extended twice. Mcdermott interviewed individuals and emphasized in her story how hard it was for displaced people to get to work, keep their medical appointments, and do other necessary activities.

When the 3-month storm anniversary date rolled around, there were still at least 3,500 New York and New Jersey families living in hotels. The uncredited author of a piece in Crain’s New York Business also sought out real people to interview, including Ayanna Diego, and wrote:

For storm victims with no other housing options, the anxiety is palpable. Most spend their days on the phone with a never-ending stream of federal agencies, contractors and insurance agents, struggling to sort out the housing mess Sandy left behind… Ms. Diego qualified for the maximum $31,900 lump sum allowed under FEMA’s household assistance program, and the money is supposed to be used for home repairs and short-term rentals. Instead, she is using those dollars to pay for gas and tolls to drive her niece to school in their old neighborhood, pay the mortgage on their wrecked home and buy meals for the family of four.

Earlier this month, the New York Post‘s Michael Gartland complained of homeless people hanging around in Grand Central Terminal, smelling bad and spoiling the appetites of restaurant patrons. But the transit cops only make them leave between 2:00 and 5:00 in the morning, when the station is closed to everyone. This, the writer apparently believes, is an occasion for outrage.

Remember “the public face for bona fide bad guys,” Alan Lapes? Thanks to the storm and the numerous cozy connections between bureaucrats and bad guys, New York City is doing even more business with this Lapes creature and his ilk. According to journalists Joseph Berger and Nate Schweber, Lapes is the:

[…] major private operator of homeless shelters. He is by most measures the city’s largest and owns or leases about 20 of the 231 shelters citywide. Most of the other shelters and residences are run by the city or by nonprofit agencies, but his operation is profit-making, prompting criticism from advocates for the homeless and elected officials.

Mr. Lapes, who lives in a multi-million-dollar house, does not deign to reply to messages left by reporters who request to interview him about how it feels to profit from the misery of others. When the city pays more than $3,000 per month each for rooms, the landlord get about half and the rest is supposed to pay for security and for social services for the sheltered people, many of whom are mentally ill, addicted, unable to work, and/or coping with numerous other problems.

At the Lapes establishments, security guards are present, but don’t seem able to do much about the violence, and nobody does anything about rodents, bugs, busted elevators, lack of hot water and heat, or fire-code violations. Amenities like counseling and job referrals are pretty much non-existent. The reporters quote Patrick Markee of the Coalition for the Homeless, who:

[…] blamed the Bloomberg administration for the continuing use of private landlords to house the homeless, citing a policy not to give the homeless priority for public housing projects and Section 8 vouchers because of long waiting lists. ‘The crisis that’s causing the city to open so many new shelters is mostly of the mayor’s own making,’ he said. ‘Instead of moving families out of shelters and into permanent housing, as previous mayors did, the city is now paying millions to landlords with a checkered past of harassing low-income tenants and failing to address hazardous conditions.’

Poor New Yorkers. And incidentally, from the other side of the country, here is a piece well worth reading, from Lita Kurth, called “Gimme Shelter: (un)affordable housing.”

Reactions?

Source: “How Sandy hits the homeless,” Salon.com, 10/29/12
Source: “Storm Bared a Lack of Options for the Homeless in New York,” The New York Times, 11/20/12
Source: “Sandy Victims In Long Island Face Hotel ‘Checkout’ As FEMA Program Nears End,” The Huffington Post, 01/11/13
Source: “Sandy’s homeless lead lives of anxiety in hotels,” Crain’s New York Business, 01/25/13
Source: “Filth and Fury: Homeless return to debase Grand Central Terminal,” New York Post, 02/02/13
Source: “For Some Landlords, Real Money in the Homeless,” The New York Times, 02/08/13
Image by Andrew Xu.

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Unstable Housing Is Contemporary Slavery

the homeless problemAs in the days of Les Miserables, people who lack wealth or property tend to be marginalized, disenfranchised, and dehumanized. Last week — and nothing has changed since then — House the Homeless discussed how, in America, poverty and homelessness are no longer lifestyles experienced chiefly by members of minority groups. Sure, ancestry is a factor in human fate, but almost always, the ultimate measuring device is money.

Recently, Northern California’s “Armstrong & Getty” radio show included the on-air reading of an email from homeless activist Ace Backwords. Here is an excerpt:

I’ve also been homeless for about 10 years… I’ve worked and supported myself for most of my life, including while I was homeless, and rarely went to the free meals or used the social services…

You see only the most grotesque and obvious members of the homeless community… The ones you don’t notice are the millions of otherwise normal people who don’t look or act homeless (which is why you don’t notice them) but just happen to be homeless. This is especially true of the latest generation of homeless — the ones in their 20s and 30s. A good percentage of them, there’s nothing particularly ‘street’ about them. They’re just normal people who got priced out of the rental market or victimized by the economic downturn. I read somewhere that 50% of recent college graduates are unemployed. And a surprising number of them end up homeless.

Whatever the percentage, isn’t it kind of shocking that any percentage of college graduates are unemployed? When even the educated white folks start finding themselves in the bread line, the situation is serious!

We also talked last week about Richard R. Troxell’s reflections on the book Why We Can’t Wait, by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which was published in 1963 — almost 50 years, or half a century ago. Drawing a parallel between black Americans in the past and many people of all races in the present, Richard wrote:

… [W]ages can still be correctly characterized as slave wages as they are today even though they are set by the federal government itself. This is the case today with the federal minimum wage being set at so low a level that it leaves a full time worker firmly impoverished and unable to afford life’s basic necessities… Today, American business remains unwilling to relinquish what still amounts to a vast human reservoir of cheap labor paid at poverty wages that continues to economically enslave workers.

Part of the problem here is the “one size fits all” assumption on which the federal minimum wage is based. As Richard says, America is a nation of a thousand economies, at least. In different regions, the minimum wage needs to be different. The Universal Living Wage would go a long way toward rectifying matters.

Nicole Hudley of New America Media relates how California’s Homeless Youth Project (HYP) is trying to get a handle on the extent of the problem, as represented by raw numbers. To understand how they cope, the HYP also surveyed 200 young people, both black and white, on the streets of San Francisco. The researchers learned that while white kids are more apt to sign in at shelters, black kids are more likely to find makeshift solutions like sleeping on buses or in fast food restaurants.

Hudley writes:

The African American youth were 38 percent more likely to be placed in the foster care system by Child Protective Services than whites. African American young people were also more likely to attribute family conflict to temporary problems associated with such issues as finances or substance abuse. Whites, on the other hand, often viewed their family trouble as being permanent and irresolvable.

Perhaps this is why African American youths who succeed in eluding the foster system are less likely to call themselves homeless, because many of them manage to patch together a series of temporary semi-homes. They get more support from extended family and friends, often “couch-surfing” from one place to another and using their food stamp allotments to pay back the favor. While not, technically, the same as absolute homelessness, this mode of survival is certainly “unstable housing” and needs to be recognized as equally problematic.

The poor of all ethnic groups share in common the feedback loop between homelessness and jail and homelessness and jail, and so on. Using prisoners for slave labor is actually fine, according to the Constitution. It says so right there in the 13th Amendment, as “Jehu” reminds us. This writer also notes that anti-vagabond laws were often used in the previous century to collect black men from the streets so they could be forced to work on behalf of corporate interests for no pay.

Jehu quotes a political author named Carl V. Harris:

In 1906 the editor of the Birmingham News said: ‘Anyone visiting a Southern city or town must be impressed at witnessing the large number of loafing negroes… They can all get work, but they don’t want to work. The result is that they sooner or later get into mischief or commit crimes.’ The editor believed that such Negroes were ‘not only a menace to the public safety’ but also ‘to some extent a financial burden upon the taxpayers.’

Doesn’t that sound just like what is said of people experiencing homelessness in the present day? Unlike the American South of over a hundred years ago, where black people were demonized, we now have an entire country where anyone can be demonized, regardless of race, creed, or whatever. All they have to be is homeless. This is equality like never before — progress indeed. And yes, that was a sarcastic remark.

Reactions?

Source: “The Armstrong and Getty radio show,” Acid Heroes, 12/14/12
Source: “Homeless Black Youth Largely Invisible to Service Providers,” New America Media, 01/03/13
Source: “A critical examination of Kevin Carson’s Mutualism (Part One),” Gonzo Times, 06/09/11
Image by D.C. Atty.

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Homelessness — It’s About Green

mirrormanIn Richard R. Troxell’s exegesis of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 book Why We Can’t Wait, he compares today’s “quality of life” laws, which promise the very opposite of quality for people experiencing homelessness, to the discriminatory Jim Crow laws of the past:

These laws created living conditions that were ‘separate but equal.’ These included segregated hospitals and cemeteries. This is startlingly similar to the separate ‘Community Courts’ now targeting people experiencing homelessness across America.

In the old days, restroom facilities for the dominant race and the minority race were separate. But at least there were restrooms. Now, cities don’t want to provide toilet facilities for anyone, no matter what color, if they are homeless.

Richard says:

Also falling into this category, are today’s laws exclusively focused on people experiencing homelessness that include no camping, no soliciting, no sitting, no lying, no loitering, and laws regulating and limiting the feeding of people experiencing homelessness.

A nice middle-aged grandma who lives in a house could do any of these things with impunity. She could erect a tent to wait in line for a big blowout sale, or window-shop all day, or sit on a curb to eat an ice-cream cone, or buy a waffle for somebody else. Each one of these actions is different if a homeless person does it — like putting up a tent; or if someone does it for a homeless person — such as giving away food.

In other words, these are Jim Crow laws because they apply only to a segment of the population. Speaking of laws, here is another quotation from Richard’s piece:

Dr. King contends that there are two types of laws. He sees them as either just or unjust. He says it is our ‘moral responsibility’ to disobey all unjust laws.

It’s easy to see why Dr. King’s ideas make a lot of people uncomfortable. But Richard sees Why We Can’t Wait as an underappreciated treasure that should be read and understood by more people. He also writes:

Dr. King points out that, ‘The struggle for rights is, at the bottom, a struggle for opportunities.’ […] It was generally acknowledged that the lowest paid, and the least stable jobs were earmarked for the ‘Negro.’ Some might say the same is true of today’s ‘African Americans.’ Others would say the impoverished base has simply broadened out and engulfed the weakest.

Both assessments are accurate. Black and white people are both worse off. Equality has taken a strange form. Now, even educated white folks have the opportunity to be unemployed and homeless. This is the unspoken message of many media portrayals, probably because it is what the jargon calls “relatable.”

The subliminal message is, “When horrible misfortune can happen even to educated white folks, it’s time to take things seriously!” The heroes of the civil rights movement and the idealistic radicals of the 60s fought for equality, never dreaming that the equality the future held would look like this. America has 3.5 million minimum-wage workers who are nonetheless homeless, and they have skin of all colors.

Katie Kirkendoll, who goes to school and experiences homelessness in Tennessee, has picked up on the “Homeless is the new black” trope, and written an interesting explanation of why:

As a child growing up in the ’70s I was used to reading headlines ‘Black Man robs drug store’, or ‘John Doe, black, was arrested for’… [T]he days of media targeting black males are on the decline (at least we pray), however now they have decided to target a new group of humans, the homeless.

I looked at one of the local news websites and I found this little headline: ‘Homeless man robs Walgreens, police arrest him before he leaves.’ I ask why does the fact that he is homeless warrant the headline of the story? […] [I]t is a stereotype no different that lumping all African Americans or all Hispanics together in a group to fit stereotypes. It puts those of us who happen to not have a home at this time, to be a part of this stereotyping. This isolates the homeless people (remember we are still people?), from the public: at a time when he or she may need people the most.

I try to get up, dress neatly and put on my makeup, each day. Why do I do this? Because I believe a part of my survival depends on how I appear. Is that what it felt like to ‘pass’? I can’t say, but in many ways that is what I am attempting to do in hope of avoiding danger and promoting a kinder reception when I am in contact with others.

No doubt Ms. Kirkendoll is familiar with another popular saying, one which Richard quotes: “It’s not about white or black, it’s about green.” And no, they’re not talking about the movement that wants to preserve the environment, nothing that exalted. It just means that discrimination is no longer only about race; now more than ever it’s also about money.

Reactions?

Source: “Homeless is the new black,” katiekirkendoll, 10/21/12
Image by BelongingVictoria.com.

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Living on the Shifting Sands of Affordability

Downtown AustinWhat the U.S. Census bureau calls a “conventional” amount of money to pay for housing (PDF) is 30%. According to economics experts, a family is considered financially responsible if it spends just under one-third of its income on housing costs. More than that, and the household is considered financially “burdened.” About one-third is the standard for most rental housing programs.

A Census Bureau report says:

Because the 30 percent rule was deemed a rule of thumb for the amount of income that a family could spend and still have enough left over for other nondiscretionary spending, it made its way to owner-occupied housing too.

But there are exceptions. Indeed, a mortgage website says that it is following the guidelines of most lenders by allowing a total debt-to-income ratio of up to 36%. The government report explains this:

Many households whose housing costs exceed 30 percent of their incomes are choosing then to devote larger shares of their incomes to larger, more amenity-laden homes. These households often still have enough income left over to meet their non-housing expenses.

In other words, for some people, affordability is not an issue, no matter how big a chunk of their income they spend to put a roof over their head. Lifestyle choice is the only consideration. They want gourmet kitchens and swimming pools, and if they can afford it, good for them. However, the report goes on to say:

But for those households at the bottom rungs of the income ladder, the use of housing costs in excess of 30 percent of their limited incomes as an indicator of a housing affordability problem is as relevant today as it was four decades ago.

The 30% figure is generally accepted now, and is conventional in the sense that it has been quoted since around 1980 when the government set the rent standard for subsidized housing, which shouldn’t charge more than one-third of what a family had.

But there is a strange historical wrinkle that people don’t seem to think about. This recommended proportion that came into vogue 30-odd years ago was not the same as it had been a few years before. The number had “evolved,” as the government report explains. The received wisdom about the amount of family income that should be spent on housing was different wisdom from what it had been previously.

Some of us remember Home Economics class, where we were taught that only a fool would ever consider moving into a place that costs more than 25% of your income. You spent one-fourth on housing, and there were other recommended percentages for other things the budget needed to cover. But for renting or buying a place to live, a quarter of what you made should definitely be the limit. To commit to a greater obligation was the act of an irresponsible person.

In 1968, there was the Housing and Urban Development act, and the next year, the Brooke Amendment set the rent threshold at one-fourth of family income. For the mathematically unskilled, one-fourht is less than one-third. The recommendation used to be to spend even less of the family’s total income on housing.

And guess what? Before that, it used to be considered prudent, rational, and logical to spend only one-fifth of the family income on housing, which is an even smaller proportion. The National Housing Act in 1937 created the public housing program, which had a rent standard that stopped at 20%, or one-fifth of income.

In other words, our idea of the portion of income that is reasonable and prudent to pay for housing has suffered from expectation creep. Every so often, we are presented, by the shifting sands of the affordability concept, with a new normal. Somehow, while we weren’t looking, one of the Great Universal Truths was swapped out for a different Great Universal Truth. Within one human lifespan, the expectation went from “housing should cost one-fifth of what you make” to “housing should cost one-third of what you make.” One-third is more. A lot more.

So, all other talk of housing costs is resting on a big, slimy, insidious con job. That being said, the struggle continues to provide housing that people can afford, and to get people into jobs that pay enough so they can afford housing.

House the Homeless is located in Austin, TX, where the issues of work, wages, and the affordability of housing are particularly acute lately because of the Waller Creek project which is remaking the downtown area. HtH President Richard R. Troxell recently contributed to the public discourse about subcontractor wages, informing the County Commissioners and City Council about the Universal Living Wage campaign. The concept is staggeringly simple: Any person who performs a standard 40-hour-per week job ought to be able to afford shelter (including utilities), food, clothing, and at least public transportation.

It’s kind of amazing that anybody should need this explained. But subcontractor pay is not the only matter being discussed in Austin these days. Much more on Richard’s mind, and the minds of people experiencing homelessness in the city, is the redevelopment project. Matters seem to be poised at a cusp where the agencies serving the homeless can either seize a huge advantage or lose a great deal of their ability to benefit the destitute and the striving.

The Austin Chronicle‘s Ari Phillips interviewed Richard for a thoughtful piece about the Waller Creek project and its ramifications. We quote from that article:

Troxell estimates that about 1,000 homeless individuals use the creek corridor daily. Lately, he says, the city has been encouraging the police to keep the homeless out of the area, he believes to prepare for coming development. He imagines the future Waller Creek as much like the heavily commercialized San Antonio River Walk — homeless-free…

Troxell thinks nonprofits aiding the homeless need to work together and plan ahead to build resources and move their organizations elsewhere; otherwise, the business community will buy them out one at a time. ‘If they do get bought out, the homeless community will be run over by this wave of new energy that’s coming,’ he said. ‘A wave that will be very moneyed and very police-secure.’

By the way, Looking Up at the Bottom Line, by Richard R. Troxell, is now available in electronic formats, i.e. the Kindle and the Nook.

Reactions?

Source: “Who Can Afford To Live in a Home?” (PDF), U.S. Census Bureau, 2006
Source: “Going With the Flow,” The Austin Chronicle, 01/11/13
Image by Tim Patterson.

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Austin Photographer Chronicles Homelessness

The DollarA friend of House the Homeless recommended looking up street photographer Pachi Tamer, who takes pictures of people experiencing homelessness and publishes them via Instagram, under the name of Cachafaz. The finest ones resemble the works of old European masters that hang in museums. It was inevitable to form that impression, even before looking up the next online source, which voiced a similar opinion:

These are portraits, some very powerful and with the dignity and grace of Renaissance religious paintings.

That was said by Josh Q, who also believes that Tamer ought to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize, and said so just last month. A little farther back in time, Tamer was interviewed by Derek Shanks, who ascertained that the photographer was born in Argentina and works at an advertising agency in Austin, TX, and asked about his history. Tamer answered:

I went to high school at ‘Hermanos Maristas,’ a Catholic private school in Pergamino. We used to go to very poor neighborhoods with our teachers to help people. We even built a school for them once. And also I learned to help people from my parents. My father was a doctor and he used to take care of people in need for free. My mom is a psychiatrist and at 72 years old she’s still helping people with their problems.

Hidden behind that simple biographical description is a powerful truth about the future and what needs to be done. Obviously, as a society, we need to provide a good education for as many children as possible. We need to promote as many living-wage-paying jobs as possible for parents, so their kids have the support system they need, to do well in school, so that when the time comes they in turn will find jobs that pay at least a living wage.

But this is not, as we commonly and superficially assume, only so these kids can live adequately themselves and not be a drain on the public budget. There is much more to it. Some of them will also be active in helping other people, and they need to acquire the skills and talents and motivation to do it.

Here is another quotation that Shanks captured from Pachi Tamer about the subjects of his photos:

I approach them with respect. I shake their hands. I sit on the street besides them. I share a cigarette with them. I ask them how they’re doing. Then I explain my project and sometimes show them a couple of other pictures. I listen to them. They trust me because I trust them.

Tamer has a side project, a crowdfunding effort called “One Dollar Dreams,” whose object is to get at least a few people something to make life worthwhile. One of the portraits that Shanks chose to show, as illustrative of the artist’s work, is the 18th of the series, where the subject was photographed at the Austin Resource Cen­ter for the Homeless (ARCH). This institution’s fate has has been a bone of contention lately. Many businesses and civic leaders would like to see all the services like ARCH and Caritas and the Salvation Army and Angel House and Austin Travis County Integral Care, moved right out of downtown.

If done properly and for the right reasons, it could be a good idea, and House the Homeless president Richard R. Troxell is willing to entertain it. One of the factors he mentioned to journalist Josh Rosenblatt is the Public Order Initiative, which along with the movement to move services out of town, proves how anxious the civic authorities are to relocate the people experiencing homelessness to somewhere else. The huge Waller Creek project aims to remake downtown Austin, and housed citizens don’t enjoy their celebratory nights out partying when they have to see destitute people in public places.

Reactions?

Source: “Pick of the Day: Pachi Tamer on Instagram,Inside Flipboard, 12/21/12
Source: ““I Just Want Everyone To Look Into Their Eyes And See Their Souls,” We Are JUXT, 12/16/11
Source: “Latest Homeless Initiative: Bust ‘Em?,” The Austin Chronicle, 10/12/12
Image by Pachi Tamer.

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The Hate Crime Report

sad truth of mean streetsIn Van Nuys, CA, a 67-year-old woman was purposely set on fire as she slept on a bus bench — one of those unfriendly pieces of public furniture specifically designed to be uncomfortable, with rigid dividers between each designated seat. But maybe, through the layers of clothing she habitually wears, Violet Phillips didn’t even feel the bumps. To be soaked with flammable liquid and then lit on fire causes pain of a different order of magnitude. Undoubtedly, Violet feels the serious burns.

Violet is what people call her at the local churches, where she is acquainted with many parishioners. But she likes to keep to herself. Journalist Mike Szymanski spoke with a representative of the intensive care unit of the University of Southern California Burn Unit and learned that:

… [S]he would only say ‘God bless you’ in reply to people’s questions.

This abominable attack happened two days after Christmas, too late to be referenced in stories about the release of the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) report on hate crimes of 2011, but just in time to be included in the 2012 total. The individual who has been arrested, on suspicion of attempted murder, is 24-year-old male. Let’s see how this fits in with the NCH report, which says:

… [N]early all of the attacks were carried out by teenagers and young men.

A lot of these young so-called men reportedly do these things just for fun. On behalf of The Huffington Post, Saki Knafo spoke with NCH executive director Neil Donovan, who feels that one of the big problems is the desensitization caused by electronic games that cast people experiencing homelessness in the role of targets. Also contributing to the stigmatization and degradation are video productions like “Bag Lady Fights” and “BumFights.” Donovan calls it a “campaign of dehumanization.”

But how many attacks, or anti-homeless hate crimes, are we talking about? Here’s the breakdown:

… [A]t least 32 homeless people in the United States died as a result of violent attacks in 2011, as compared with 24 the year before. The report also tallied 73 non-lethal attacks against the homeless, a drop from the previous year’s count of 89.

Despite a serious lack of funding, since 1999, the NCH has taken on the mission and challenge of filling the informational void. Their latest report is titled “Hate Crimes against the Homeless: The Brutality of Violence Unveiled” and the 94-page PDF file can be downloaded from the top of the NCH homepage. The FBI does not define the homeless as a protected group, and is not interested in keeping track of anti-homeless hate crimes. But it does tally up other hate crimes in America, and here is the alarming thing, as Knafo puts it:

… [T]he number of lethal anti-homeless hate crimes counted by the group exceeds the government’s tally of deadly hate crimes in all other categories.

In other words, for several years now, the number of homeless people murdered because of who they are has exceeded the number of victims of fatal hate crimes from all other (racial, religious, etc.) motivations, added together.

It’s a terrifyingly stringent economy where they can’t even place a foot on the first rung of the ladder to success, or even modest prosperity. In the late ’70s, the “deinstitutionalization” trend started, and was supported by many factions, for reasons that seemed good at the time. Unfortunately, psychiatric institutions were not replaced by other support systems. The combination of these national changes with other factors resulted in the current crisis where people are getting killed simply because they don’t have a place to live. Another aspect of this situation is, the elderly and confused are not the whole population of people experiencing homelessness. An enormous number of young people are out there trying to make it on their own.

Susan Saulny’s “After Recession, More Young Adults Are Living on Street,” is a companion piece to her earlier video reportage “Young and Homeless: The Recession’s Impact on Young Americans.” She talks about Los Angeles, where in 2011, there were about 3,600 unfamilied kids on the streets. The city’s shelter could sleep less than one-fifth of them. Boston is bad, all cities are bad, but the suburbs or country are nearly impossible.

The young do have one advantage. They are not so likely to be victims of the anti-homeless hate crimes per se, being better able to blend into the population. Kids like to look scruffy, and sometimes it’s hard to determine who is rich and who is destitute, on the evidence of clothes and hygiene. Plus, the young are more easily able to run away. But in shelters, it’s a different story. Saulny says the young:

[…] tend to shy away from ordinary shelters out of fear of being victimized by an older, chronically homeless population.

What is the answer? One of answers is to make sure there are jobs, both for homeless youth, so they can afford to live someplace, and for the aimless young men who victimize the homeless for kicks. Richard R. Troxell, as we know, is co-founder of House the Homeless in Austin, TX, and author of Looking Up at the Bottom Line. He recently wrote:

I sit on the Board of the National Coalition for the Homeless that produced this report. I also sit on the Civil Rights Committee and we actually generated this report. The young need to be engaged in living-wage jobs. So we need to promote our stimulus recommendations to President Obama, in order to create jobs, and then those jobs need to pay living wages.

Please learn more about the Universal Living Wage.

Reactions?

Source: “Homeless Burn Victim, Violet Phillips, Remains in Critical Condition,” Sherman Oaks Patch, 12/28/12
Source: “Anti-Homeless Hate Crimes Detailed In New Report,” The Huffington Post, 12/21/12
Source: “After Recession, More Young Adults Are Living on Street,” The New York Times, 12/18/12
Image by danieljordahl.

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Wal-Mart’s Untrammeled Greed

Walmart WorldCongressman Alan Grayson stirred things up a bit by making some audacious statements that inspired Katie Sanders of PolitiFact to check his sources. Grayson declared to the world, via The Huffington Post, that:

In state after state, the largest group of Medicaid recipients is Walmart employees. I’m sure that the same thing is true of food stamp recipients. Each Walmart ‘associate’ costs the taxpayers an average of more than $1,000 in public assistance.”

He also appeared on a TV show called “The Young Turks” and asserted that Walmart employees are the largest group of food-stamp recipients. These allegations didn’t fall out of a clear blue sky. Apparently, a lot of eyeballs scrutinize the figures, and they don’t like what they see. Sanders says:

Democrats and labor unions have long been critical of the non-union retailer and have recently been emphasizing that its low wages end up costing government because workers seek food stamps and other aid… Newspapers, lawmakers and liberal policy groups for years have analyzed which companies have large numbers of employees that seek public health insurance assistance.

Doesn’t everybody love Wal-Mart? Well, no. (Sanders explains that Wal-Mart is the corporation and Walmart is a store, but they seem to be used interchangeably.) Anyway, for being the biggest private employer in the country, the corporation pays relatively low wages.

Apparently, there is only data from less than half the states (24), and not all of those states keep track of the Medicaid numbers. But the Good Jobs First organization did look at state-run programs for people in nowhere-land, who neither earn enough to buy insurance, nor earn little enough to qualify for Medicaid.

Sanders takes the reader through examples of what goes on in the various states, with help from Phil Mattera of Good Jobs First. The trouble is, most of the information is eight years old. Apparently, more recent numbers are not available. But even if by some miracle all these numbers have been halved since then, it’s still too much.

Of all the companies in Florida, Wal-Mart has the most employees and their dependents eligible for Medicaid. Pennsylvania is in dire straits. Wal-Mart has 48,000 workers there, and one out of every six is signed up with Medicaid. The state (the taxpayer) kicks in around $15 million per year.

In Missouri, the corporation is the second biggest employer, and has the most people enrolled in the state’s Medicaid plan. Ironically, Missouri’s biggest employer is the state government, many of whose employees are occupied with counting the social costs incurred by the low wages paid by the second-largest employer.

On the question of food stamps, there are more recent statistics but fewer of them. It is known, for instance, that other Florida taxpayers subsidize $2.6 million per year worth of food assistance needed by Wal-Mart’s workforce. But going by what they had, PolitiFact rated Grayson’s claim “Mostly true.”

Trina Clemente is the author of a petition found at Change.org, which commits its signers to boycotting Walmart. She mentions that six members of the Walton family, who of course make their money from the corporation, have more of it than the combined wealth of the lowest 30% of American workers. The taxpayers are chipping in, paying for the employees’ food stamps and medical needs, so that a few Waltons can be richer than any human needs to be. Clemente writes:

Walmart workers are some of our country’s most vulnerable workers. Many of them are literally just a paycheck or two away from homelessness. Most already qualify for food assistance and Medicaid. With over 2 million employees and a large percentage of them having to rely on public assistance despite working, Walmart has managed to become the recipient of a huge transfer of public wealth (tax dollars) into private hands.

How many of the company’s employees actually are homeless is anybody’s guess. Chances are, they do their best to hide it. Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless, and National Chairman of the Universal Living Wage Campaign, makes this suggestion:

How about we make a deal with business? They can can pay for the homeless workers and we as taxpayers just pay for the disabled homeless. Now that seems fair.

Reactions?

Source: “Walmart: Listen to your workers and your customers,” Change.org, 2012
Source: “Alan Grayson says more Walmart employees on Medicaid, food stamps than other companies,” PolitiFact, 12/06/12
Image by Patrick Hoesly.

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Some Things About Housing

Conestoga hutNews comes from Oregon that Erik de Buhr has designed a “Conestoga hut” that would provide shelter for people who don’t have any. That is, of course, if the city of Eugene decides to allot any piece of ground to contain them. The city council has been studying this issue for months, and apparently has not even progressed as far as checking to see how Conestoga huts fit in with the state’s building code.

Governments everywhere invoke the magic word “safety” when refusing to allow new housing solutions. They hold onto a quaint belief that it is more salubrious for people to sleep under bushes than in tents, shacks, shipping containers, or whatever. Any architecture student knows there are a hundred ways to create cheap shelters, using recycled materials and engineered to include at least some level of civilized existence. Inventing mini-shelters is not the problem. The problem is no place for them to be.

It seems a bit strange that effort is being put into building a better hut, at a time when there are empty buildings all over the landscape. Some groups are trying to make squatting acceptable, but that movement is losing traction even in Great Britain where it has long been an entrenched way of life.

Yes, it’s all very complicated, and the first question that occurs is, if anybody were to live in a foreclosed house, why not the people who were trying to buy it in the first place instead of some other homeless people? It’s all very complicated, but the bottom line is, thousands of people are homeless and thousands of buildings are empty. If America is as smart as it thinks it is, it needs to figure out a way to fix that.

In Austin, TX, the last elections included a $78 million housing bond which was defeated by a close 49-51% vote, despite the efforts of a very competent team. However, Prop. 17 passed, which will expand the available space in temporary shelters for women and children. Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless says:

We had realized that this was a responsible group of free thinkers who were likely to vote once informed, and vote they did.

The difference might lie in the way the women’s shelter issue was framed. In the public mind, it was associated with an actual person, Valerie Godoy, who was murdered while sleeping out in the open. The idea of permanent affordable housing might need the same kind of public relations. Maybe at this very moment there is an activist in Austin wondering what to do next. Maybe this is the project — to find a way of personalizing the need for housing, by concentrating on individuals. Humanize the story, one human at a time, for as long as it takes. For examples, see Invisible People, Underheard in New York, and numerous others.

Permanent housing — wouldn’t it create jobs? Couldn’t it even create a few jobs for people experiencing homelessness? Sure, there are a lot of homeless people who have some kind of paid work, but still can’t afford to live anyplace. And others are just plain unemployed. There is a reputable university in Austin. Couldn’t it think up a spectacularly innovative way to bring back a housing initiative that would do something good for the homeless, the housed, the business owners, the tourists — in short, everybody? And earn more renown for itself of course, for creating a win-win-win-win-win situation.

For many reasons, Austin has a unique opportunity to show every other American city how it ought to be done. In many ways, Austin has already charted the course. For example, Richard mentions this year’s Foundation Communities’ Annual Fund Raiser, which put a human face on the organization’s work, and not just one but many faces:

They showed videos of beautiful and affordable housing that Walter Moreau and his wonderful team have already brought to Austin. They brought out men, women and children whom they had helped. The individuals told their stories and told how getting their home had changed their lives.

Moreau’s accomplishments are further detailed on the Foundation Communities page, headed by its motto, “Creating housing where families succeed in Austin and North Texas.” When the organization won an award for Best Affordable Housing Intervention last year, this is the reason given by the “Best of Austin Critics”:

Foundation Communities creates housing for low-income folks through a holistic philosophy that includes literacy training, financial coaching, afterschool care, and counseling. This whole supportive web of services helps families stabilize, survive, and kiss the bad times goodbye.

Reactions?

Source: “Huts for homeless,” The Register-Guard, 12/08/12
Image of Conestoga Hut by The Register-Guard.

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