Last week, House the Homeless looked at public libraries and the difficulties that arise when the library becomes the default day shelter for people experiencing homelessness in a community.
Well, where are the homeless supposed to exist all day? As we have mentioned before, “Everybody’s gotta be someplace.”
Libraries have been stepping up to meet the challenge. From various parts of the country, we hear of public libraries that teach homeless people how to use computers, or print up cards with information on whatever services are available throughout the city. Some libraries respond by sending out a bookmobile, or providing a story hour at the local shelter. Some even let shelter addresses be used to get library cards. They start book clubs, show movies, or devote space to a social-services information center. In San Francisco, the library put a full-time social worker on the staff.
On the other hand, some libraries have taken extreme steps to change their physical environment in such a way as to discourage lingering. In one place, where people had been sitting or sleeping on the deep windowsills, they put up spiky iron railings.
A community might think it very important to educate library personnel in how to educate the homeless in the proper uses of library restrooms. Of course, no one wants their child to go in there and find some unfortunate street person stripped down and taking a sponge bath. But people do need to wash. That might be something that cities could devote more attention to.
Ironically, in the District of Columbia, from which our nation is governed, the public library’s “offensive body odor” policy was declared unconstitutional. Any such rule has to be enforced across the board, not just against people who appear to be homeless. Otherwise, it’s “poverty profiling.”
A couple of years back, plans for the renovation of the Madison, WI, Central Library sounded welcoming. Judy Keen wrote:
Accommodating the homeless is a key part of a $29.5 million redevelopment… Architect Jeffrey Scherer, who devised the Madison renovation plan, says incorporating the needs of the homeless is a recent trend. In Madison, seating will be rearranged to suit varying preferences of homeless patrons and restrooms will be moved within staff sightlines.
It wasn’t really explained how moving the restrooms so the staff can watch more closely is really an accommodation to the homeless. Anyway, the library’s brand new FAQ page asks, “Will the homeless still hang out at the new library?” The answer includes these items:
1. The architectural design for the new library eliminates the current outside open space by the main entrance on the northeast corner of the library (at N. Fairchild and W. Mifflin) where many homeless are known to congregate. That entire corner will be reclaimed by the new library.
2. The library will provide inside space for a variety of social service agencies that will help the homeless find more permanent housing, treatment, and work, making them less likely to remain homeless.
3. The library will offer programming for the homeless, such as book clubs and movie matinees, and require codes of conduct to address issues such as hygiene and behavior to prevent their presence from distracting or intimidating other patrons.
The Public Library Association maintains that libraries have a moral duty to help everyone participate fully in our democratic society, even the homeless and poor. They offer a wonderful educational page covering the legal implications of library rules, along with the ethical obligations that go along with a free society.
Amy Mars explains that it’s acceptable to regulate behavior and appearance, when those factors interfere with the rights of other patrons, and their ability to use the library. But the rule must be against the behavior, not the person, and equal enforcement is the key. Mars writes:
This means that if sleeping is prohibited, it cannot be enforced only against the homeless; it must be enforced against all patrons, including children, teenagers, the elderly, prominent community members, and so on.
And this brings up another point. Disruptive behavior is not always caused by inebriated miscreants. People suffering from epilepsy, schizophrenia, autism, Tourette syndrome, and other medical conditions can cause disruption, and so can the library’s most generous private donor, if she happens to have a heart attack while at a board meeting. Library staff members need to be trained to, at the very least, tell the difference between a situation needing an ambulance call and one needing a police call.
Mars quotes attorney Mary Minow, who drew up the handy “FEND” “best practices” guidelines:
First Amendment: Libraries must protect the right of free speech.
Equal Enforcement: Policies must be applied consistently.
Notice: All policies should be clearly posted or distributed.
Due Process: A well-defined appeals process must be available to patrons who challenge library policies.
Source: “Libraries welcome homeless to ‘community living rooms,’” USA TODAY, 12/13/10
Source: “Library Service to the Homeless,” PublicLibrariesOnline.org
Image by Internet Meme.
When the Democratic convention took over Charlotte, NC, one of the preparations was the closing of the downtown public library for a week. The public library is one of the great American institutions. The library has also turned out, in many cities, to be a focal point for the conflict between homeless and housed citizens. In Madison, WI, the main library is such a popular hangout, people experiencing homelessness always know where to find their friends.
This summer, in Gloucester, MA, exasperated library employees told Nancy Gaines about the problems they experienced with homeless patrons — not all, but maybe 10%-15%. The staff faced an ever-changing stream of challenges, and two or three police visits a day, interspersed with the occasional ambulance. The city’s homeless shelter was, of course, only open at night. Several churches stepped up, on a rotating basis, to provide a space for people to exist during the daylight hours.
Bethlehem, PA, instituted new policies last year to strictly prohibit many activities, such as washing up in the restrooms and sleeping. In fact, it’s even against the rules to bring a sleeping bag inside. The situation had been dicey for some time, but reached critical mass when a van started dropping off a group of homeless people every day. The library maintains that its function is not to be an adult day care center, and it is correct in that. But everybody’s got to be somewhere.
Last winter, word came from Atlanta, GA, that not dozens, but hundreds of people experiencing homelessness were hanging out at the libraries every day. In Lubbock, TX, the architecture of the main library became a problem because people were using the partially protected space as a shelter, an urban cave dwelling.
The same thing happened in Fort Collins, CO. A new main public library was built in 1974, with overhanging sections all around, that were originally filled with substantial bushes. When the economy started to slide, people stored their belongings, and sometimes themselves, among the foliage. Eventually, all the big bushes were uprooted and much skimpier and lower plants were installed.
Seattle, WA, made news in 2009 when it became the first library system to hire an outreach worker. At one point, the library was spending over $300,000 a year on services and security relating to homelessness. Last month, when the Seattle’s public library system ran out of money and shut down for more than a week, journalist Matt Driscoll asked, “Where Do the Homeless Go When the Library Is Closed?” More people showed up at the Urban Rest Stop, a center with shower and laundry facilities, which was already operating at peak capacity.
Another agency, Compass Housing, which offers a number of amenities, also had increased traffic. Normally, Driscoll says:
While there are rules and security measures in place designed to keep the Central Library from becoming a full-on shelter, it’s commonplace for the homeless to seek refuge at computer terminals and amidst the stacks during foul weather – or even just to pass the time until real homeless shelters open in the evening.
At one point, the satirical publication The Onion ran an article stating:
In addition to the destitute citizens who have long sought shelter here, the ongoing recession has forced hundreds of newly homeless Americans to seek refuge among the library’s shelves.
The headline read, “Census Finds Enough Homeless People Living In Public Library To Warrant Congressional District.” When you can’t tell the difference between satire and reality, a society is in real trouble. On the other hand, what an opportunity this central gathering place offers, for engaging people and bringing them into the community, rather than pushing them farther into the margins. Where political activism is concerned, the popularity of the public library among people experiencing homelessness has a definite upside. It’s a great place to register voters, and put a dent in the disenfranchisement that is spreading through America like a plague. In fact, why not designate all libraries as polling places?
In Petaluma, CA, the situation improved in the spring when the town’s soup kitchen was relocated. E. A Barrera interviewed librarian Doug Cisney, who described problems like drunkenness and fighting which have now decreased. In all fairness, the librarian also said most of the homeless library users are well-behaved and considerate, even helping clean up the surrounding landscape. Cisney is quoted:
I can ban an individual from the library if it is determined that person is disturbing others. We have very clear policies that make soliciting, begging, dressing inappropriately — as in bare feet, bare chests, disturbing outfits — and excessive problems with body odor or decorum unacceptable. But you have to use that power with good judgment. A person’s excessive use of cologne or perfume can be as unpleasant as someone who has not showered in a week.
Source: “’Homeless’ visitors posing issues for library,” GloucesterTimes.com, 06/18/12
Source: “Homeless patrons prompt Bethlehem Area Public Library’s behavior policy,” LehighValleyLive.com
Source: “Where Do the Homeless Go When the Library Is Closed?,” SeattleWeekly.com, 08/31/12
Source: “Census Finds Enough Homeless People Living In Public Library To Warrant Congressional District,” The Onion, 12/22/10
Source: “Homeless no longer a problem at library,” Petaluma360.com, 04/06/12
Image by moyix (Brendan Dolan-Gavitt).
Many citizens and groups give enormous amounts of time and money, and even face the wrath of the law, to make sure that people experiencing homelessness have something to eat, and they deserve all the support they can get. Outside the realm of food, other goods and services are offered to street people by an array of organizations and maverick individuals.
In the Canadian city of Windsor, chiropractor Dean Tapak shows up once a week at the Windsor Essex Community Health Centre and treats low-income clients for free. He is affiliated with the Street Health, a program that provides showers, dental care, and other health-related services to about 4,000 people. Dr. Tapak personally helped more than 200 clients.
The California community of Los Gatos-Monte Sereno annually recognizes the police department’s Crisis Intervention Team, including an Officer of the Year. Last year, that honor went to Leo Coddington, a cop who takes the trouble to learn the names of the town’s homeless residents and figure out how to help them.
Coddington is particularly aware of the needs of homeless veterans, having graduated from West Point and spent 12 years in the army himself. After joining the police force, he took a 40-hour continuing education course in police interaction with vulnerable populations, and became part of the Santa Clara County Collaborative on Housing and Homeless Issues. Journalist Sheila Sanchez interestingly points out that Coddington is a “housing first” kind of guy, who believes the most effective way to help is to get people under a roof first, then address their mental disability, post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction, or alcoholism.
The same attitude of meeting people where they are, without expectations or judgment, is shared by another man who does similar work in Los Angeles and credits the philosophy of TV personality Oprah Winfrey as his inspiration. Unlike the police officer, Troy Eric Isaac is not bankrolled by taxpayers, but by a philanthropist who supplies the funds that Isaac uses to help the homeless.
Journalist Kevin Ferguson describes Isaac is “sort of freelance homeless advocate” who walks around the inner city looking for need and figuring out how to meet it. For one, the answer might be to sit with the person and sing a song. For another, it might be to make phone calls every day checking on the availability of a room with a long waiting list.
There are also philanthropists in the Canadian city of Vancouver where, in this case, the donors allocated $30 million of their fortune to the homeless, under conditions so particular that the local law had to be changed to accommodate them. Namely, if the city could figure out how to put an existing facility back into working order, the anonymous couple’s gift would be structured in such a way as to take care of the annual operating costs without the need for further government support.
The old Taylor Manor was originally built as a home for the elderly, but has not been used for that purpose for at least a decade. The renovation will take about two years and at least $14 million of public funds and corporate donations, and will eventually house 56 (no longer) street people with “complex mental issues.” Reporter Jeff Lee tells us that Vancouver’s homeless population almost doubled in a year, and quotes Prof. Kerry Jang of the University of British Columbia:
Many of our staff have been out there and we see the suffering every single day. And every day I feel hopeless because what can we do? We put [people] into hospital for a while and they are let back out on the street again with no hope. It is just a revolving door, a revolving door, a revolving door.
At St. Colette Church in Livonia, Michigan, a group has a dual-purpose ministry. Mainly, for people experiencing homelessness in Detroit, they crochet or knit sleeping mats to serve as insulation from the cold and damp of the ground. Secondarily, they make the mats from “plarn,” which is plastic yarn made from cut-up retail shopping bags. It takes as many as 700 bags to make each sleeping mat, so that’s a lot of recycling. About 40 parishioners have signed up, of whom about half turn up at any given weekly meeting. Reportedly, a Chicago church has actually published a DVD with full instructions on how to make these mats.
Throughout America, thousands of faith-based groups, from venerable giants like St. Vincent de Paul to the little mat-knitting club, work to help the homeless. Perhaps wanting some favorable press too, a number of Austinites founded their own group with the motto, “Toiletries and more, under the freeway — without the preaching,” and a homepage that misspells “sporadic.” Their website lists the specific items they distribute: toothbrushes and toothpaste, soap, shampoo, TP, hand sanitizer, disposable shavers, socks, gloves, granola, and bottled water.
Water is also distributed by ThirstAid of Maricopa County, Arizona, through a program that has been very successful in the past years. The heat there is brutal, and the water saves lives. Before the end of September, they reckon they will find the money for, and give out, 500,000 bottles of water. Half a million — man, that’s a lot of plastic bottles headed for the landfill, and it raises a question. Could this be done in a greener way? Couldn’t people, instead, be given canteens or camping-style water bottles, and provided with sources of clean drinking water from which to refill them? Just asking.
But, getting back to Austin, the exigency of events made the Emergency Whistle Defense Program one of the most important stories in the Texas capital. The ability to produce a loud distress call empowers a person experiencing homelessness alone in the night, or any time. The program is giving away whistles and teaching the signal — three blasts, and pause before repeating if necessary. The distribution of “thunder whistles” has been covered extensively by local television, including stories by radio stations NPR and KLBJ, News 8-YNN, KEYE-TV, and KVUE-News 24.
They all interviewed House the Homeless President Richard R. Troxell on the value of such noise as a deterrent to violence. Omar Lewis of KXAN-News 36 also interviewed Vincent Godoy, father of Valerie Godoy, murdered in Austin in June. FOX 7 TV‘s Derrick Mitcham said:
According to the Austin Police Department, violent crimes against the homeless population make up 38 percent of all violent crimes downtown.
Nope, it is not too late to sign the new women’s shelter petition!
Source: “Homeless helped by chiropractor,” The Windsor Star, 02/25/12
Source: “Town Cop Recognized for Work With Homeless,” Los Gatos, CA Patch, 03/29/11
Source: “Helping the homeless any way he can,” SCPR.org, 01/13/12
Source: “Anonymous wealthy couple’s $30-million gift to help homeless in Vancouver,” The Vancouver Sun, 06/29/12
Source: “Parishioners make sleeping mats for homeless from plastic bags,” Hometownlife.com, 08/05/12
Source: “Atheists Helping the Homeless,” AtheistsHelpingtheHomeless.org
Source: “ThirstAid: Human Services Campus Water Drive,” Cassaz.org, 06/11/12
Source: “Sounding alarm on violence on homeless,” KXAN.com, 08/06/12
Source: “Advocacy group to help homeless blow whistle on crime,” MyFoxAustin.com, 08/06/12
Image by quinet (Thomas Quine), used under its Creative Commons license.
Austin, you beautiful, friendly, innovative, progressive, creative, marvelous metropolis, what is happening to you? Last year, House the Homeless asked the city to ease up on the “No Sit/No Lie” ordinance. The slogan was, “Don’t give Austin a black eye,” and a bunch of protesters showed up at the City Council meeting with symbolically bruised (by makeup) eye sockets.
To give a person, institution, or city a black eye means, traditionally, that something harms their character and reputation. Libel and slander are about false accusations. When we speak of somebody having a black eye, the connotation is of an accurate charge. Check out this definition:
What does ‘black eye’ mean? A mark of shame, a humiliating setback, as in
That there are enough homeless folks to need another shelter is a black eye for the administration.
We are not making this up. That example is given by Christine Ammer in the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms.
If refusing to allow people to sit down can give a city a black eye, what can a string of murders do? Since November, there have been at least six deaths of people experiencing homelessness that could be called suspicious. In July, there was a definite killing, this time of a man, but possibly linked to the death of Valerie Godoy in June. In the latest atrocity, the victim appears to have been fatally attacked as he slept. Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless comments:
It’s not safe out here for these people. They are vulnerable. We only have 700 beds for 4,000 homeless people in Austin. There are no-sit ordinances. Nobody can get any rest without getting a ticket.
Richard told The Statesman:
We just hope no one is preying on the homeless. They are already totally without almost everything but hope.
Kathy Ridings, Director of Social Services for Austin’s Salvation Army, says:
It’s a concern for everybody that our community be able to respond appropriately to the growing need of homeless women for shelter and housing resources. We don’t want anybody to be sleeping outside, but for some folks its a life-threatening issue.
A coalition of service providers is collaborating in an effort to increase the number of shelter beds for homeless women, and Ridings is co-chair of a subcommittee addressing the need for more resources. The other co-chair is Irit Umani, Executive Director of Trinity Center, which also serves the spiritual, emotional, and physical needs of people experiencing homelessness and poverty in Austin. Also involved are CAN and ECHO. The former is the Community Action Network, a partnership of government, nonprofit, private, and faith-based organizations that work together to enhance the social, health, educational, and economic well-being of Central Texas. ECHO is the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, a planning body whose literature says:
Working with 90 community members monthly from local non-profits, businesses and government, ECHO develops, prioritizes, and promotes strategies to prevent end homelessness.
On its homepage, the nonprofit group keeps a running total of how many people are helped. For instance, 1,095 Travis County children received some kind of service in the past week, and the number of shelter stays for women is 618, which presumably would be divided by seven nights to arrive at the actual number of homeless women who slept safely. For agencies that help, the situation is complicated by the fact that homeless women comprise two distinct populations: solo, and with children. Mothers with families need a lot of resources.
And safety is a crucial issue. Take a look at a city that is similar to Austin in many ways — Portland, Oregon. In the late 1980s, Portland developed a 12-point action plan and resolved that no one requesting shelter should be denied it. In 1988, an official report stated:
The emergency shelter system has capacity to handle those who need it. Anyone who wants emergency housing can now get it. No one is forced to sleep in the streets.
That was a shining moment in one city’s history, but good intentions could not keep up with reality. As of December 2011, Suzanne Stevens reported that the number of homeless families in Portland had increased by 29% since the previous year, requests for emergency shelter had increased by 15%, and 25% (or one-quarter) of those requesting shelter were turned away due to the lack of beds. Sheltered or not, here’s the point. Just a few days ago, Sarah Mirk of the Portland Mercury reported that:
[...] nearly 40 percent of homeless people in Portland report being the victim of an assault.
Austin and the future of women experiencing homelessness
In Austin, also just a few days ago, Andrea Ball wrote for The Statesman that violence is “a routine part of life on the streets.” What is being done? In the short term, the intention is to follow the model of cold weather shelters — in other words, to treat the current crisis as a life-threatening emergency, which it is. Efforts are being made to determine if more shelter capacity can somehow be wrung out of the existing system. The Salvation Army, Ridings says, is over capacity already, with people sleeping on mats on the floor.
One proposal is for a network of churches to provide a safe sleeping option. The aim is to have a trial program in place by the first of September, with the entry point being Trinity Episcopal Center. Vans will be needed to take participants to church shelters on a rotating basis, and much else will be needed as well.
As part of the short-term effort toward preservation of life, the House the Homeless Emergency Whistle Defense Program is distributing 1,000 tornado whistles with lanyards. The distress signal is to tweet three times, pause, tweet three more times, until, hopefully, the threat is scared away or help arrives. Hundreds of whistles have been distributed by Austin’s Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH), Caritas, and Trinity Episcopal Center. Alan Graham, president of Mobile Loaves and Fishes, offered on behalf of the organization to further carry out the distribution process. Here is what this amazing group does:
Going out onto city streets every night with our catering trucks, MLF serves food, basic clothing, hygiene products, etc. to our brothers and sisters living on or near the streets. We are proud to say that our trucks provide food and clothing and promote dignity to our homeless brothers and sisters in need 365 days a year.
Part of the intermediate plan might involve relocating women with children to the Salvation Army’s other shelter, which would open up 26 beds for single women at the downtown location. In the long term, a women’s emergency shelter is definitely needed, along with long-term supportive housing. At the invitation of chairman Tom Davis, a resolution on the subject is being presented to Austin’s Human Rights Commission. The activists are consulting with city council members and the office of the mayor, exploring the possibility of being allocated a portion of the affordable housing bond if it passes in November.
Here is the call to action: the petition for a women’s shelter already has, online and on paper, more than 3,500 signatures and it can always use more. Here is another call to action: listen for three tweets, pause, three tweets, which means somebody is in trouble, and go help. The Austin police have been consulted and seem willing to help in responding.
Incidentally, this is worth repeating about the Valerie Godoy murder: “A website for BMX enthusiasts mentioned the crime, and a very large number of respondents left comments ranging from cavalier and flippant to seriously, disturbingly ugly.” Is there a responsible adult out there who can reach these extreme biker kids and win them to the side of the angels? Maybe if Valerie Godoy had been armed with a distress whistle, the BMX park kids could have been heroes. What about you?
Source: “What does ‘black eye’ mean?,” YourDictionary.com
Source: “Police seek help in solving deaths of homeless people,” Statesman, 07/26/12
Source: “1988 Edition Preface: Progress Toward Breaking the Cycle of Homelessness,” PortlandOnline.com, 1988
Source: “No. of homeless Portland families up 29%,” Portland Business Journal, 12/15/11
Source: “Ugh. Two Arrested for Assaults of Homeless People,” Portland Mercury, 08/02/12
Source: “As slayings raise concerns, homeless Austinites agree violence is common,” Statesman.com, 08/04/12
So many people are experiencing homelessness, it has become expedient and necessary to divide them into subsets. The fastest-growing category of homeless people is now women, and that includes women with children.
For practical purposes, those are two populations with very different needs, so already a barrier against easy solutions is thrown up. When it’s mother plus children, a facility needs safety plugs in the wall sockets, and a secure outdoor play area, and other amenities that single adult women do not require.
Intuitively, it would seem that adult women on their own would be easier to house. But there are other considerations. The single grownup female might fall into one or more of the other subsets: chronically ill, chronically homeless, mentally disabled, or alcoholic, to name just a few. So much care is needed.
Los Angeles made a small (relative to the need) but meaningful step with the creation of the Downtown Women’s Center, whose beginnings are described by Daniel B. Wood:
Founding director Jill Halverson became friends with a mentally ill, destitute woman and realized that in 1978, L.A.’s skid row was a man’s world and women had no place to turn. She rented a storefront and opened the city’s first day center for women, later spending her life savings on a building to permanently house 47.
A day center offers basic services like showers, clothes washers and dryers, phones, a mailing address, job counseling, and help with health problems. This particular women’s center teaches computer literacy. The DWC even offers groups where women can express themselves through art, prose, and poetry, activities which often lead to emotional catharsis, self-awareness, and psychological empowerment.
With the help of a $13 million contribution from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, a former shoe company building was renovated into “71 brand-new fully furnished residences, artfully appointed, with high ceilings and windows, kitchenettes, and art-adorned bathrooms.” Their aim is to help 80 chronically homeless women at a time to make the transition into permanent supportive housing. The residents, who receive Social Security or disability payments, are charged one-third of their income.
Many people are surprised to find that such institutions are extremely cost-effective. Wood says:
Nationally, the average daily cost of permanent homeless housing is $30 a day per person, compared with $1,400 a day in a hospital, $65 in a mental institution, and $129 in a state prison.
Some homeless women are spooked by the very idea of seeking an institutional bed, especially in a mixed shelter. The idea of spending the night where so many men are gathered together is frightening. You hear stories you just don’t want to believe — a church shelter where the pastor in charge raped homeless women, and one in Georgia that made news last year by turning away women they believed were gay. But the streets are treacherous, and so are the camps. It’s easy for a homeless woman to find herself in yet another subset, namely, crime victim.
We can serve about 20 percent of the people who contact us.
That 20% means, in other words, that four out of five don’t get help. The Salvation Army has a waiting list, and other local facilities are always full. The shortage of beds, causing women to routinely be turned away, is confirmed by Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless, who adds that after several rejections, some homeless women give up on trying to apply for a safe place to sleep. He is quoted in Ball’s article:
We’re constantly hearing from women who are being beaten or raped. No woman should be subjected to this. We need to get them off the streets now. There should be immediate emergency shelter upon request.
More than 2,700 people have signed the petition, on paper and online, demanding an emergency shelter for women in Austin. Please visit the page and become one of them.
Why should a shelter be named after Valerie Godoy? Because she was a regular person who has probably made some ill-considered decisions and bad choices along the way — as 99% of women do, every now and then. She got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, by a very wrong person or persons. The same could be said of Princess Diana. Even though neither of them can be called typical, still by some alchemical process, both the royal celebrity and the street dweller represent Everywoman in this way.
To be female is to be vulnerable. To be a very young or a very old female is even more risky. Both fame and obscurity can expose a woman to the danger of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And so can being a normal, average American.
Source: “Homelessness Besets More Women. How to Respond?,” CSMonitor.com, 12/20/10
Source: “More shelter space for homeless women needed, local advocates say,” Statesman.com, 07/13/12
Image by Quinet (Thomas Quine), used under its Creative Commons license.