Last time, House the Homeless looked at some of the erratic ways in which people experiencing homelessness are counted during the annual attempt to define the extent of this social disaster. A question that might come to mind is, “Who says erratic is bad?” On the contrary, it’s good that communities have latitude to conduct the homeless census in whatever way is compatible with the bioregion, etc.
Who knows? Some municipality might come up with a better idea, one that could be adapted by others to the benefit of all. But ever since the federally mandated program started in 2005, there has been dissent, directed at either the whole concept in general, or some aspect of it.
In 2011, word came from Fremont, Ohio, that:
Despite recent data released by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development showing homelessness is on the decline in the region, one local shelter director said the problem is just as prevalent as ever.
The story quoted the executive director of Fremont’s Liberty Center, Margaret Weisz, who may have spoken for many of her colleagues when she said:
Those numbers are misleading. In reality, homelessness is actually up. We have seen about a 30 percent increase over the last two years.
In Illinois, Susan Frick Carlman listed some of the things wrong with how the DuPage County census was made:
[…] driven in part by programming cuts at local domestic violence shelters, the county saw a 24 percent increase in families turning up at emergency and interim shelter sites during the latest fiscal year.
Also absent from the formal homeless equation are people who resort to friends and relatives when they lose their own homes — a practice advocates call ‘couch surfing.’
In the fiscal year that ended June 30, there were 1,486 people who used emergency shelters and other interim housing. Last year the number was 1,512.
That’s a difference of what, 26 individuals? In a year? The 1,486 remaining homeless people, divided by 26 per year… Extrapolate it out — that’s 57 years to get the rest of them under a roof. Some people have an unusual definition of progress, for sure.
The journalist also mentioned that:
Among other things, the yearly report found that workers must earn more than twice the minimum hourly wage of $8.25 to afford the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the county.
More than twice the minimum hourly wage, did you catch that? Meaning, even if Mama and Papa are both working full-time, it’s not enough.
Ken Korczak is a freelance journalist who covers environmental, energy, poverty, and political issues. Last year, he pointed out that North Dakota had the supposedly best economy in the entire United States, with a “stunningly low” unemployment rate of 3%. Then he asked, if the economy is so vibrant and the unemployment number so tiny, why are the homeless shelters in Grand Forks and Fargo turning away hundreds of applicants every night?
As a possible answer, Korczak recommends a program led by Dr. Jill Stein, the Green Party’s 2012 Presidential nominee, and Cheri Honkala, The Green New Deal, whose literature states its goals as ending unemployment and debt in America. Their point of view is based on a belief that the system is rigged by the two dominant political parties, which might as well be one party, since they are both totally controlled by corporations. They also believe that corporations will not voluntarily pay appropriate wages, and are all too eager to reduce employees and export jobs.
The program could be financed, Stein says, by:
[…] shifting from an economy in which the majority — the majority — of our discretionary budget is spent on war and the occupation of other countries, to an economy that provides the secure, just, peaceful future we all deserve.
They believe this could be done by returning military spending to the level of a decade ago, and by “getting rid of an array of other corporate welfare schemes — such as billions in subsidies to oil and coal companies, banks and others,” says Korczak.
There is more to say about the methods of counting people experiencing homelessness. The counting is useful and necessary, if there is to be a fair appropriation of funds. But aside from sheer numbers, there are other questions it is very useful to ask.
House the Homeless recently released the conclusions of its 2013 Civil Rights Survey. As co-founder Richard R. Troxell says:
We strive to hear what people have to say about their situation and involve them in creating and pursing viable options.
These paragraphs contain some amazing stuff. People are turned down for housing. Reason given: because they are homeless. Without the proper 30-minute warning, they get ticketed for sitting or lying down in public. When they show up for a court date, the journey is wasted because they are told to return another day. (This runaround had happened to about half of the survey’s respondents!)
More than a third of them had been wrongfully deprived of belongings, by the police, and an even one-third had had their identity papers confiscated. It is very difficult for someone experiencing homelessness to obtain a useful ID. To have their ID cards, birth certificates, discharge papers, or whatever, taken away, could be the equivalent of a death sentence.
Source: “Liberty Center director: Recent numbers of homeless are misleading,” TheNews -Messenger.com, 03/14/11
Source: “DuPage homeless numbers defy pigeonholing,” The Naperville Sun, 02/22/11
Source: “Homeless numbers grow rapidly,” Examiner.com, 09/18/12
Source: “2013 HtH Civil Rights Survey Summary,” HouseTheHomeless.org, 02/27/13
Image by mikecogh (Michael Coghlan).
Back 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.
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.
What 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.’