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.
Everyone likes celebrity news, especially when it’s good, and House the Homeless has previously taken note of wonderful generosity from stars like Bruce Springsteen. We also mentioned Eminem’s patronage and mentorship of a homeless rapper called Yelawolf. The musician and activist known as Reverend Billy Wirtz supports the organization Picture the Homeless, whose motto is “Don’t talk about us, talk with us.”
Last May, it was announced that Lady Gaga would donate $1 million to homeless youth. Cyndi Lauper began the True Colors Fund in 2008, and the result is a shelter with 30 studio apartments specifically for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth who are experiencing homelessness. Some of them anyway, for as the singer is quoted as saying:
In New York City, a very disproportionate number (up to 40 percent) of homeless youth identify as L.G.B.T. Even more disturbing are reports that these young people often face discrimination and at times physical assault in some of the very places they have to for help. This is shocking and inexcusable!
Back in 2006, Jon Bon Jovi started up the JBJ Soul Foundation, which feeds people and puts families into houses, and does a whole bunch of other stuff in several cities. Now the foundation has teamed up with the Department of Veterans Affairs and other agencies to create Project REACH.
It stands for “Real-time Electronic Access for Caregivers and the Homeless,” and it’s a contest with a financial reward for whoever in the “developer community” can figure out how to make a national platform that can be accessed by the Internet and smartphones. The assignment is to supply complete and current information on shelters, housing services, crisis hotlines, legal assistance, VA services, health clinics, food kitchens, and any other resources, anywhere, anytime.
House the Homeless has often mentioned Austin in relation to its music scene, which has a long and impressive history, and the South by Southwest festival, and a whole lot more going for it. Among other things, the Austin Music Commission was supposedly represented on the Waller Creek Citizen Advisory Committee, but then whatever work that group did was apparently set aside to await the results of an international design competition. The ongoing project will greatly affect what is locally called the Red River music scene, and it will also have a huge impact on the area’s people experiencing homelessness.
Like many other cities, Austin has heard objections to the presence of homeless people downtown because of the trash problem, which in the public mind is inevitably associated with vagrants. But… If Austin is anything like other college towns, a big part of the trash on the streets is contributed by students with an overweening sense of entitlement and not much genuine connection to the city they temporarily inhabit.
Where there are bars and clubs, there is litter, vomit, and urine on the sidewalks and in the neighbors’ azalea bushes. What pulls customers to those clubs is the music. So the blame for urban squalor can’t be solely assigned to the homeless.
In many citizens’ minds, both show business and the homeless are responsible for urban crime. Live music = night life = booze = drunk-rolling = fights = prostitution = stolen cars = hard drugs = police sirens = litter = homeless people. In a downtown area, especially on weekends, they’re all mixed up together. And musicians write songs about the homeless, like “Only a Hobo,” “Tramp and the Young Girl,” and hundreds more. Often, musicians are the homeless, especially in old age — if they make it that far.
Sure, at a certain stage, with the world at your feet, being technically homelessness might be the best career move. If you plan to tour for 10 months, why pay rent for an apartment? The road can also make someone unwittingly callous. A 21-year-old guitarist who sleeps in a band’s tour bus might not understand how the rolling-stone life is not so much fun for a 45-year-old woman veteran with diabetes and PTSD. In many significant ways, musicians are just like everybody else — sometimes uninformed or thoughtless.
The music scene has always been an environment where thinking was a little more enlightened than in the general population. When musicians meet, age, race, creed, economic status, and all those other tiresome barriers are totally irrelevant. Sure, the music subculture has always had its problems, but discrimination generally hasn’t been one of them. That’s how much power the music universe holds, and one of the ways to use power responsibly is by looking after the interests of society’s least fortunate. An outstanding example of this is New Orleans, where in the wake of multiple disasters, the musicians took care of each other and a whole lot of civilians, too.
In Los Angeles, a band called Avenue 52 has a music video project called “Homeless,” whose profits will partly go to local helping organizations. In Berkeley, Ace Backwords, who is himself a homeless musician, organized and produced several compilations showcasing the work of numerous street musicians.
In Denver, David Adebonojo, performing at the 16th Street pedestrian mall, attracted the attention of musician/producer Tyler Ward, who got his career going. In one way, as the son of the Ivy League-educated parents (a doctor and a minister), Adebonojo doesn’t match the homeless stereotype. In another way, he does, with his history of being an auto mechanic, a Deadhead, and an ex-con. After writing a quantity of music in prison, he was released to the streets, where he spent enough years to have half a dozen guitars stolen.
Let’s hope for perfect weather in Springfield, Missouri, on May 12, for the second attempt at raising $10,000 for homeless causes with a concert called “Stomp the Blues Out of the Homeless.” The promoter, Jim Payne, whose day job has something to do with escrow and land titles, tried to launch this idea last year, but the weather was impossibly foul and he ended up losing all the money he had put up to get the thing going. Better luck this time!
Homeless Media Bonus Link
The late comedian Greg Giraldo — “Underwear Goes Inside the Pants” — featuring many of Venice Beach, California’s homeless residents.
Source: “Cyndi Lauper Opens Homeless LGBT Youth Center In NYC,” The New Civil Rights Movement, 08/25/11
Source: “VA Launches “Project REACH” Contest,” VA.gov, 03/19/12
Source: “Los Angeles Based Pop Rock Band Avenue 52 Raises Homeless Awareness,” SFGate.com, 04/12/11
Source: “Denver musician David Adebonojo (Dred Scott) strikes a chord,” DenverPost.com, 08/03/11
Source: “Fresh start desired for blues festival,” News-Leader.com, 05/05/12
Image by bartlec (Chris Bartle), used under its Creative Commons license.