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Austin and the Homeless in 2013

AustinHouse the Homeless is a powerful presence in Austin, Texas. The nonprofit organization and its president, Richard R. Troxell, are constantly at the forefront of the effort to help everyone have a good and productive life. Richard holds the invincible belief that America could end homelessness within its borders, and the only thing standing in the way is the lack of political will to do so.

As always, at the top of the list is the need for a living wage indexed to the local cost of housing, one that covers (at very least) the necessities of shelter, food and clothing. He is convinced of the necessity to change two federal standards, the minimum wage and Supplemental Security Income — which means businesses taking care of the people who work, and SSI taking care of people who can’t work.

On the local level, plenty of progress could be made right now by adopting the policy of “Discharge No One into Homelessness,” which would apply to every institution — the military, hospitals, the foster care system, the prison system and so on — and ensure that no one leaving any of those places would be ejected into the streets.

House the Homeless released the report entitled “Prevent Homelessness at Its Core: 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness, Restore Human Dignity and Save Business and Taxpayers $ Millions!” This White Paper was sent to the President and First Lady, all the members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, and many governors, Cabinet members and other influential people.

Additionally, when funding is acquired, the plan is to send it to every mayor in the country. They are the ones responsible for building shelters in their towns, and making laws that apply to people experiencing homelessness. They are the ones who have to deal with their local hospital emergency rooms being filled with homeless people who have no health care alternative. Hopefully, individual mayors will petition the Conference of Mayors to do something, and the Conference of Mayors will petition Congress for relief in the cities. If only 14 mayors (just 1% of their number) would speak up, that would make a significant difference.

Speaking up

Richard has been a staunch voice every time a journalist needs perspective on such things as an apparent hate crime or a renewed effort by the city to make the lives of homeless  people more miserable. Recently, he wrote:

Our nation is relying on an all-volunteer military to protect the people of this nation and maintain the stability of the entire planet. We have failed to protect the protectors. In so doing, we have disgraced our nation and failed our Veterans who have selflessly sacrificed everything to ensure our freedom. House the Homeless calls for a full scale Congressional investigation into all allegations of mismanagement, abuse and neglect. The entire VA Disability program needs to be investigated by the United States Attorney General and placed in Special Receivership.

Strong words! Why would he say that? Among other things, remember the gigantic backlog in processing all veterans’ disability claims? If not, please review “Homelessness and the Disabled American Veterans Agenda.” Recently, we looked at the situation in Austin, thanks in part to the journalistic enterprise of Jeremy Schwartz of the Austin American-Statesman, which resulted in Bell County hiring a veterans services officer decades after the law required it. Why did it take a national scandal to implement this?

Reactions?

Image by Señor Codo

 

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Higher Minimum Wage Won’t Cure Homelessness. This Will.

Living Wage

What Higher Minimum Wage Does for Workers and the Economy

Honest economists such as Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke have haltingly told the truth on the question of whether raising the minimum wage adversely affects the employment rate: “My response is that I think it doesn’t lower employment.”

Additionally, study after study has shown that 98% or more of all minimum wage  increases have been directly spent back into the local economy, thus acting as a local economic stimulant.

Unfortunately, the “Fair” Minimum Wage Act falls short, would hurt small businesses in rural America, and maintains a repressive wage system that would keep workers in a state of poverty throughout our nation.

First of all, how long would it take a worker to climb out of poverty if every step he or she took was less than the distance to reach that poverty goal line? The answer is FOREVER. They would never get there.  That has been the Congressional response to minimum wage worker needs for decades. The mantra has been, “Well something is better than nothing.” Clearly, that is not true if our path to escape poverty is forever blocked.

The failure of the Federal Minimum Wage (FMW) has manifested itself as 3.5 million workers falling out of work and into homelessness every year  for the last 20 years.  The single most costly item in the budget of every American is housing. That is why the Universal Living Wage campaign, since 1997, has chosen to index the FMW to the local cost of housing across America.

Unfortunately, the “Fair” Minimum Wage Act fails to to recognize that we are a nation of 1000+ separate economies. Everyone else knows the cost to live in Washington, D.C., is different from living in Harlingen, Texas, or Fort Lauderdale, Florida, or Santa Cruz, California. ONE SIZE DOES NOT FIT ALL! Let’s imagine the “Fair” Minimum Wage Act becomes law and the national standard becomes $10.10 per hour.  This will not get one homeless minimum-wage worker off the streets of Washington, D.C.!  At the same time, this will hurt small businesses in rural Fargo, North Dakota, and Cumberland, Maryland, and Erie, Pennsylvania.

By using the formula of the Universal Living Wage — using existing government guidelines to index the FMW to the local cost of housing — we ensure that a person working 40 hours in a week (be it from one job or more) will be able to afford basic food, clothing, shelter (including utilities), public transportation and access to a hospital emergency room.

Richard R. Troxell

Consult Looking Up at the Bottom Line…The Struggle for the Living Wage for supportive documentation.

Image by Lynn Friedman

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How to Become Homeless… or Not

Prevent HomelessnessThis week is full of significant happenings. The whitepaper, “Prevent Homelessness at its Core — The Universal Living Wage (for dramatic business savings)” is available online, and printed copies are being sent out to the President, Vice President, state Governors, and members of Congress. The author is Richard R. Troxell, president of House the Homeless, which is headquartered in Austin, Texas.

One of the basic ideas this document embraces is that homelessness is way beyond just needing to be “dealt with,” it must be prevented. The great American philosopher Henry David Thoreau said, “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” Hold that thought, because we will return to it.

Sue Watlov-Phillips, who authored the “Overview” section of the whitepaper, speaks of the media-nourished stereotype in which the lack of a place to live is a problem exclusively owned by the individuals who experience homelessness. This is reminiscent of the bad old days when the racial situation in the United States was characterized as “the Negro problem.”

Eventually, thanks to the actions of countless thousands of courageous people, the so-called Negro problem was correctly identified as a societal problem. Watlov-Phillips writes:

As long as we continue to blame people experiencing homelessness on their individual problems [...] it allows us as a society to not address fundamental structural issues in our society that is creating and maintaining homelessness for millions of our people in this country and allows the general society to identify people experiencing homelessness as ‘those people’ instead of our people.

What are the roots of homelessness?

In other words, what are the roots of homelessness? They are embedded, Richard R. Troxell tells us, in two major trenches. One major crisis is that almost no one makes what could fairly be called a livable income any more. If that is not sufficiently obvious in our own lives, we can look to the media for such spectacles as the recent public relations disaster perpetrated by McDonald’s. The corporation’s suggested employee budget not only contained ridiculous expenditure figures, but took for granted that it’s normal for an American to hold down two jobs, just to live one life.

When a person is able to work, is paying them a living wage such a wild idea? When a person is not able to work because of disability, is improving the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) system such a crazy notion? Richard shows how these two things can happen, and illustrates the benefits to both business and taxpayers.

The other relentless contributor to homeless statistics is the ease with which people slip through the safety net, so thin and frayed as to be nonexistent in places. The whitepaper identifies several ways this rupture of the social fabric could be repaired so people stop falling into the abyss. Richard says:

The paper also looks at the concept/tenet: Discharge No One into Homelessness. This is the idea that at no time do we know as much about an individual as when they enter one of our Institutions… Therefore, we should begin to prepare for their eventual discharge into a safe housing environment, immediately.

In the recent past, House the Homeless has examined these institutions in depth, one by one. In a civilized country, the very notion of anyone being discharged from a hospital back onto the streets could make a grown man cry. Young people who already suffer from multiple disadvantages are released from the foster care system into oblivion. Far too many veterans, quite likely to be physically or mentally disabled, are denied the care that was promised them and that is owed them, and abandoned to their fates.

But that’s not all

Of course, there are many other routes to homelessness. An unbelievable number of Americans have lost their homes to the banks. It is worth noting that Sue Watlov-Phillips co-authored Foreclosure to Homelessness: The Forgotten Victims of the Subprime Crisis. In 1983, she founded Elim, the Minneapolis institution that focused on locating transitional housing in duplexes and apartments, rather than shelters. She is also a practicing psychologist, political activist and Board Member Emeritus of the National Coalition for the Homeless.

The other major participant in the creation of the whitepaper is Professor Edgar Cahn, who wrote the Preface. A very condensed version of his distinguished biography includes these phrases:

A graduate of the Yale law school [...] started his career in government as special counsel and speechwriter for Attorney General Robert Kennedy… [F]ounded the Citizens Advocate Center… [F]ounded the Antioch School of Law… National Legal Services program… Time Dollar Youth Court…

Of the various genres of people experiencing homelessness, former prisoners are most difficult for the average housed American without a criminal record to sympathize with. But it doesn’t matter how anyone feels about it. The cold, hard fact is that America’s prison population has been artificially and outrageously inflated for the sake of corporate profit, and the more people are caught up in it, the worse everything is going to be for everybody.

Read all of  “Prevent Homelessness at its Core – The Universal Living Wage (for dramatic business savings)” or even just the Executive Summary… Tell everyone you meet that we must attack homelessness at its roots by preventing it! You can find the document in its entirety by clicking here or below.

 

Source: “Edgar S.Cahn, Ph.D., Father of Time Banking…,” EthicalMarkets.com

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McDonald’s and the Living Wage

McDonald's Imgur

Tony Polombo is a columnist who, like Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless, believes that a living wage is not the same as a minimum wage. They won’t be the same until the minimum wage is such that anybody who puts in a 40-hour workweek can afford food; clothing; safe, decent, basic housing (including utilities); public transportation; and access to the emergency room. A living wage, as its name implies, is one that a family can actually live on, not merely subsist or exist.

Some say that raising the national minimum wage would cause companies to lay off workers, and then unemployment would only increase. To them, Polombo makes this interesting point which is imbued with a dark and terrible humor:

As the many workers who are now doing the work that two or more other workers used to do can tell you — employers in general are already hiring the least number of employees they can get away with.

He brings up arguments of a kind that, due to a shortage of common sense, are not often heard. Check this out:

The US already has de facto living wage laws in the form of government safety net programs such as Food Stamps, the Earned Income Tax Credit and Medicaid… But critics have (rightly, in my view) charged that government programs such as these are little more than corporate welfare…

You would think that the anti-government Tea Party types in Congress would want to eliminate much of the need for these government programs by making corporations pay their full share of a living wage…

Citizens who work for slightly more generous corporations all chip in via their income taxes. Then the government has money to help other workers who labor for the cheapskate corporations, so their employees can afford the necessities that ought to be covered by their paychecks but are not. Voila! Corporate welfare!

You can call it anything you want, but that doesn’t change the fact. Speaking of cheapskate companies, Polombo says:

The award for corporate chutzpah goes to McDonald’s who in a campaign aimed towards its workers, tries to convince them that it is possible to work a minimum wage McJob and still live comfortably — if only they would budget their money properly! They support this by a sample budget that apparently assumes a worker has a second job along with Food Stamps to pay for food and almost no expense for health insurance. Unbelievable!

Polombo is not the only journalist having a good time bashing McDonald’s and wondering, incidentally, what planet those people are from. For ThinkProgress.org, Annie-Rose Strasser gave the sample budget the once-over and called it “laughably inaccurate”:

Not only does the budget leave a spot open for ‘second job,’ it also gives wholly unreasonable estimates for employees’ costs: $20 a month for health care, $0 for heating, and $600 a month for rent. It does not include any budgeted money for food or clothing.

Actually, this would explain why no money is allotted for heating. A person with two jobs is never home to need the heat turned on, and can sleep wrapped in a Mylar space blanket which is available for quite a reasonable price at the surplus store, where they are sold for the convenience of mountain climbers who might get caught in blizzards. Strasser goes on to say:

For an uninsured person to independently buy health care, he or she must shell out on average $215 a month — just for an individual plan… If that person wants to eat, ‘moderate’ spending will run them $32 a week for themselves, and $867 a month to feed a family of four. And if a fast food worker is living in a city? Well, New York City rents just reached an average of $3,000 a month.

And here is a question. Considering that this phantom budget was concocted by McDonald’s with the help of Visa — what about credit card bills? Many Americans pay huge amounts of interest every month to credit card companies, and not always for luxuries and frivolities. And people, yes, even fast-food employees, have student loans to pay back. And where is the item for child care, for which anyone with one or more children and two jobs will at some point have to pay? Even a doting grandma needs a $20 tucked into her apron pocket every now and then.

But there is no point in nitpicking, when the basic assumption of the budget — that everybody should work two jobs — is so blatantly unacceptable. The only upside is that employees can, as comic Stephen Colbert suggests, go to both employers’ Christmas parties and surreptitiously fill their pockets with buffet food. That may get them through the holiday week, but what about the rest of the year? And how many McDonald’s executives work a second job? What planet are these people from, anyway?

Reactions?

Source: “A Living Wage for Americans,” The World According to Tony Polombo, 08/01/13
Source: “McDonalds Tells Workers To Budget By Getting A Second Job And Turning Off Their Heat,” ThinkProgress.org, 07/15/13
Image by Imgur.com.

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Minimum Wage on the Front Burner

Living Wage

MINIMUM WAGES (hourly):

  • Fought for by President Franklin D. Roosevelt 1938 — 25 cents, which would be more than $4 now
  • In 1974 — $2 per hour
  • Now — $7.25
  • Proposed by President Barack Obama in State of the Union Address — $9.00 per hour
  • How much it would need to be, if equivalent in spending power to 1974 — $9.31 per hour

These are a few of the pertinent facts presented by Angelo Young for International Business Times, before going on to demolish several anti-minimum-wage arguments. He quotes Roosevelt’s 1938 speech:

Do not let any calamity-howling executive with an income of $1,000 a day, who has been turning his employees over to the Government relief rolls in order to preserve his company’s undistributed reserves, tell you [...] that a wage of $11 a week is going to have a disastrous effect on all American industry. Fortunately for business as a whole, and therefore for the nation, that type of executive is a rarity with whom most business executives heartily disagree.

Strong words! Young says:

It’s not likely that the debating points will change under Obama’s call to pass wage-increase legislation. His proposal to link the federal wage increase to the rising cost of living will definitely be met with Roosevelt’s ‘calamity-howling.’

What with one thing and another, the minimum wage topic did not, for a while, reside on the front burner of the national stove. That there should even be a minimum wage is still not an idea espoused by all, but as House the Homeless discussed last week, acceptance has made great strides.

It’s a debate that has been in progress for 75 years, and the last 39 years have been especially rough, cost-of-living-wise, Young says, and adds:

[...] [W]ages have not kept up with America’s cost of living, making it more difficult for the working, taxpaying bottom-bracket earners in this country to pull themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps [...] working Americans in lower income brackets who live paycheck to paycheck, where any fluctuation [...] means much more than just canceling premium cable subscriptions.

To that list at the top of the page, we could add:

  • Amount that Sen. Elizabeth Warren asks why workers are not paid — $22 per hour

Michael Rathbone explains:

Sen. Warren probably is referring to [a] study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research that showed what the minimum wage would be if it had kept up with increases in worker productivity… The study [...] talks about average productivity. Average workers do not earn the minimum wage. This study does not track changes in the productivity of workers who make at or below the minimum wage. Isn’t it possible that the largest increases in productivity have been among more skilled employees who already earn above the minimum wage?

This is not exactly an anti-minimum-wage argument, but Freakonomics co-author Steven Levitt has an interesting take on it. In The Huffington Post‘s capsulization of his recent Q&A session via Reddit, Levitt says:

Honestly, I don’t think the minimum wage matters all that much to the economy.

Why? Because relatively speaking, the number of minimum-wage workers is small, with about 5.2% of hourly workers making the minimum or below. The article notes:

Some studies have reinforced President Barack Obama’s argument that raising the minimum wage would boost the economy. Raising the minimum wage by $1 would give households comprised of minimum wage workers $2,800 per year more to spend, according to a 2011 study from the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago cited by CNN.

There is a corny but true parable which has many versions. This one one was adapted by the Starfish Greathearts Foundation:

An old man had a habit of early morning walks on the beach. One day, after a storm, he saw a human figure in the distance moving like a dancer. As he came closer he saw that it was a young woman and she was not dancing but was reaching down to the sand, picking up a starfish and very gently throwing them into the ocean.

‘Young lady,’ he asked, ‘Why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?’

‘The sun is up, and the tide is going out, and if I do not throw them in they will die.’

‘But young lady, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it? You cannot possibly make a difference.’

The young woman listened politely, paused and then bent down, picked up another starfish and threw it into the sea, past the breaking waves, saying, ‘It made a difference for that one.’

It’s not accurate that only 5.2% of workers would benefit from a minimum-wage raise. There is more to it. But putting that aside, even if the lives of only 5.2% of workers were improved, like the starfish, it would make a difference for them.

Reactions?

Source: “State of the Union 2013: Obama Calls For $9 Minimum Wage,” International Business Times, 02/14/13
Source: “The $22 (An Hour) Question,” Show-Me Daily, 03/31/13
Source: “Freakonomics’ Steven Levitt: The Minimum Wage Doesn’t Matter ‘All That Much’ ,” The Huffington Post, 02/19/13
Source: “Sex Trafficking,” WomanStats, 10/17/12
Image by Barbara Ehrenreich

 

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Perspective: Living Wages

living wage

On March 3, 2013, the Austin American-Statesman banner masthead read, “’Living Wage’ Proviso Targeted.”  (See the article, “Dallas legislator aims to stop wage requirements in incentive deals.”)

Apparently, the Dallas legislature does not want Texas municipalities, Austin-led, to require companies to pay “living wages.” The federal minimum wage is $7.25/hour, but Austin, like the federal government, has now plucked an imaginary number out of the air and dubbed it a “living wage” at only $11.00/hour. For the moment, let’s put aside the issue as to whether or not a municipality should be able to exercise its power position of employer to extract better wages for its employees.

To be clear, $11/hour is not a living wage.

A living wage is an amount that ensures that a person working 40 hours in a week will be able to afford basic: food, clothing, shelter (including utilities), and public transportation. In Austin, it is $13.10/hour. This is calculated by using a 40-hour-a-week job, spending no more than 30% of one’s income on housing ( a national banking standard), and HUD’s Section 8, Fair Market Rent Formula. It is also calculated based on the cost of an efficiency apartment in Austin, which is $681 on average.

To pay a lower wage can result in economic homelessness. At this pay scale, 3.5 million people will again face homelessness in our nation this year.

Image by Ari Moore.

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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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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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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.

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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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The Hate Crime Report

sad truth of mean streetsIn Van Nuys, CA, a 67-year-old woman was purposely set on fire as she slept on a bus bench — one of those unfriendly pieces of public furniture specifically designed to be uncomfortable, with rigid dividers between each designated seat. But maybe, through the layers of clothing she habitually wears, Violet Phillips didn’t even feel the bumps. To be soaked with flammable liquid and then lit on fire causes pain of a different order of magnitude. Undoubtedly, Violet feels the serious burns.

Violet is what people call her at the local churches, where she is acquainted with many parishioners. But she likes to keep to herself. Journalist Mike Szymanski spoke with a representative of the intensive care unit of the University of Southern California Burn Unit and learned that:

… [S]he would only say ‘God bless you’ in reply to people’s questions.

This abominable attack happened two days after Christmas, too late to be referenced in stories about the release of the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) report on hate crimes of 2011, but just in time to be included in the 2012 total. The individual who has been arrested, on suspicion of attempted murder, is 24-year-old male. Let’s see how this fits in with the NCH report, which says:

… [N]early all of the attacks were carried out by teenagers and young men.

A lot of these young so-called men reportedly do these things just for fun. On behalf of The Huffington Post, Saki Knafo spoke with NCH executive director Neil Donovan, who feels that one of the big problems is the desensitization caused by electronic games that cast people experiencing homelessness in the role of targets. Also contributing to the stigmatization and degradation are video productions like “Bag Lady Fights” and “BumFights.” Donovan calls it a “campaign of dehumanization.”

But how many attacks, or anti-homeless hate crimes, are we talking about? Here’s the breakdown:

… [A]t least 32 homeless people in the United States died as a result of violent attacks in 2011, as compared with 24 the year before. The report also tallied 73 non-lethal attacks against the homeless, a drop from the previous year’s count of 89.

Despite a serious lack of funding, since 1999, the NCH has taken on the mission and challenge of filling the informational void. Their latest report is titled “Hate Crimes against the Homeless: The Brutality of Violence Unveiled” and the 94-page PDF file can be downloaded from the top of the NCH homepage. The FBI does not define the homeless as a protected group, and is not interested in keeping track of anti-homeless hate crimes. But it does tally up other hate crimes in America, and here is the alarming thing, as Knafo puts it:

… [T]he number of lethal anti-homeless hate crimes counted by the group exceeds the government’s tally of deadly hate crimes in all other categories.

In other words, for several years now, the number of homeless people murdered because of who they are has exceeded the number of victims of fatal hate crimes from all other (racial, religious, etc.) motivations, added together.

It’s a terrifyingly stringent economy where they can’t even place a foot on the first rung of the ladder to success, or even modest prosperity. In the late ’70s, the “deinstitutionalization” trend started, and was supported by many factions, for reasons that seemed good at the time. Unfortunately, psychiatric institutions were not replaced by other support systems. The combination of these national changes with other factors resulted in the current crisis where people are getting killed simply because they don’t have a place to live. Another aspect of this situation is, the elderly and confused are not the whole population of people experiencing homelessness. An enormous number of young people are out there trying to make it on their own.

Susan Saulny’s “After Recession, More Young Adults Are Living on Street,” is a companion piece to her earlier video reportage “Young and Homeless: The Recession’s Impact on Young Americans.” She talks about Los Angeles, where in 2011, there were about 3,600 unfamilied kids on the streets. The city’s shelter could sleep less than one-fifth of them. Boston is bad, all cities are bad, but the suburbs or country are nearly impossible.

The young do have one advantage. They are not so likely to be victims of the anti-homeless hate crimes per se, being better able to blend into the population. Kids like to look scruffy, and sometimes it’s hard to determine who is rich and who is destitute, on the evidence of clothes and hygiene. Plus, the young are more easily able to run away. But in shelters, it’s a different story. Saulny says the young:

[...] tend to shy away from ordinary shelters out of fear of being victimized by an older, chronically homeless population.

What is the answer? One of answers is to make sure there are jobs, both for homeless youth, so they can afford to live someplace, and for the aimless young men who victimize the homeless for kicks. Richard R. Troxell, as we know, is co-founder of House the Homeless in Austin, TX, and author of Looking Up at the Bottom Line. He recently wrote:

I sit on the Board of the National Coalition for the Homeless that produced this report. I also sit on the Civil Rights Committee and we actually generated this report. The young need to be engaged in living-wage jobs. So we need to promote our stimulus recommendations to President Obama, in order to create jobs, and then those jobs need to pay living wages.

Please learn more about the Universal Living Wage.

Reactions?

Source: “Homeless Burn Victim, Violet Phillips, Remains in Critical Condition,” Sherman Oaks Patch, 12/28/12
Source: “Anti-Homeless Hate Crimes Detailed In New Report,” The Huffington Post, 12/21/12
Source: “After Recession, More Young Adults Are Living on Street,” The New York Times, 12/18/12
Image by danieljordahl.

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