Partly because it is in a state of creative revival, Austin, TX, is in a special, perhaps a unique, position to show the world how a city can end homelessness. We referred to the plan created by Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless. Now his latest published work is in the March issue of The Progressive Populist, and it’s called “Restore opportunity with a Living Wage.”
What makes Austin so wonderful? A place can be remarkable for a while, then become ordinary. Despite many changes over the years, Austin somehow still retains the cachet of cool. When a writer of Michael Ventura’s caliber makes a place home, you know it’s got something going for it. There are countless excellent visual artists and all kinds of other creative people in and around Austin, and, of course, the legendary music scene.
The music history of Austin is nothing short of awesome, in the original, non-cliche sense of the word. From the long-gone Armadillo World Headquarters to the amazing SXSW festival, those factors and a thousand more have made it the music capital of the Southwest, and a world-class music town.
There is another Richard, whose last name is Florida. His book, The Rise of the Creative Class, chose only two places as examples of the top-level creative city, one across the Atlantic (Dublin, Ireland) and one in the USA, namely, Austin. Florida goes into great detail about how Austin exerted itself to “build the kind of habitat required to compete and win in the Creative Age.” In his view, the three legs on which Austin’s superiority rest are the cultural scene, the high-tech industrial (nerd) sector, and the music scene. He writes:
Austin includes traditional nerdistan developments to the north, lifestyle centers for cycling and outdoor activities, and a revitalizing university/downtown community centered on vibrant Sixth Street, the warehouse district, and the music scene.
In researching his book, Florida spoke with several people for whom relocating to or staying in Austin was the most important factor when they made a job decision. One informant said:
I can have a life in Austin.
Back in the autumn of 2009, journalist Marc Savlov interviewed people experiencing homelessness, who are as likely as housed people to be the victims of street crime. If predators are among the homeless, other street people are the easiest prey to catch. Some interviewees expressed regret that hardcore boozers and addicts give everybody a bad name. An informant known as J. D. said:
One thing that would really help decrease the numbers of homeless in Austin is if the city could try to raise public awareness of the fact that there’s a difference between ‘crackheads and alcoholics’ and ‘homeless people.’
Austin struggles with the same issues as any other city, because the homeless are everywhere. Sometimes the reactions are illogical. Savlov says:
Tackling the homelessness issue while trying to find a way to improve quality of life for everybody — housed and houseless alike — is tantamount, as virtually everyone interviewed for this article can attest, to saddling a Hydra.
The journalist explored some of the issues that plague the city, and talked about the Great Streets Program, described as:
… an urban redevelopment effort that would include widening of sidewalks for cafe-style dining, abundant shade-producing trees lining the streets, and a higher concentration of mixed-use retail space alongside existing bars and music venues… While not specifically an anti-crime measure, Great Streets brings in more people at leisure — and a higher number of people is a natural deterrent to crimes of opportunity.
With all due respect, something is left out here. The implication is that crime is only prevented when “people at leisure,” i.e., housed people who are relaxing from their jobs, are out and about. But the homeless occupy urban spaces too. Having them around, as some of the ears and eyes making up that “natural deterrent to crimes,” can’t be such a bad thing.
Cities are shared with the homeless, whether the housed people like the situation or not. In the profound words of a bumper sticker, “It is what it is.” And starting from there, it can change if we change some of our ways of thinking about it.
Ace Backwords points out, in Surviving on the Streets, that street people perform the valuable service of utilizing some of the material goods that would otherwise go to the landfill. By recycling some of the detritus of a wasteful society, the homeless help to reduce our collective guilt over squandering the earth’s resources. Backwords makes another point:
The nocturnal life… can be seen as a public service that we perform to help alleviate the crowdedness of city life. We’ve volunteered to go on the night shift…
Another thing Richard Florida said is, members of the Creative Class choose Austin because:
What they look for in communities are abundant high-quality amenities and experiences, an openness to diversity of all kinds, and above all else the opportunity to validate their identities as creative people.
So, let’s think about high-quality amenities, not just for the folks lucky enough to be employed in high-tech jobs, but for everybody. Openness to diversity means just that, and some of the diverse kinds of people to be found in this city, like any other, are people experiencing homelessness.
Now, here’s the biggie. All the creative people of Austin have a splendid opportunity to validate their creative identities by figuring out this homeless situation in such a way that it will set a shining example to the rest of the world, as the city has already done in so many other ways. If any place is up to the challenge, Austin is.
Source: “How to end homelessness in Austin: A plan,” CultureMap Austin, 02/08/12
Source: “Restore Opportunity with a Living Wage,” Populist.com, 03/01/12
Source: “Overview,” CreativeClass.com, 2004
Source: “Faces of Homelessness,” The Austin Chronicle, 10/09/09
Image by StuSeeger (Stuart Seeger), used under its Creative Commons license.
Austin, Texas, is seen as one of the finest cities in the country, one of America’s urban gems. For a long time, its reputation has been that of a liberal, progressive, enlightened city in the midst of a state that is not so much any of those things. Thanks to the “City of Austin Tax Increment Financing Reinvestment Zone No. 17,” aka the “Waller Creek Tunnel Project Final Project Plan,” which helpfully gathered the list, we see that Austin has bragging rights to a long and growing list of “bests” (link is PDF), including but not limited to:
1st place — “Best Large City for Relocating Families” in 2004
1st place — “Top 10 Cities for Hispanics to Live in” in 2005
2nd place — Top Creative Class Cities in 2002
2nd place — “Ten Greenest Cities” list in 2005
3rd place — “Best Places” for business and careers in 2005
6th place — Nation’s top tech hubs in 2005
11th place — “The 25 Best Running Cities in America”in 2005
One of the top 10 cities to be a dog in 2005.
Relevant to the last item, in 2011 it was announced:
Austin achieves 90 percent live animal outcome; reaches no-kill status… by achieving a 90 percent live-animal outcome for all animals that enter the Town Lake Animal Center.
Now, that’s admirable, and no animal should ever suffer, but here’s the thing. Hopefully, it won’t get to where the kill rate for stray creatures is more favorable than the kill rate for homeless people. Austin may be a great place for a dog, but it’s not so wonderful for a lot of folks. This could change. Hopefully, now more than ever, Austin is capable of looking through reasonable eyes at people experiencing homelessness and seeing more than just a nuisance to be gotten rid of.
Sure, some down-and-outers are never gonna make it. But — and this is a very important but — like any other metropolis, Austin has not just a social and fiscal liability on its hands, but, at least partially, a talent pool of potentially useful and contributing citizens.
Last week, we talked a little about the article recently published by Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless. Titled “How to end homelessness in Austin: A plan,” it is part of CultureMap’s Imagine Austin’s Future series. Richard believes that the Universal Living Wage will end homelessness for about half of Austin’s homeless population. Nationwide, the number is projected as 1,000,000. That would add up to a lot less stress for government agencies and helping organizations.
House the Homeless has devoted a lot of time and energy to assessing the health status of Austin’s homeless population, and arrived at some troubling conclusions. One is that a lot of homeless people are just plain incapable of holding down a job, because of disabilities and other health issues. Of the homeless who are capable of working, most would love to be employed.
And, big surprise, a lot of people experiencing homelessness are employed now, possibly even at more than one job. And still can’t make ends meet. They are what Richard calls the economic homeless. He writes:
… [A]s it stands now, a person can work a full time job and still not be able to afford basic rental housing either in Austin or any city in the U.S…. [F]or those who can work, we need to fix the Federal Minimum Wage (FMW, currently $7.25 per hour)… By simply indexing the FMW to the local cost of housing using HUD Fair Market Rents, we ensure that anyone working 40 hours in a week will be able to afford basic rental housing.
For people who can’t work, the solution, he believes, is to increase Supplemental Security Income, which presently only adds up to half of what a minimum-wage earner makes. If even some jobholders are unable to find housing, imagine how much more difficult it is for people who only make half that much.
Yes, it might cost the taxpayers more. On the other hand, it might not, if the taxpayers would ever take more of an interest in how much money is wasted by government (or disappears into places it’s not supposed to be). Maybe there are places where the money could be found without having a tax impact. Surely, somebody can figure out this stuff. Molly Ivins, where are you now, when we need you so much?
Just to put things into perspective, here is Richard’s capsule description of another lengthy, uphill local effort:
About 12 years ago, advocates organized to create and pass housing bonds. After about ten years, the bonds were passed and money for 350 units of housing was set aside for people experiencing homelessness. Only about a third of this housing has been created. Do the math. How many decades to house 4,000 people at that rate?
He closes with:
In overview, we can see that with clear vision, new perspective and collectively involving the city, the citizens of Austin, federal and state governments and the business community in a fair, equitable, balanced and profitable fashion, we can end homelessness as it exists today.
Austin has a splendid opportunity to set an example of how to do the most beneficial thing for the biggest number of people. Austin is a test case whose success could revolutionize the homeless scene and influence policy, for the better, in other cities. It’s the chance of a lifetime to make a whole lot more “best” lists.
Source: “Tax Increment Financing Reinvestment Zone No. 17 (Waller Creek Tunnel Project)” (PDF), ci.austin.tx.us March 2008
Source: “City and County Notes—March 2011,” ImpactNews.com, 03/25/11
Source: “How to end homelessness in Austin: A plan,” CultureMap.com, 02/08/12
Image by William Beutler, used under its Creative Commons license.
The homeless community and the Occupy movement agree on many points:
— The yawning chasm of wealth disparity is not to be tolerated.
— People need jobs.
— Corporate greed is at fault. (Maybe not all corporations. Greedy ones, definitely.)
— Also guilty is the whole mess with the banks and the foreclosures.
— There needs to be a separation of money from politics, and vice versa.
Still, some cosmically absurd things have been going on. A bunch of protesters take over a private or public space, to bring attention to their oppressed status. They are supported by some and vilified by others, who are even willing to use force to make them leave. The protesters’ cause is just, and all right-thinking people ought to agree with them.
Then… a bunch of people experiencing homelessness comes into that occupied space, and their claim is a legitimate one, of even more oppressed status. They are supported by some, but others would prefer that they stay out. The homeless people’s cause is just, and, to their way of thinking, all good people ought to support it. What a situation!
What happens when Occupy gets occupied? Sometimes, the homeless are treated as intruders and hazardous nuisances. They are said to jeopardize the legitimacy of the Occupy movement. From that standpoint, it’s a public relations nightmare. But the news is not all bad.
From Boston, MA, John Zaremba reports that the city will not act to prevent Occupiers from spending the winter on Dewey Square, as long as rules for public safety are observed, including a ban on open fires and kerosene heaters. The reporter interviewed a logistics and supplies person from the Occupy Boston camp, Kristopher Eric Martin, who said of the homeless members:
These guys are experts at staying warm and staying dry. All these guys are used to living on the streets and sleeping with one eye open.
Among the helpful hints offered by the people experiencing homelessness: Extra protection from the cold can be obtained by stuffing hay or straw between layers of clothing. First off, where do urban street people get hay and straw? Good grief, what story will we see on TV on Christmas Eve? News of a homeless person arrested for taking the straw out of a church’s nativity scene to insulate their clothing?
Remember Otzi the Ice Man, the 5,300-year-old frozen corpse found in the Alps? He wore a cloak of woven grass, and his shoes were stuffed with grass and moss for warmth.
So, here we are in America in 2011, with some citizens teaching other citizens the survival skills of a Neolithic hunter. Now, that’s progress.
From Seattle, WA, Paula Wissel wrote about the ongoing struggle concerning Westlake Park, where protesters continued to stay despite being officially forbidden. The mayor has been ambivalent. He sympathizes with the protesters, but there are local residents and businesses to consider. Apparently, the movement has sparked some hope among the city’s urban indigent people. The reporter sought an opinion from a citizen named Delmar Bryant:
He says he’s lived on streets all over the Northwest. He believes Occupy Seattle is the start of something special.
The situation in Atlanta, GA, seems to be kind of strange. Early last month, Gwynedd Stuart titled a post, “Occupy Atlanta uniquely OK with homeless ‘interlopers.'”
Well first of all, Atlanta is not so unique in being okay, as we have seen. But here’s the unusual slant. Stuart speaks of:
… Occupy Atlanta’s acceptance of the homeless — which is probably best demonstrated by the decision to actually move into a homeless shelter…
Apparently, when demonstrators were ejected from Woodruff Park, about 100 of them moved into the top floors of the Peachtree-Pine homeless shelter, where around 600 homeless people already lived. In other words, Occupy Atlanta occupied the homeless shelter.
The controversial shelter’s future was already precarious. Later in the month, Bob Cramer, who was chairman of Atlanta’s Task Force for the Homeless for 14 years, wrote:
With the loss of so much public housing, low-income Atlantans have few choices and little hope. With the possible loss of the Peachtree-Pine shelter, homeless people may once again need to use Woodruff Park as a refuge, perhaps standing shoulder to shoulder with Occupy Atlanta, perhaps to die once more on our streets.
Eugene, OR, is on the cusp of major change, with an upcoming vote on whether to allow continuing life to a large encampment of people experiencing homelessness. Edward Russo reports:
The council is to vote on whether to let Occupy Eugene continue its camp of mainly homeless people in Washington-Jefferson Park… The protest group wants to remain in the park and work with city officials to find a place to build a permanent camp for the homeless.
The settlement is said to consist of between 150 and 200 people, some protesters and the rest representing a very small fraction of the city’s estimated 4,000 homeless people. The occupiers want to help collect donated materials and build kitchens, showers, and necessities. But opinions differ of the advisability of this. City Councilor Chris Pryor, who works for United Way, told the reporter:
I am part of the human services world that doesn’t think living in a tent is a step to solving homelessness. The long-term solution is to get people into jobs and housing.
On the other hand, St. Vincent de Paul Director Terry McDonald told Russo:
Occupy Eugene has engaged homeless youth. The group’s gatherings and workshops in the campsite are giving the youths something to do other than simply try to survive on the streets… bringing them from a more feral society to one that is more civil…
House the Homeless has communicated with dozens of Occupy groups throughout the nation, encouraging them to get behind the Universal Living Wage. Richard R. Troxell says:
According to the last several U.S. Conference of Mayors reports, no one working at a full-time minimum wage job can afford to get into and keep a one-bedroom apartment anywhere in the country. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, this will result in 3.5 million homeless minimum-wage workers this year alone.
The situation is summed up by a comment from “Kiddo”:
Homeless Americans most directly represent the impact of our exploited brokedown financial system. Their very living situation IS part of the protest. That they lack regular shelter and means, and are (unfortunately) available to protest via occupation is to all our benefit…. We all have a place in this movement.
Source: “Occupiers turn to homeless for tips,” Boston Herald, 10/19/11
Source: “Homeless find home at Occupy Seattle, so is it still a protest?,” KPLU.com, 10/10/11
Source: “Occupy Atlanta uniquely OK with homeless ‘interlopers,’” clatl.com, 11/01/11
Source: “25 years of poverty vs. power,” ajc.com, 11/25/11
Source: “Homeless find ally in Occupy,” RegisterGuard.com, 12/11/11
Image by Kalinago English (Karenne Sylvester), used under its Creative Commons license.
Big cities usually have apartment shortages. This is nothing new. But, nowadays, the prospective tenants come from a different demographic. Many of them are former (attempted) home buyers who couldn’t hold on. Some are people who, in a better economy, would be perfectly capable of buying a home, if they found work in the field they were trained for instead of washing cars or collecting unemployment. (And some have listened to Rich Dad, Poor Dad author Robert Kiyosaki, who says, “Your home is not an asset.”)
Ben Markus of Colorado Public Radio discusses recent events in Denver, and starts by talking about his visit with a couple renting a two-bedroom apartment for more than $900 per month. Before getting into that, here is some background. The page called “Living Wage Calculation for Denver County, Colorado,” explains that:
The living wage shown is the hourly rate that an individual must earn to support their family, if they are the sole provider and are working full-time (2080 hours per year).
They figure a typical two-adult household spends $692 a month on housing. But, in order to do that, each one of them has to be making at least $8.64 per hour. The minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. This means that a pair of minimum-wage workers would be hard-pressed to afford a $692 apartment, which probably has only one bedroom anyway, and certainly would not be able to afford the two-bedroom that goes for $900.
A family with two adults and two children needs $27.00 per hour coming in. But even if both adults are working, if they’re working for a minimum wage, there is less than $15 per hour coming in. That’s a pretty big discrepancy.
A fiscally prudent person doesn’t budget more than a quarter of their income for housing — that’s what they used to teach in home economics classes. Then somebody sneakily raised the bar. Now we are told, it’s wise not to spend more than one-third of the income on housing. And we’re supposed to feel just as prudent. (But one-third is more than one-fourth.)
Getting back to Markus, he next speaks with David Zucker, a land developer who is putting up a building different from the building originally planned for the spot, near Denver’s downtown. Markus says:
This project was originally planned as condos. But when the housing market collapsed, Zucker went back to the drawing board. Eventually, his financers looked at all the renters entering the market, and they liked his new idea of retooling the project from 60 condos to more than 200 apartments… Now, more than a dozen apartment buildings are going up in the Denver metro area, and dozens more are planned.
Then, he quotes economist Patrick Newport, who says:
We’re going to see more renting, less homeownership. And the recovery that we see in the housing market is going to be one that’s characterized more by more apartment construction, and less by single-family construction.
Markus also quotes investment broker Greg Benjamin, who says that financing is available for these projects now because demand exceeds supply, “allowing landlords to charge higher rents.” Well, of course, builders are getting into this apartment trend because they anticipate charging high rents. What they don’t seem to take into account is that there may not be many tenants who can pay high rents. But they don’t seem interested in creating low-rent housing.
Still, it’s possible that many existing renters will upgrade their lifestyles, leaving behind, and available, the older, less desirable apartments. Such units might even be affordable to the working poor. At any rate, although the increased number of apartments is good news, it’s only half the equation, the half that comes from the top. We also need the other half of the equation, the one that comes from the bottom. What we need is the Universal Living Wage (ULW), to put well-deserved adequate pay into the hands of people who want to rent those properties.
About the effect of a minimum wage hike, blogger Kasey Steinbrinck says:
Studies show that people at the lower end of earning tend to put the money right back into the economy. They get their car fixed, pay for needed home repairs, buy new clothes and spend money at many local businesses.
And spend it on apartment rent, if they get half a chance. A lot of people would like to move out of their vans, or off their mother’s couches, and find places of their own.
Steinbrinck also says this about minimum-wage workers:
When adjusted for inflation, the real value of their compensation actually fell by 5% since the federal minimum wage was last raised in 2009 to $7.25 an hour. If the minimum wage had kept pace with inflation over the past 40 years it would be almost $10.40 an hour… The Economic Policy Institute estimates that that raising the minimum wage to $9.50 would result in more than $60 billion in consumer spending. Now that’s a pretty nice economic stimulus!
But, of course, we have all traveled and know that the cost of living (the cost of housing) is not the same in Cleveland, Ohio, as it is in Santa Cruz, California, or in Washington, D.C., etc. In fact, we are a nation of 1,000 economies, each with its own cost of living. That is what the Universal Living Wage will address. It will ensure that a person working 40 hours in a week will be able to afford the basics: food, clothing, shelter (utilities included), wherever that work is done throughout the United States.
And the other wonderful aspect of the ULW is that it will stimulate the housing construction industry all across America and create jobs as we put the difference between the Federal Minimum Wage and the Universal Living Wage into the pockets of millions of working poor who all need the same thing: truly affordable housing. Finally, this will happen over a 10-year period in order to accommodate the business community. In this fashion, we can end homelessness for over 1,000,000 minimum-wage workers. Wow!
Source: “Demand For Denver Apartments Outstrips Supply,” NPR.org, 11/29/11
Source: “Living Wage Calculation for Denver County, Colorado,” Living Wage Calculator
Source: “Boosting Minimum Wage to Boost the Economy,” The Check Advantage Blog, 07/25/11
Image of “Have PhD” is used under Fair Use: Reporting.
This might be the quotation of the year:
The City of New Orleans cleared out the camp to reduce homelessness in the city.
Is that what they think they’re doing? Amazing. Reduce homelessness by clearing out camps. Who knew the answer could be so simple?
Here’s more of the story, as reported by Tania Dall:
A homeless encampment underneath the Ponchartrain Expressway along Calliope Street is gone… On Friday morning, city workers showed up to clear bicycles, sleeping bags, and other items belonging to the homeless. The city says it will continue patrols to keep this area clear.
About 112 people are said to have lived in the encampment. The city says that 85 were moved to temporary housing, 20 taken to shelters, and 10 “placed on buses to be reunited with family or friends out of town.” That already adds up to 115, and the reporter also says that some of the displaced people went to join Occupy NOLA. So, who knows?
The nonprofit organization UNITY of New Orleans told the reporter,
… 60 percent of the people living in the old encampment suffered from mental illness, 25 percent of those had some sort of developmental disability…
Elsewhere, Bruce Eggler adds detail:
The area under the expressway has been closed and no one will be allowed to sleep or camp there… The Department of Sanitation will remove any mattresses, chairs or other items found there and pressure-wash the area…
According to the mayor’s office,
The city coordinated the relocations and respite housing in partnership with the Louisiana Department of Veterans Affairs, Volunteers of America, Travelers Aid, Metropolitan Health Services District, Grace Outreach and UNITY of Greater New Orleans.
But, getting back to Tania Dall’s piece, she said,
… the move came as a shock to some nearby shelters that claim they weren’t given advance notice.
So, what kind of coordination is that? Again, who knows?
Actually, the activities in New Orleans sounds relatively benign in comparison to some of the other cities described by House the Homeless in previous posts. A person could get tired of hearing about “sweeps” and “cleanups.” Seems like there are so many of them these days. As a group deemed undesirable, people experiencing homelessness today are pretty much like Gypsies have been throughout the centuries. Society definitely doesn’t want them in its backyard. They need be cleared out and cleaned up.
On the other hand, either group provides handy scapegoats. In the old days, if a child went missing, the Gypsies were assumed to have kidnapped him or her. Now, if there’s a beer can on the lawn, it must be the homeless people. In reality, whoever dropped that litter might have been a college student, or your spouse.
Either group provides convenient targets for the free-floating aggression of the settled populace. Any time a few local yokels get drunk and go out looking for somebody to beat down, who is out there in the open air, unprotected by locks, or even walls? Gypsies and homeless people.
And the townsfolk get to be all self-righteous, and feel superior to the people who own nothing. And they use the law to take away the very few possessions that remain. News articles blather on about how city personnel or volunteers come out to clean up all the trash after the homeless people have been ejected from the camp they called home.
Sure, it’s a mess, but there’s a dark humor in all this. Where do you take out the garbage, when you live in the junkyard? When you yourself are considered trash, where do you take out the trash?
One person’s trash is another person’s treasure. Just to have a good sleeping bag can make the difference between survival and despair. Imagine losing your sleeping bag because you went to find something to eat, and when you came back, the place where you had lived was bulldozed into oblivion.
And, really, would it be such an outlandish idea to get rid of the trash and leave the people in place? Couldn’t a city just put some portable toilets and a dumpster near a homeless settlement, and maintain them?
Better yet, what if we had a society where nobody is desperate enough to camp out in the woods? Is there an answer to this? Well, for now, the Homeless Protected Class Resolution could possibly put a stop to some of the worst excesses performed upon people experiencing homelessness.
And, for the future — the one where we don’t have any homeless people — we propose the Universal Living Wage. The exciting new development is that House the Homeless is encouraging the Occupy movement to turn its energy in this direction. (Please see “Living Wage Campaign: The Answer to Occupy Wall Street“) and don’t forget to sign the petition!
Source: “City of New Orleans closes homeless encampment,” WWLTV.com, 10/28/11
Source: “New Orleans ousts about 115 homeless people from underneath Pontchartrain Expressway,” NOLA.com, 10/28/11
Image (partial) by gruntzooki (Corey Doctorow), used under its Creative Commons license.