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KFC Says, Get a Job — LOL!

Kentucky Fried ChickenLast June, this Question & Answer appeared in the online forum ExpertLaw.com:

Question:

Is it legal for an employer to deny employment to an individual who they consider otherwise qualified, if it is discovered that the individual currently lives in a homeless shelter?

Short answer: yes. Neither federal anti-discrimination laws nor most state anti-discrimination laws preclude disparate treatment/employment discrimination against individuals residing in a homeless shelter. (ESteele, Senior Member)

A few weeks ago, in Tupelo, MS, after months of job-hunting, Eunice Jasica found work and seemed to be on track for the next phase of life — saving up to move out of the Salvation Army lodge. But when she reported for her first day on the job, fast-food franchise owner Chesley Ruff withdrew the offer of employment “due to lack of residence and transportation.”

Say what? Then, a couple of days later, the manager backpedaled and said his refusal to honor the hire was really because Ms. Jasica had no experience in the difficult and demanding field of fast-food preparation. Plus, he doubted that the 59-year-old woman could lift the 40-pound boxes in which the food arrives. So never mind, no job after all.

Adding insult to injury, he implied that the job applicant had misunderstood and was delusional about having been hired in the first place. This shabby treatment is legal according to both the great state of Mississippi and the Kentucky Fried Chicken corporation. Reporter Emily Le Coz writes:

KFC operates more than 5,200 restaurants nationwide and follows all applicable employment laws, but its independent franchisees make their own hiring decisions, said KFC Corp. spokesman Rick Maynard.

Mississippi is an at-will employment state. That means the employer or employee can terminate the relationship at any time for any reason as long as it doesn’t violate anti-discrimination statutes based on factors like race, age, color, religion, sex, national origin or disability.

In Tupelo, Maj. Sue Dorman of the Salvation Army was shocked, possibly because this didn’t fit with Mr. Ruff’s customary behavior. He had previously hired a man who was not only homeless but a former convict, who had done very well in the business, and whose success story had been featured in a newspaper. The same manager had also hired other Salvation Army residents in the past. Dorman called Ruff, who told it is not company policy to hire people who don’t have stable housing or transportation, which made it sound more like a corporate-level matter.

And indeed, when The Huffington Post made inquiries, Ruff had nothing to say, but referred questions to the chicken vendor’s head of media relations, Rick Maynard, who emailed:

KFC Corporation believes in a culture of respect toward all people, and we abide by all applicable employment laws. The restaurant in Tupelo is operated by an independent franchisee who shares our beliefs, but is responsible for making hiring decisions for the restaurant he owns.

So this was starting to resemble what is colloquially called a runaround. Meanwhile, the Huffington Post story garnered well over 1,000 comments from all over the map, both geographically and philosophically. Typical is the response of “EarthMonkey07,” who wrote:

So now in order to even get a job, you can’t appear to need it in any way? You need to already be employed (since the statistics say they won’t hire you if you’re already unemployed), housed (since they won’t hire you without an address), with transportation (they won’t hire you if you don’t have a vehicle) AND have a bank account (because they won’t hire you if you can’t do direct deposit). This is getting crazy.

Exactly. And the craziness is not exclusive to the USA. A report from a prominent organization in Great Britain, St. Mungo’s, revealed that two out of three homeless job seekers had been rejected for employment because of their homeless condition. Half had found the lack of a mailing address to be an obstacle, and two out of three lacked the appropriate clothing, tools or equipment for the jobs they applied for. Universally, even those who are lucky (or adept at hiding their true circumstances) find that the low-paying jobs they land do not come near to providing enough for housing anyway.

The really imposing feature of the St. Mungo’s report was the contrast between 1986 figures, showing that 83% of the homeless people surveyed then had some kind of paid employment, and their 2005 numbers, which revealed only 5% of their homeless clients holding jobs.

Meanwhile, because of the publicity surrounding this debacle, Ms. Jasica received several other job offers and was “tentatively hired” by On Time Transportation to drive Medicare and Medicaid patients to their doctors’ appointments. While this promises a happy ending for her particular story, many other homeless people throughout the country are not so fortunate.

Not surprisingly, House the Homeless has been involved in this struggle for years. Its Homeless Employment Survey of 2007 inspired the state of California to conduct a similar survey in 2009. Here is House the Homeless co-founder Richard R. Troxell’s candid response to Eunice Jasica’s plight:

Very sad. I for one am outraged! So while the Puritan Work Ethic remains intact for someone who has lost all of their worldly possessions, the compassion, empathy and love for one’s fellow human being has dissipated like water on the sidewalk. Shame on that franchise and shame on KFC for allowing this act of inhumanity to occur in their name. It’s only a matter of time before people will no longer accept this kind of treatment. Then what? There are 3.5 million people experiencing homelessness again this year.

In the Sacramento survey, 70% of the respondents identified the reason for their homeless condition as economic, 87% wanted to work and felt they were able to, and 42% identified their homelessness as the most significant barrier to working. Lack of transportation, as always, plays a big part in the employment equation. One of the recommendations resulting from this survey was:

Expand mail, email and voicemail services: We recommend universal coverage of a mailing address, email and voicemail services for homeless people to dramatically increase their chances for employment.

This excellent idea is, of course, one of the things that objectors are currently complaining about. They are against any plans that are put forward to provide cell phones to the homeless, because why should street people get fancy technology for free? And so it goes…

Reactions?

Source: “Q & A,” ExpertLaw.com, 06/06/12
Source: “Woman fired for being homeless,” ClarionLedger,com, 03/21/13
Source: “Eunice Jasica Claims KFC Franchise Reneged Job Offer…,The Huffington Post, 03/28/13
Source: “Hard Work for Homeless People,” samhsa.gov, 2005
Source: “Homeless Employment Report: Findings and Recommendations,” National Coalition for the Homeless, August 2009
Image by Joe Schlabotnik.

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Cell, Sweet Cell — Part 2

9:43 AMBefore we get started, let’s just mention that Richard R. Troxell, co-founder of House the Homeless, has once again been quoted in the national media, this time CNN.

Last time, we finished up with a mention of a guy in New Jersey who wanted to go to jail so badly he publicly consumed alcohol in front of police officers. But rather than time in a penal institution, they just gave him a ticket. It’s a pathetic story and an illustrative one, but with not much damage done to society in general.

And then you get people whose desperation causes serious consequences to others. Last month, in York City, PA, a man who had only been able to afford one night in a motel set a fire just before check-out time. He surrendered to the authorities, as he had intended to do all along, because he had nowhere else to go, and jail looked pretty good right about then.

The fire turned out to be more than he had bargained for. (The possibility of a defective alarm system is under investigation.) An employee suffered burns, fortunately minor, and the fire did $750,000 worth of damage to the place. Plus, it made several more people homeless.

This isn’t only happening in the U.S. In September, word came from Ireland of a man who was mugged and severely beaten, and who then became an assailant himself, attacking paramedics who tried to come to his aid. Then, Oliver Cleary punched a police officer, and that got him arrested for sure, which turned out to be okay with him.

Deborah McAleese reported for the Belfast Telegraph:

District Judge Bagnall said she would consider suspending a prison term. But standing in the dock Cleary shook his head and the judge asked his lawyer: ‘Is a short custodial sentence more helpful in the longer term?’

After speaking to Cleary, the lawyer said: ‘Bizarrely, he would prefer a short custodial sentence because he has nowhere to go to.’

Ms Bagnall agreed to sentence Cleary to one month behind bars for disorderly behaviour.

And it isn’t only jail that people are trying to get into. Last May, in a small Kentucky town, a 27-year-old woman made a desperate bid for accommodation in a domestic violence shelter. Scott Sutton reported:

[Ashely] Basham claimed she was walking in the parking lot of a Murfreesboro Walmart last Saturday when her ex-girlfriend stabbed her multiple times with a knife. Police investigated and saw injuries to the woman’s stomach, shoulders and legs. The injuries were so severe that she had to get staples in her leg.

Further investigation revealed that it didn’t happen that way, and the wounds were self-inflicted. Basham was arrested for filing a false report, but there doesn’t seem to be any further news on whether she went to jail, the hospital, or the shelter.

Crazy as it seems, things are set up in such a way that imprisonment is the best answer some people are able to find to the overwhelming challenges of life. One such person is commemorated in a song called “Joe,” written by Mike Laureanno of Providence, RI. One verse goes like this:

Every now and then a day in jail is warm
Three hots and a cot
A misdemeanor works like a charm
The sergeant knows his name
Slips him some change

One last thought — a recent House the Homeless survey learned that:

[…] 47% of the survey respondents, have been given a ticket with a court date only to show up on that date and be told to return sometime in the future either because the accusing officer did not show up and/or because the ticket had not yet been processed in the system.

HTH has been told this is a regularly occurring event with multiple returns per ticket. Note that if at any time, the person experiencing homelessness fails to report on the assigned/reassigned date, the ticket ‘goes to warrant’ and the individual becomes subject to arrest and jail time. A class ‘C’ misdemeanor (e.g., no camping ticket) is a criminal offense and serves to be one a more barrier to housing, employment, and escaping homelessness.

So, the lesson here is, when living outside gets too miserable and jail seems like the better alternative, a person does not even need to be violent or larcenous. All they have to be is unable to keep up with a Kafka-esque runaround.

Reactions?

Source: “Police: Homeless man said he torched York City motel so he could go to jail,” YorkDispatch.com, 02/04/13
Source: “Homeless man begs to be jailed,” BelfastTelegraph,co.uk, 09/15/12
Source: “Police: Homeless woman stabs self for free room,” WLOX.com, 05/17/12
Source: “2013 HtH Civil Rights Survey Summary,” HouseTheHomeless.org, 02/27/13
Image by ibm4381 (John Benson).

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Cell, Sweet Cell — Part 1

homeless -- POWIn a neglected film called Fast-Walking, James Woods portrays a prison guard whose relationship with a prisoner called Wasco is complex. This Wasco guy delivers one of the finest soliloquies in cinema, a rant about how much he loves it inside those walls. The prison is his world, where he is the uncrowned king.

Fortunately, most people don’t feel that way, and besides, each prison can only have one king. In jail, there is little opportunity for career advancement, and a very good chance of being assaulted or catching tuberculosis.

For these reasons and many others, humans don’t really enjoy being inmates. Why, then, is there a trend of people intentionally trying to get locked up?

Last July, in Missouri, a 25-year-old woman bashed in the rear window of a police patrol car and did it some further damage, then went into the station to confess. She told them she was homeless and wanted to go to jail. The police obligingly arrested her and placed her on 24-hour hold. There doesn’t seem to be any news of what happened after that.

In the same month, in Florida, a 19-year-old man called the police to report a robbery, and a fleeing suspect, armed with a knife, whose description matched his own. When he was apprehended, the youth told the police he had just wanted to be arrested. Didn’t he realize he could have been shot on sight? Apparently, it’s possible for a person to be so desperate, such a detail doesn’t matter. Fortunately, he was only arrested, charged with making false statements to the police, and held with bail set at $1,000. Which, in this case, might as well be $1 million, because the person had no intention of paying, because he wanted to be in jail.

Also last summer, in Washington state, an 18-year-old broke into a house and subsequently told the authorities he had wanted to be arrested because he had nowhere to go. Two months later, however, he ran away from a work crew, but had no luck finding food or transportation, and was re-apprehended a couple of days later. The episode added substantially to his sentence, which may have been exactly what he was aiming for — but of course, with no more outdoor work details. How out-of-options does a person have to be for any of this to seem, even remotely, like a good idea?

In Santa Monica, CA, a 63-year-old man broke into a restaurant, was stopped for questioning nearby, and happily explained to the police what he had done and how. They charged him with burglary, and took him to jail, and a judge named $20,000 as his bail.

On the other coast, in Florida, a homeless man who relieves his condition with periodic spells in jail has perfected a technique. Apparently, he always contacts someone in the same condominium complex, and asks them to call the police. Stephanie Wang writes:

He’s done it about 30 times since 2009, jail records show, as often as twice a month and a couple of times with an added burglary charge. Sometimes, he racks up multiple counts of trespassing in one trip… Early Sunday — not four full days out of Pinellas County jail from his last arrest — Treasure Island police say Santiago remained faithful to his routine. He didn’t seem to be drunk, on drugs or crazy, an affidavit noted. Around 5:30 a.m., 58-year-old Santiago went back to jail.

In December, a person experiencing homelessness in New Jersey conspicuously flaunted an alcoholic drink in front of the police, in hopes of being taken to jail. The officers disappointed him by only throwing away the drink, and writing him a ticket.

(To be continued…)

Reactions?

Source: “Homeless woman shatters patrol car window, happy to be arrested,” ConnectTriStates.com, 07/16/12
Source: “Homeless man made false report to get arrested, police say,” Gainesville.com, 07/30/12
Source: “Homeless Man Changes Mind About Okanogan Jail,” The Wenatchee World, 08/30/12
Source: “Homeless Man, 63, Breaks Into Santa Monica Bistro Then Confesses To Police,” Santa Monica Mirror, 10/01/12
Source: “Police: Homeless man’s path to jail starts at Treasure Island condos,” Tampa Bay Times, 10/07/12
Image by GuerrillaGirls.

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Counting and Sentencing the Homeless

Someone's SpaceLast 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.

Reactions?

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).

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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.

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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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