Emma Whitford related the harrowing story of a rainy night in East Harlem where several homeless people huddled beneath a protruding section of a building. City Parks Dept. workers showed up, along with some police officers.
According to participants, the people were not even given a chance to go out into the rain before the authorities began to load their belongings into a sanitation truck. In some cases, the police and/or city workers even shoved people to the ground and seized things that they held. The writer described the treatment of Anthony Rainey, a former Marine homeless since 1971:
Rainey says that most of his possessions were taken that morning as well—everything but an electronic benefit transfer card and credit card that happened to be in his pocket. Rainey lost his Veterans ID card, which he uses to ride public transportation free of charge and purchase clothing wholesale, plus family photographs, his birth certificate, hospital records, sweatshirts and jackets, and the CDs and chargers that he sells on the street.
Whitford also quoted Floyd Parks:
I grabbed my cart and was trying to get my stuff out, and the [officer]… just took my stuff and threw it in the [truck], and just crushed it up. And I said, ‘Yo, I got personal property.’ They said, ‘Too bad.’
Apparently, the same kind of gratuitous, random confiscation happens on a regular basis all over America. Of course, no one wants piles of junk everywhere. But reasonable measures can be taken to keep a city looking neat, without seizing people’s documents, or the things they are holding. In that New York incident, there was not even pretense of storing possessions to be picked up later. It went straight to the trash compacter.
Somewhere in Middle America
For a while, some of the people experiencing homelessness in Madison WI had been storing belongings in a supervised area at the Social Justice Center, but more space was needed downtown. The front steps of the City-County building took up some of the slack, an untenable situation that was never meant to last.
Last spring, city workers put up two enclosures across the street from there, out back of the Municipal Building, which took up part of the parking lot and probably annoyed some citizens for that reason alone. The doorless “chain-link boxes” were not equipped with shelves or dividers of any kind, so things were just bundled in there any which way. There were tarps across the top, but the sides were wide open to the weather. There was no supervision or security, so items were stolen and their owners were upset.
The authorities contended that advocates for the homeless had promised to look after the storage area. They charged that people were using the space for illegal and immoral activities, and closed the minimalistic wire shed at the end of July. Dean Mosiman wrote,
Belongings were to be removed from the facility by 2 p.m. Wednesday, with the city considering anything remaining as lost property and collected and bagged by city staff and stored off site for up to 45 days. Items that are worth less than $50, hazardous, perishable or with no sentimental, medical or legal value could be disposed immediately.
That sounds pretty reasonable, but veterans of America’s streets have learned that items do not always arrive at destinations named by city workers. Several other issues arose, and it was pointed out that a firm agreement should have been made, and thoroughly understood by both sides, before the project was undertaken.
A great public relations opportunity was lost in Madison, and a lot of potential good will was squandered, that might otherwise have accrued to both sides. Imagine what might have happened if a capable organizer with a few devoted colleagues had been in the right place at the right time. It could have been a model project, illustrating how responsible people can be, even when they are not housed, and proving that they deserve to have fair treatment and jobs and places to sleep and all that good stuff. Just like, you know, regular people.
Richard R. Troxell, co-founder of House the Homeless, suggests that “The best way to avoid the criminalization of people experiencing homelessness, and these kinds of abuses, is simply to house them.” On the way to that goal, the Wisconsin State Journal‘s Chris Rickert asks,
It’s hard not to wonder: If city officials can’t work with the homeless and their advocates on something so seemingly simple, how are they going to work together on more pressing needs — such as more shelter space, housing and mental health and substance abuse treatment?
Source: “Video: NYPD Destroyed Birth Certificates, Medication, IDs In East Harlem Homeless Raid,” Gothamist.com. 10/13/15
Source: “Madison closes storage area for homeless belongings,” madison.com, 07/22/15
Source: “Chris Rickert: No hindsight needed to identify problems with homeless’ storage space,
Image by bopswave
The Weingart Center is a venerable Skid Row institution that offers shelter, job training and counseling. Los Angeles Times writer Sandy Banks interviewed Maxene Johnston, who was in charge of it for 10 years, and learned this:
Her time in the trenches taught her that most people with nowhere to live fell into one of three groups: the derailed, the disabled or the dysfunctional. The derailed are ordinary people hobbled by bad luck…The disabled have mental or physical issues that make it hard to live on their own…The dysfunctional are chronic street dwellers, with limitations that can’t be addressed with short-term help… There are as many back stories as there are broken and desperate people.
The point Johnston makes is that all the people in these subdivisions are still part of the public, the citizenry whose safety and wellbeing the civic authorities are charged with protecting. The derailed, of course, are the easiest to help, and also the easiest to become one of. Life is so precarious that just about everyone is at some degree of risk for becoming homeless. Today we look at a few random ways in which this can happen.
A Davenport, Iowa, mother of five was shown a rental house by “the most wonderful man I ever met in my life” and gave him a $1,300 deposit—all the money she had. Then he disappeared, and even a local news station was unable to help her trace the thief.
An article by Senior Advocate Liza Horvath outlines some of the many ways in which the elderly can be scammed out of their homes and savings, and prefaces the list with strong words:
A rapacious, marauding predator is taking hold in America and it is growing stronger, smarter, meaner and more aggressive each passing minute… If left unchecked it will take everything they have earned and saved throughout a lifetime and dump them—homeless and destitute into the mean streets.
A Rhode Island couple bought a house, sold their old house, and wound up out in the cold. At the last minute, their Realtor told the would-be buyers that “because [a law firm] had failed to provide proper notification of foreclosure, we’d be unable to obtain title insurance.” The firm’s branches in a nearby state had already been under investigation because their practices looked very much like those of a “foreclosure mill,” a well-known variety of illegal enterprise. Yet the error in this case could so plausibly have been an honest (and still unconscionable) mistake, it gave the Attorney General’s subsequent inquiry very little to work with. And the couple, of course, could not get their old house back.
In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the Andrews family learned the hard way that when the city condemns a building, the tenants have to leave immediately. It wasn’t Robin Andrews’s fault that the balcony of a 4th-floor apartment collapsed, or that everyone in the building had to get out right away. His employer paid for the initial week in a motel room for the couple and their three children. Andrews expected to get his $900 security deposit back from the old landlord, but instead was cheated out of it. The result? No resources and nowhere to go.
Everyone has a story, and listening to too many of them at once can have an impact on the hearer. But now, the theme takes a turn. As we have seen, in Florida many volunteer teams of military veterans search the urban areas and the wilderness for their lost brothers. Last year a survey was taken—and bear in mind, this was just one county, Hillsborough, which includes the city of Tampa.
Of the 236 veterans counted…109 said they didn’t know exactly why they were homeless.
Source: “Garcetti, City Council throw homeless problem to the police,” LATimes.com, 07/03/15
Source: “Davenport mom and kids homeless after internet scam,” WQAD.com, 10/14/13
Source: “Scammers can leave seniors homeless,” MonteryHerald.com, 10/31/14
Source: “I-Team: Law firm mistake leaves couple without home,” turnto10.com, 10/28/13
Source: “Family left homeless after balcony collapse,” 620wtmj, 10/10/13
Source: “Number of homeless veterans in the area spikes,” Tbo.com, 05/11/14
Image by Pedro Ribeiro Simões
“Como Se Dice ‘Not It’?” is a prime example of why the public radio series This American Life is famous. A chance meeting with a street person led Chicago newspaper editor Adriana Cardona to uncover an astonishing story that leaves numerous questions to be considered before rendering judgment. Cardona’s approach to the story is beautifully even-handed, and we hope that our summation of the basic points will inspire the reader to go for the full experience and listen to the episode.
Through her casual conversation with a homeless man, the editor learned that heroin addicts are regularly shipped from Puerto Rico to Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and cities in New Jersey, Florida, South Carolina, and Wisconsin. In each destination they are taken to places that on-air host Ira Glass describes as “flop houses open 24 hours a day with group therapy going till late at night, sometimes 10 or 13 hours straight.”
Cardona found 14 branches of this rehab outfit in Chicago alone, and became most familiar with a branch called Segunda Vida (Second Life). Other facilities have such names as El Grito Desesperado (The Desperate Scream) and El Ultimo Paso (The Last Step). They all operate under the auspices of the Puerto Rican organization De Vuelta a la Vida (Return to Life). In the United States, the organization flies under the banner of Alcoholics Anonymous, but AA disowns them, and indeed their methods are unorthodox. Glass says:
The therapy was really just basically like AA meetings led by former addicts who did very un-AA things like yell at them and berate them. When the guys would go through detox, because there was no medicine or methadone or professional staff, they were sometimes given folk remedies, like an onion to bite on, or alcohol would be poured in their belly buttons.
When Cardona showed up at Segunda Vida, she encountered tough men, allergic to microphones and cameras, who claimed there was nobody in charge and therefore nobody she could speak with. The gatekeepers handled all requests from anyone, about anything, with a recommendation to “come back in a few days.” Her persistence finally won a meeting with one of the group’s founders. Efren Moreno confirmed every negative thing that Cardona had heard about the organization, but he did not seem exploitative or evil. Her impression was of…
… someone who wanted to be part of the solution, that he wanted to bring services to those who were not able to get rehab services out there… But at the same time—and he even said—each group has its own rules. And because there is no oversight, it’s really hard to know what are those other groups doing.
In a Chicago facility, an addict gets free room and board for three months, and then is charged $50 to $75 a week, which still includes meals. At some branches, residents are encouraged to sign up for food stamps and contribute their allotments to the kitchen that feeds everybody. This bit of mandatory socialism, while probably not legal, is far from outrageous. Moreno would prefer to get by with no government assistance at all. A recovering addict himself, he claims to really help junkies kick their habits, and says anyone who quits the program is a weak individual who didn’t really want to get better. Apparently that is a large category, because one of Cardona’s co-researchers found, in Chicago alone, 93 men who had quit the program.
Addicts Off the Grid
When Cardona visited Puerto Rico, she was met with astonishment that anyone should question or doubt this successful narcotics rehabilitation program. De Vuelta a la Vida is no secret to municipal authorities or to Puerto Rico’s governor. Glass says:
It’s run by the state police. They help drug addicts get food, clothing, hygiene, and other services on the island. But also, they arrange for lots of them to fly off the island to these unlicensed programs in the United States.
Of course, none of the Puerto Rican bureaucrats knew that the rehab centers are unlicensed. In every place where De Vuelta a la Vida has established outposts, they seem to operate totally under the radar. According to any city records or public health department or professional registration bureau or licensing agency, officially they don’t exist.
What Does De Vuelta a la Vida Have to Do With Homelessness?
Puerto Rican addicts are recruited dishonestly, lured by a fantasy of gleaming premises, plenty of doctors and nurses, and even a swimming pool. In return for a one-way ticket to a mythical luxury rehab center, they sign a waiver that absolves the Puerto Rican government of any further responsibility for them. If they ever want to return, they have to figure it out for themselves. When the men arrive stateside, they lose what little benefits were available in their homeland, including HIV meds and methadone.
Even a successfully cleaned-up Puerto Rican immigrant is unlikely to find work, and will probably end up on the street or, at best, in a shelter. For those who quit the program, life is grim. Unable to speak the language, and still in need of opiates every day, they have to survive brutal winters in a place very unlike the tropical island of their birth.
For these penniless men, going home is an impossible dream. Family members have suffered already from abuse of their trust, and will ignore any plea for help, even with a fancy story about being stranded in America. Also, Segunda Vida and the other centers tend to hang onto identity documents, as Cardona learned by trying to help a newly-arrived HIV-positive addict who had quit the program almost immediately and lived, like so many others, in Chicago’s streets.
Source: “Not It!,” ThisAmericanLife.org, 04/10/15
Image by BluEyedA73
Critics enjoy suggesting that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program offer courses teaching people how to prepare healthful food from scratch, and maybe they wouldn’t buy so much junky processed stuff. Courses are available here and there, not necessarily under the auspices of SNAP. However, such courses are nothing like a comprehensive answer to junk food issues, because even if food is available, cooking can present a real challenge for people with no kitchens.
Certain things can only be done by those who are housed, however marginally. Even a family living in a single motel room is at a tremendous advantage if there is a refrigerator. Sure, a large tub of yogurt is more economical to buy, and can last all week, but there has to be somewhere to keep it. Certainly, a 10-pound bag of rice or a 50-pound sack of dried beans can save a bunch of money—but you need a cupboard to store it in, and clean water, and a range or even just a hotplate for cooking.
Say you find a sweet deal on ten pounds of chicken thighs. With kitchen appliances, you can cook the meat, separate it into units for separate meals, and refrigerate or even freeze them. Then you can use the stock to make soup. If you can’t eat all the soup, you can stick it in the refrigerator, too, and have it tomorrow. Even with only a sink, a bag of ice can preserve coolness short-term or on special occasions. Millions of Americans take for granted the simple ability to keep food on hand. They don’t know what it’s like to have to eat what is in front of you, right now, or lose it. This reminder comes from a Reddit.com respondent:
Uh, believe it or not, many low income families have no way to actually store perishable food or cook it. When I was homeless, it was boxed, jar, or canned food all of the time. I gained 50 lbs and felt like I was starving most of that time.
We found descriptions of culinary coping written by individuals, like vehicle-dweller William Bonnie of Seattle, who invested about $150 in a decent-quality camp stove and mess kit. Camp stove fuel, of course, is an ever-recurring expense. Bonnie was cautious enough to not park or sleep or start a cooking fire within the municipal borders. Of course gasoline costs money, so that meant a lot of driving back and forth to the woods—“an expensive commute every day.” Imagine having to drive to the kitchen every time you wanted to cook something. Bonnie says:
The food stamps were helpful….but severely hindered by the realities of my situation…With little exception, you can only buy stuff that needs to be prepared at home… If you’re homeless, that means it’s kind of like one of those cruelly ironic wishes granted by a genie.
In a piece called “How to be ‘Stealth’ Homeless,” Ted Heistman related the ease with which an Electronic Benefits Tranfer (EBT) card could be obtained, but that was back in 2012 and things seem to have changed since then. Of course a lot depends on the particular city where a person is experiencing homelessness, and its current political climate. At that time, Heistman wrote:
Most towns have enough free meals for a person to get fat on. If you wanted to, you could eat six times a day if you timed it right, plus load up every few days at a food bank, plus buy food with your EBT.
Jon Mixon, who works with homeless veterans, wrote for Quora about other possibilities. A street person whose relationship with authorities and institutions is problematic may not even have the borrowed address of a shelter to use when applying. On the streets, people with easily stealable EBT cards are subject to predation.
As to what can be purchased, the rules have relaxed in some cities, with some vendors. In the past, you could buy a couple of potatoes and half a pound of ground beef and figure out how to turn them into an edible meal. Now, you can buy a burger and some fries. While fast-food menus might not provide optimal nutrition, at least people can get food that is cooked and hot. For those who do have cooking facilities, a provision in the 2014 Farm Bill allocated funds so SNAP recipients who go to participating farmers’ markets can swipe their EBT cards and get tokens worth twice as much.
Always, too, a great deal depends on luck. Only the young and healthy can thrive by eating whatever comes along. Older and disabled homeless people have other things going on—like teeth that are in no shape to chew that crunchy fresh produce; or meds that need to be taken at certain times, with food; or allergies that severely limit what they may eat. It’s never as easy as it looks.
Source: “SNAP Challenge raises awareness for hunger, can you eat for $4.50 per day?,” Reddit.com, 2014
Source: “7 Things No One Tells You About Being Homeless,” Cracked.com, 11/12/13
Source: “How to be “Stealth” Homeless.” Disinfo.com, 10/25/12
Source: “Why don’t homeless people use food stamps?.” Quora.com, 04/08/13
Image by U.S. Department of Agriculture
America is full of empty houses, a circumstance that House the Homeless
has been exploring to figure out why people can’t live in them. A Cleveland, Ohio, man took that question from theory to reality when he began to practice urban homesteading six years ago. Mr. Hayes is, by all reports, a model neighbor who maintains the small abandoned house in which he lives as well as possible, considering that he is not allowed either water or power.
He gets around these strictures by paying a neighbor to use some electricity via an extension cord, and collects rainwater to filter for drinking and to fill the toilet tank. A disability check covers his modest living expenses and those of his two dogs. The building’s owner is not even a real person, but a corporate entity of whom reporter Mark Naymik says:
The company, whose leaders are nearly impossible to track down, owes tens of thousands in back taxes and penalties on its properties. The company owes $27,000 alone on the house Mr. Hayes is living in.
But Mr. Hayes pays property taxes, and keeps the place neat, and helps an elderly neighbor. He asked a city council member:
Would you, please, introduce an amendment to the ordinance so that qualified people may put to good use properties that are verifiably abandoned?
Why is there not such a law in every city across the country? Curious journalist Matt Lemas took the question a step farther and explored the notion of letting people live in the 77,000 empty buildings owned by the U.S. Government. In contrast to Mr. Hayes’s minimalist dwelling, many of these places even have electrical service. That’s right—regulations keep the power on to satisfy “safety requirements” for the structures, while actual humans live unsafely outside in the dark and cold. In fact, the upkeep for empty government-owned buildings costs taxpayers $1.7 billion per year.
The Philadelphia Stabilization Program
House the Homeless is not Richard R. Troxell’s first project. He has been involved in many other programs and initiatives to improve the lives of people experiencing homelessness. In the 1980s he lived in a Philadelphia neighborhood where a 55-block area held 110 abandoned houses, the overwhelming majority of which were built from stone or brick.
The first step of his group’s master plan was to prevent further deterioration by securing doors and windows with plywood to keep the weather out. They negotiated a deal with the union to have the roofs repaired, and put sturdy Lexan in the windows. Crews gutted the interiors, businesses donated paint, and kids recruited from the anti-graffiti program painted the exterior trim. The result would be a sturdy structure with the soft parts stripped down and prepped. Richard recalls:
A local bank agreed to offer a mortgage with rehab and wrap-around loans so the buyers could purchase the shells and have money to rehabilitate them.
His group kept the lawns mowed and transformed vacant lots into community gardens. They opened talks with city authorities and HUD, looking for support from the Community Development Block Grant program so potential homeowners with the fixer-upper mindset could afford mortgages and rehabilitation loans.
Progress was moving along nicely when the drug epidemic hit. The Philadelphia neighborhood, like many others all across the country, became a war zone, and the group realized that it had to move quickly to stabilize the neighborhood as it was rapidly being turned into fortified crack houses. Charged with the impossible responsibility to fully, completely, and permanently pacify the neighborhood, the rehabilitation group found that financial government support was about to be pulled. A further response by the fast-thinking neighbors enabled them to go forward with their stabilization plan.
Absent the crack epidemic, the basic plan was solid. At the time, the United Nations was researching best practices as part of the International Year of Shelter for the Homeless. Richard was urged to submit the plan, under the name of “Permanent Housing of Homeless People in Philadelphia,” and received special recognition for it.
The whole story is in his book, Looking Up at the Bottom Line, along with many other fascinating and instructive episodes.
Source: “Homeless man pays property taxes after moving into abandoned Cleveland home to fulfill homesteading dream,” Cleveland.com, 02/20/14
Source: “Could We House the Homeless in America’s 77000 Empty Government Buildings?,” RYOT.org, 2014
Image by w.marsh
Two years ago, when the previous national Point in Time survey was done, Popular Mechanics magazine went back to the survey before that one in order to take a close look at how homeless veterans were counted. The first answer was that the Department of Housing and Urban Development had contracted with ABT Associates to count the people experiencing homelessness in America, including veterans.
ABT project director Alvaro Cortes explained how the numbers are massaged. This is called “imputing,” and it must be done because HUD knows how sketchy those reported numbers really are. For instance, volunteer population counters didn’t ask street people if they were veterans. And for some reason, HUD wasn’t counting any vets staying in VA shelters as homeless.
The official count is made every two years over a single 24-hour period. Some people are not found. Some don’t want to be enumerated. Joe Pappalardo describes the situation as it stood when he started researching the story:
In 2010, the actual head count of homeless veterans registered 61,011 people…. To reflect the homeless veterans the PIT count missed, HUD “imputed”– that is, they estimated — the number and added 15,318 homeless veterans to the official 2010 statistic.
In 2010 (and before), HUD’s imputations determined the number of unsheltered homeless vets by taking the percentage of the homeless vets reported in CoC shelters and applying that to the total number of unsheltered homeless tallied in the PIT. This added thousands of presumed homeless veterans to the statistic. The unadjusted 2010 PIT determined that 36,389 vets were in shelters and 24,728 were on the street; the adjusted 2010 count gives 43,437 sheltered and 32,892 unsheltered.
As of 2010, ABT had developed at least 10 different ways to “impute.” This imputing, Cortes told the writer, is to “reach the most accurate count.” Here is a basic question: How can they possibly determine which imputing algorithm produces the most accurate count, without knowing the actual number as a basis for comparison? And if they knew the actual number, there would be no need to impute. It all seems very arbitrary.
Start with the less confusing part, the numbers of street people reported by volunteers. It’s understandable why some adjustment might be needed. Take the number from the actual count and hypothesize possible scenarios that would augment that number. Apply an “imputing” formula and extrapolate a new number.
But. Why did the number of veterans in shelters need to be “imputed”? You’d think those numbers would be accurate. How many veterans are in temporary quarters under the jurisdiction of the VA? Isn’t the military famously meticulous about record-keeping? Were accurate records of shelter visits not being kept? And if not, why not? Those figures are of immense importance to the well-being of so many Americans.
Another question. Are patients in VA hospitals, with no place to be discharged to, counted among the homeless? Because they quite possibly might be, the moment they get out of there. Counting homeless veterans isn’t easy, and it seems at times that the underlying reason for the project is not “how can we get an accurate count?” but “how can we fiddle with the statistics to get a number we can convincingly brand as accurate?”
Pappalardo asked some of the same questions and pursued the answers. A lot of places do yearly counts of the homeless, and in 2011, volunteers were told to ask each interviewee if they were “a member or a former member of the U.S. armed services.” He wrote:
The way HUD counted veterans living in VA-run homeless shelters changed from 2010 to 2011 too. Veterans Affairs runs about 6000 emergency shelter beds in the nation; before 2011, CoCs were adjusting their counts to include these VA programs by taking the average number of beds that were occupied on any given night — about 86 percent in 2010 — and applying that across the board to get an estimate for the whole country. But those numbers didn’t match up to the VA’s statistics, and so in 2011, HUD instructed the CoCs and VA groups to reconcile the list and give a full inventory of beds for homeless veterans.
Okay, reconciling two sets of numbers is a good first step. Next: the part that critics had trouble with.
Source: “How Does Washington D.C. Count America’s Homeless Vets?” PopularMechanics.com, 01/19/12
Image by Richard Masoner