The Mentally Ill Homeless: Cause and Effect

ProfessionalIn Looking Up at the Bottom Line, Richard R. Troxell suggests that the arrangements made decades ago for the care of America’s mentally ill have resulted in another case of good intentions gone wrong. It was a reform movement, concerned with disability rights and independent living. Some institutions were terrible places.

Richard says,

Disgruntled, underpaid workers were physically and mentally abusing our mentally ill citizens. Legal Aid in Chicago filed a lawsuit that called for deinstitutionalization. Similar lawsuits swept the country. This coincided with the advent of psychotropic drugs such as Lithium. Mental health providers faced heavy social service dollar reductions. There was the hope that these things could be balanced by treating people on an outpatient basis. They would treat people while they were on a kind of invisible tether.

We have talked about why the consequences didn’t match the theory. When Richard was drafting the Homeless Protected Class Resolution, about one-fourth of the adult homeless in America suffered from some type of mental illness. When he was writing Looking Up at the Bottom Line, the low-side estimate was more like one-third. When House the Homeless in Austin conducted its 2010 health survey, 175 of the 501 respondents had been diagnosed with mental illness.

This was an issue in the struggle over Austin’s No Sit/No Lie Ordinance earlier this year. The ordinance was bad enough already, but it discriminated against people with disabilities of all kinds, and especially against those with mental disabilities. With the help of several other agencies, House the Homeless was able to file some of the roughest edges off the ordinance.

Unintended consequences are the dark side of any social experiment. When plans are being made, the person who says, “But, wait…,” and describes a possible bad outcome, is often labeled as a naysayer and a negative thinker. But sometimes optimism, especially optimism based on the availability of funding, turns out to have been unjustified.

Our country in the 1980s was not prepared for a massive influx of troubled and dysfunctional people into the mainstream. Maybe it all happened too fast, maybe nobody was thinking ahead. Whatever programs and protections were organized for the support of so many confused individuals turned out to be inadequate, and the situation has only gotten worse.

A fascinating brand-new report from Dr. Guy Johnson and Prof. Chris Chamberlain of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia reveals a surprise:

They found only 15 per cent had mental health issues before becoming homeless, while 16 per cent of the sample developed mental health problems after becoming homeless.

Are you getting that? Half of the mentally ill homeless became that way after becoming homeless. Australia is a lot like the United States, and has about the same proportion of the mentally ill people experiencing homelessness. It wouldn’t be at all surprising to learn that half of America’s mentally ill homeless, too, got that way after becoming homeless. It’s enough to tip anybody over the edge, especially in a life already filled with stressors.

Worse, the Australian research shows that the young are most vulnerable to mental health challenges that are caused by or exacerbated by the homeless condition. And, even worse than that, the young are apt to develop substance abuse issues along with mental health problems.

Dr. Johnson, who is a researcher for the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute, seems to be saying that treating mental illness is too little, too late. It may lop off some of the problem’s branches, but it does not attack the root. Homelessness is the root of a large share of mental illness, not the other way around.

Concentrating on mental health, he says, deflects attention from the lack of housing, the inability of people to pay for what housing there is, and the inevitable family breakdown that results. The belief that mental illness is the primary cause of homelessness sends the wrong message to policy-makers about exactly what services are needed to end homelessness.

Dr. Johnson goes for the Housing First approach, saying:

Homelessness does cause mental health issues, particularly anxiety and depression, and is a serious problem for a significant minority of homeless people… For homeless people directly affected by these structural factors, the solution lies outside the medical arena – and research indicates that providing housing to homeless people before treating their mental health issues is actually a more effective approach.


Source: “Looking Up at the Bottom Line,” Amazon.com
Source: “Research sheds light on homelessness and mental illness,” RMIT.edu, 06/06/11
Image by AR McLin, used under its Creative Commons license.


Homelessness and Mental Illness

Pedestrian Scramble Across SoCoLast week in Austin, Texas, a man punched a woman, breaking three of her facial bones and injuring and swelling her eye. He didn’t know her. He asked her for money, and she didn’t give him any. The Fox Network reported that Michael Adams previously served a two-year term for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, and is homeless.

Newsperson Lauren Petrowski, who interviewed the woman, says,

She doesn’t place blame on the man, but hopes he can get the help he  needs.

The victim, who is scheduled for surgery, seems very mellow in both her thoughts and their expression. Some shoppers will respond to an aggressive panhandler in a way that could, in the mind of an unstable person, be seen as a provocation, and as a rationale for violence. But it’s unlikely in this case.

From her brief appearance in the news clip, it would be difficult to imagine this woman saying or doing anything rude. And, of course, even if a woman did reply rudely in that situation, the man would not be justified in punching her. She was walking on a downtown street, talking on a cell phone, and probably did not do a single thing that even the most paranoid mind could interpret as “asking for it.” It would be hard to picture a less blame-able victim.

After the blow that knocked her to the ground, she says,

The guy was just standing by a tree, staring at me. He didn’t run…

Apparently, he didn’t try to rob her, either, or do much of anything, except stick around and wait to be arrested. Is any of this what a sane person does? Are these the actions of a person who is not mentally ill?

Word on the street is, after being released from prison in October, Adams was relatively stable for a while, before his behavior began to deteriorate. So it could be a medication issue, though this is not known. At any rate, violent behavior got him barred from the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, the shelter of last resort. As one local said, “If ARCH won’t take you, nobody will.”

But whether or not this particular homeless man has ever been officially diagnosed, he obviously should not be at large. No question about that. If he’s just plain violent, he needs to be locked up, like any other violent man, whether homeless or housed. If he’s mentally ill, he needs to be confined someplace more therapeutic than prison, and treated.

While it’s true that many of the mentally ill are substance abusers, we need to remember that addiction is also a disease. Movie star junkies get all kinds of sympathy and support as they “courageously battle” their habits. When homeless people become addicts, they’re supposed to have been able to prevent it from happening, and magically cure themselves.

And many, many Americans have been irrevocably damaged through absolutely no fault of their own. How many thousands of lost souls wander the streets, whose lives were blighted by fetal alcohol syndrome or shaken baby syndrome? Their heads will never be right. How many homeless veterans suffer from either organic brain damage or PTSD, or both?

David Evans of Austin Travis County Integral Care says that the frequency of violence among the mentally ill is no higher than among the average population. But violence engendered by mental illness can’t help but be more noticeable, because so many of the mentally ill are roaming around in the open, rather than being cared for. Austin American-Statesman columnist Andrea Ball reminds us,

Advocates say to remember that most homeless people aren’t violent. The jails are full of people who never lived on the streets.

Of the people experiencing both homelessness and mental illness, a very small percentage are violent and predatory. A much, much greater percentage are confused, beleaguered by their symptoms, and unable to manage their medication if they even have it. A great many of the mentally ill homeless are elderly, sick, weak, vulnerable, and practically helpless.

And when you think about the small percentage of homeless who are violent, whether through mental illness or sheer meanness, think about this. Homeless women and children have to deal with these dangerous individuals on a daily basis, through no fault of their own, and certainly not because they wish to keep this kind of company. Non-violent men don’t particularly enjoy hanging around with these guys, either. They don’t like it any more than you or I would. The difference is, we have doors that we can close.

Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless is calling for the creation of 1,000 permanent supportive housing units for the mentally ill. He says the 350 that have been funded, after a decade of hard work by activists, can’t be built because of Austin’s NIMBY (“Not In My Back Yard”) attitude.

The Fox TV news, by the way, quoted Richard:

The problem is, there is not an adequate response to people with mental health issues in the state, and more needs to be done for them.

One thing is certain. Criminalizing homelessness will not eradicate violence.


Source: “Woman Punched by Homeless Man Downtown,” Fox 7, 07/07/11
Source: “Empathy for the homeless not always easy,” Austin American-Statesman, 07/08/11
Image by rutlo (Matthew Rutledge), used under its Creative Commons license.


Brain Injury, Neglect, and Self-Destruction

Henry the Brain DamagedWhen Andrea Ball recently wrote about Austin’s anti-homeless ordinance, a reader commented,

There is less sympathy for veterans as homeless. They were provided a job by the government, received training worth $thousand to $hundred thousands, have significant lifetime benefits and yet chose to make bad decisions. How much more investment in a specific individual is required?

Well… about that job training… many of the skills are not transferable. They are totally useless for any kind of a civilian career. Sure, a lot of vets come back and join up with the police, but how many SWAT teams can even an increasingly militarized police force use? As for the question about how much investment in one individual is required, the answer is: However much it takes to get the person functioning again.

ProPublica (Journalism in the Public Interest) did an exhaustive series called “Brain Wars: How the Military Is Failing Its Wounded.” Just reading the titles of some of the many articles, you get the gist:

‘More Than Half of Recent War Vets Treated by VA Are Struggling With Mental Health Problems’

‘New Survey: Few Troops Exposed to Bomb Blasts Are Screened For Concussion’

‘Critical Shortage of Army Neurologists for U.S. Troops in Iraq and Afghanistan’

‘Congress to Investigate Pentagon Decision to Deny Coverage for Brain Injured Troops’

‘Soldiers With Brain Trauma Denied Purple Hearts, Adding Insult to Injury’

So, we’ve got something like 8,000 veterans in Los Angeles who collectively own a chunk of prime downtown real estate, yet have nowhere to live. And maybe 150,000 disability claims coming in from the Vietnam-era vets, whose defoliant-related diseases were just last year recognized as also being service-related. And a new batch coming along, victims of the chemicals released into the air by burn pits.

A large number of these disabled veterans are either already homeless, or are destined to experience homelessness, and the resources to provide what they need just aren’t there. But, not to worry. Some former military personnel have been helping to keep the homeless vet statistics down, by the simple expedient of removing themselves from the population.

In The Austin Chronicle, Michael Ventura recently mused on a news headline that caught his eye. “About 18 veterans commit suicide on an average day,” it said. It costs half a million dollars a year to keep a soldier on the ground in one of the current wars. But when they get home — nothing. Or very little. Or, as in the case of the Vietnam vets whose problems are just now being addressed, too little too late. It usually takes more than four years for the Department of Veterans Affairs to settle a mental health claim. And the appeal process is even more hellish than the original application.

Ventura says,

In neglect, many end their sufferings at the rate of about 18 a day — a toll, in one year, roughly twice that of those who died in the Twin Towers. This is called a ‘war on terror’? It is a war that terrorizes our veterans at a terrible cost to their sanity and their lives… Has there ever been a war in which a country lost more troops at home and by their own hands than on the battlefield? Tens of billions of dollars are spent on new weapons development while the Veterans Benefits Administration is understaffed and underfunded. What words could adequately describe such a measure of disgrace?


Source: “Brain Wars: How the Military Is Failing Its Wounded,” ProPublica
Source: “Letters at 3AM: About 18 a Day,” The Austin Chronicle, 07/01/11
Image by timstock_NYC (Tim Stock), used under its Creative Commons license.


How Change Happens

August 17, 2010: Richard R. Troxell and House the Homeless at the Austin City Council meeting

August 17, 2010: Richard R. Troxell and House the Homeless at the Austin City Council meeting.

When the words “City Council meeting” are mentioned, many people, for one reason or another, tend to zone out. But stick around, and you will hear an amazing thing. Last August, the philosophical position of House the Homeless was made clear by Richard R. Troxell and published by Mobile Loaves & Fishes, which also supplied a description of the circumstances, as follows:

Today as this blog posts the Health and Human Services Committee of the City of Austin is debating whether to amend the no sit/no lying down ordinance to exclude people with verifiable known disabilities… there is a lot of opposition…

The purpose of the session was for Richard to state the case, and for the Council to discuss it and mull it over. So, here is the amazing thing. Look at the signs. They say “Thank You.” The House the Homeless folks arrived with signs saying “Thank You,” as if the City Council had already decided to do the right thing. That is So. Extremely. Cool. Any young person interested in changing the world would be well advised to become an apprentice or intern for this organization. There couldn’t be a better education.

House the Homeless takes part in such meetings frequently, and Richard often speaks. Take a look at his health survey testimony from July 2010. Or his testimony earlier this year on the No Sit/No Lie Ordinance (which is also paradoxically known as the Sit/Lie Ordinance). House the Homeless went so far as to obtain a Memorandum of Law from TRLA (Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, Inc.), which emphasized the difficulties faced by the targets of the ordinance, and opined that, if reasonable accommodation were not provided for the disabled homeless, the city would be in violation of the Americans with Disabilities act. That is another interesting group, by the way. Its homepage, http://www.trla.org/, proudly quotes a frustrated bureaucrat:

I think that [TRLA] is the problem because they’re supplying these people with the information and they’re telling them all about the federal laws and everything.

Just when it seemed that progress might be made, someone changed the wording in Austin’s proposed Sit/Lie Ordinance, applying it only to physical disabilities. The Texas Civil Rights Project, a nonprofit group that fights for economic and racial justice for the poor, weighed in with a letter which Richard has also contributed to. Addressed to the Mayor and the Council, it emphasized that an ordinance which only protected people with physical disabilities would be discriminating against those with mental disabilities. It said,

We are of the opinion that all persons with disabilities should be exempt from fines and penalties under the ‘No Sit/No Lie’ ordinance, including those who are temporarily sitting down because of the effects of their disability.

James C. Harrington ended the letter with a reminder that the Texas Civil Rights Project would be happy to litigate the issue, but hoped it wouldn’t be necessary. Meanwhile, HtH suggested amending the ordinance with clearly stated exceptions, and the training of police officers to recognize those exceptions, and offered to provide officers with plastic cards listing the acceptable disabilities.

Eventually, after three “stakeholder” meetings and many televised City Council committee meetings, Richard decided,

I will take 50 guys and ask City council to Not give Austin a Black Eye. We will all have one black eye.

You would be astonished at the total number of hours and the amount of sheer tenacity required to win even a partial victory on this one issue alone. To learn how it came out, please see “Austin’s Revised Sit/Lie Ordinance,” in which we mentioned an article by the Austin journalist Andrea Ball, titled “New rules allow homeless people with disabilities to sit on sidewalks.” Imagine what Lenny Bruce would have done with material like that.

When “New rules allow homeless people with disabilities to sit on sidewalks” is a piece of good news, something has gone desperately awry. To get even this far, the city had to be reminded of human priorities and, perhaps more relevantly, of the possibility of a lawsuit. Imagine how many months and meetings it could take to convince the city to put more benches out there.

As Richard says,

The City also has the resources to mitigate the situation by merely providing benches for all citizens. The City Council chooses not to provide this alternative because the downtown business operators are afraid that people will use them. They probably wouldn’t mind… but it might not be ‘their’ people. So we end up with both selective enforcement and the withholding of resources (tax payer dollars) because we can’t selectively ensure that the recipients will be the ‘deserving folks.’

Meanwhile, nationally, why not just cut to the chase, and do something to end homelessness for over 1,000,000 minimum-wage workers, and prevent economic homelessness for all 10.1 million minimum-wage workers? That would be the Universal Living Wage, and more information about it is available on this page.


Source: “Austin,” Mobile Loaves & Fishes, 08/17/10
Image by House the Homeless.


The Unavoidable Problem of Human Waste

Public ToiletWe have talked about the inordinate amount of time, energy, and financial resources that are spent on preventing benches from being slept on, or even sat on by people experiencing homelessness. The same brand of madness goes on over public bathrooms. The object is to make the homeless disappear by not providing any public toilets. Now, nobody can find a place to take a leak, and don’t even think about the other thing.

Someone with money can spend a few bucks in a store or restaurant, thus earning the right to perform natural functions in their facilities. Someone without money can hold it till they get home. Someone without a home can pee in an alley. What a brilliant solution — not! This is a lose-lose-lose outcome for everybody except business owners, who pick up some extra revenue by capitalizing on an unavoidable human need.

There is a terrific organization called STREATS — that stands for “Homeless Individuals Striving To Reach Educate And Transform Society’s Views on Homelessness.” Its media division has produced a video called “Gotta Go.” About half-an-hour long, it contains lively commentary with some humor from some very articulate people on the subject of going to the bathroom.

We have talked about the ongoing conflict between housed residents and “rubber tramps” in Venice, California. Last fall, for instance, two people were arrested for dumping human waste from a camper toilet into the street. The prosecution wanted to put them in jail for 90 days, but the judge has ordered a 36-months probation, to pay restitution, and to get the heck out of Venice.

There is reportedly a legal RV waste disposal facility 7.7 miles away from the area where the Venetian vehicle dwellers tend to cluster, and it costs $10, which sounds reasonable. But there might be many reasons why people living in a parked RV could not or would not vacate the space they had claimed. It’s a tough problem.

In a newsletter, a local citizen gloated over the fate of another pair of miscreants, a couple with a nine-year-old child. They too were charged with dumping waste in the street, and their RV was seized as evidence and towed to an impound yard many miles away in the San Fernando Valley to await a release from the police. The citizen says, “Beautiful evening for a walk to the SFV.”

This is from Dana Goodyear’s “Street Scene” column in The New Yorker, a while back, reporting on the Skid Row area of Los Angeles:

Plastic outhouses were removed because people were using them for sex and drugs and deals, and now there are several self-cleaning, European-style public toilets whose doors automatically open after an interval.

This controversy carried quite a history, as shown by a piece written by Penelope McMillan 20 years earlier, about a particular settlement known as the “Love Camp,” with a distinctly different reputation than those of other Skid Row encampments of the time. The journalist wrote,

Its residents, numbering around 50, rotate cooking, cleaning and security duties and share the $70-a-month rental cost of the portable toilets.

What portable toilets? The ones that were a symbol to the camp’s inhabitants that they would not sink beyond a certain level, and would indeed rise again to take their places in society. The portable toilets that were snatched, one day at dawn, by a city work crew. On the same day, the camp’s leadership kept an appointment with city officials to supposedly arrange a “model cleanup,” to be used as a prototype for future sweeps meant to clear out the homeless population. Strange that the city’s idea of a “cleanup” should begin with stealing the toilets.

Just last week, Kathleen Edgecomb reported from New London, Connecticut, about the shutting off of a new fountain on a downtown plaza because people experiencing homelessness used it to clean themselves. Actually, the last straw was when a passing cop discovered an intoxicated man washing solid matter out of his pants. The homeless were accused of using the whole area as an outdoor toilet. The reporter quotes Cathy Zall, director of a 50-bed shelter, who reminds us that being homeless is not a crime, and that the majority of the problems are caused by a very small minority.

In Eugene, Oregon, there are a few areas where a tiny fraction of the people who live in vehicles can safely park, and the city provides portable toilets and garbage collection. Apparently, some cities did get a clue, to some extent. It’s not rocket science. In fact, humankind has figured out how astronauts can go to the bathroom in zero gravity, for Pete’s sake. Surely we can think of ways for people to go to the bathroom in a modern city.

In Austin, Texas, an online commentator complains that the hundred or so people who are turned away from the ARCH shelter every night tend to hang around the neighborhood and relieve themselves in streets and alleys, and that Waller Creek is called a “giant alky toilet.”

It’s a strange situation. The city apparently paid a design firm a million and a half dollars to create a plan for renovating the creek and the downtown area surrounding it. Then it ditched the plan and is currently looking for another.

Here’s a thought. Whatever money there is for the new plan, take half of that and hire a student instead. (That’s what homeless people do to get their teeth fixed — let students practice on them.) Then take the other half and build some freakin’ restrooms. There you go — problem solved.


Source: “Venice RV Dumpers Sentenced,” 100kissfm.com, 10/13/10
Source: “Street Scene ,” The New Yorker, 05/05/08
Source: “Skid Row Camp’s Portable Toilets Swept Away,” LA Times, 03/11/87
Source: “Fountain incident puts spotlight on homeless issue,” The Day, 06/08/11
Source: “Will the Waller Creek Development be the death of Red River music scene?,” Yelp, 10/24/09
Source: “Private conservancy outlines plan to rescue, revive Waller Creek,” Statesman.com, 04/27/11
Screen capture of Public Toilet in Skid Row, Los Angeles, California, used under Fair Use: Reporting.


Austin’s Revised Sit-Lie Ordinance

HomelessRecently Andrea Ball, a journalist with The Austin American-Statesman newspaper, wrote about changes made to Austin’s “No Sit/No Lie” ordinance. There had already been a sit-lie ordinance since 2005, one that included exceptions for people camping out to buy concert tickets, or watching a parade. When you look at it from a certain angle, that’s cold and harsh. Sitting on the sidewalk was okay for music lovers (with money to spend) and parade-goers (who cheer as politicians ride past and wave), but not okay for some homeless person who might have just gotten out of the hospital, or gone weeks without a decent night’s sleep. Ball writes,

Under the new rules, people with medical problems — such as diabetes, mental illness, heart problems or cerebral palsy — can sit or lie down for up to 30 minutes. If someone receives a ticket, they must to prove to the court that they have a disability and were experiencing a medical problem that forced them to rest at that moment. People can also sit down if they are in line to receive services…

Actually, anyone who receives a ticket is urged to bring it to Richard R. Troxell at the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH). It says so on the laminated list of guidelines published in English and Spanish, and distributed by House the Homeless. The guide spells out the law, and gives examples of the types of disabilities that might make a person need to sit down once in a while, and enumerates the kinds of documentation that could prevent a legal jam. On the day when they went into effect, Ball told her audience how the new rules came about:

Efforts to revamp the sit-lie ordinance began in the spring of 2010 after homeless people were ticketed for sitting down in line while waiting for service at a downtown health clinic… Homeless advocates claimed the practice was in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act because some of the people being ticketed had disabilities and the city needed to make reasonable accommodations for them.

Despite assurances from civic leaders that Austin does not criminalize homelessness, the sit-lie ordinance was enforced mainly against that population. Very many people who would not otherwise have been involved with the criminal justice system were ticketed and punished under this ordinance, for the crime of not having any other place to be. Ball goes on to relate how Richard and his colleagues counted the 2009 sit-lie tickets, and found that 96% of them had been issued to people experiencing homelessness. (Richard adds, “It is my belief that 100% of the people receiving these tickets were perceived to be homeless at the time of ticket issuance. I was only able to verify that 96% were experiencing homelessness at the time of the ticketing.)

This is a clue to why House the Homeless is such an effective organization. It herds the ducks into a row and presents facts to back up its claims and demands. For examples of the group’s thorough information-gathering methods, and how Richard uses the numbers to make strong cases, please see the “2011 Health Sleep Study” and “No Sit/No Lie: Troxell’s Testimony.”

The title of Andrea Ball’s article, by the way, is “New rules allow homeless people with disabilities to sit on sidewalks.” When we can read a sentence like that and not even blink, it’s indicative of a sad state of affairs. If a dictator were in charge, it would be tempting to sarcastically say, “Wow! People who have nowhere to live, can rest on the ground for half an hour if they’re sick. What a guy! Give that man a Nobel Peace Prize!”

But it wasn’t a dictator, it was a whole city. An entire city needed to be shamed and threatened with a lawsuit so that a disabled homeless person might officially be allowed to sit down. When a special dispensation is needed for that, society is really out of kilter. When the granting of such a permission is hailed as progress, it’s a sign that things have gone terribly wrong. Not to single out Austin — it’s like this in too many cities. As Richard says, “These laws are all over the country, and none of them make allowances for people with disabilities.” Homelessness is the new leprosy.

This point of view is amply reflected in some of the comments added by local readers to Ball’s story. “Filthy… stench… drunk… drugged… insane… junkies… psychotic… human scum…” One commentator would prefer to see Sixth Street napalmed, then bulldozed, all in the name of decency, of course. Others take the opportunity to rag on the sons and daughters of the Lone Star state. “Amazonbob” says,

Texans love to think of themselves as rough-tough cowboys…but somehow nothing seems as frightening to them as a bum. No wonder they need legislation allowing them to carry a glock in each hand and a machine gun in their rear end… there are homeless, emaciated, ragged bums in the world!

“GFWright” adds,

As for homeless people, if all Texans can do is focus their considerable hatred… at the most vulnerable people in society, they deserve their national reputation as cruel, crude, buffoons.

And a level-headed citizen called “Parkhill” says,

My friends, we live in perilous economic times: be careful whom you loathe because no one is immune from hard times.


Source: “New rules allow homeless people with disabilities to sit on sidewalks ,” The Austin American-Statesman, 04/30/11
Image by Ed Yourdon, used under its Creative Commons license.


A Crown Jewel in Austin?

(Note: Rather than use up space here on the background, the writer urges the reader to backtrack over the two previous articles about Austin’s Waller Creek Project.)

Looking South on Waller Creek from Sixth StreetThe Waller Creek Conservancy’s press release of April 28, 2011, says the group is made up of citizens who, as Councilwoman Sheryl Cole expressed it, want to “create a crown jewel amenity for our entire city.” But just the previous day, the editorial board of The Austin Statesman published an opinion piece, part of which goes like this:

Meanwhile, the stretch of Waller Creek that meanders through the eastern edge of downtown discourages visitors. Most Austinites have ceded the area to the transients who camp along the banks.

The authors speak of Waller Creek as “a waterway that suffers the twin indignities of neglect and abuse,” and “an environmental asset going to waste,” which the city ought to be embarrassed about. They say Waller Creek, if given a break, can meet its potential. They say the Conservancy will “give Waller Creek the break it needs to transform into the jewel it can be.”

The article contains lots of sentimental caring for the creek (which there is nothing wrong with, in and of itself), and zero mention of human beings except as undesirable “transients.” One appended comment recommends regular police patrols to “get rid of the campers,” despite the fact that everybody’s gotta be someplace. And check out this comment:

Why don’t we just start by killing the bums? Just a few at a time so nobody notices. Everybody wins!

That these remarks were published in the first place, and have not subsequently been deleted, is simply jaw-dropping. It’s abusive hate speech, and gives no indication of being meant as satire or “sick humor.” In other words, for a nominally reputable newspaper in a major city, The Statesman has an unusual Comments policy. Hate speech is a continuum that starts with talk and ends with death.

The entire article is astonishingly obtuse, breathtakingly smug, and shockingly insensitive. Hey, Austin! There are people on your streets suffering indignities of neglect and abuse. There are human assets going to waste, which should be an embarrassment to the city. There are people who could fulfill their potential, if given a break. There are homeless people who need to be transformed. And how about transforming Austin into the jewel of humanitarian awareness and activism that it could potentially be?

The city’s website has a “Frequently Asked Questions” page, all about the benefits of the Waller Creek Tunnel Project. It very helpfully mentions the construction of new facilities for boat owners, but we notice that not one of the frequently asked questions has to do with the impact on the homeless. The word “homeless” does not appear on the page, nor do the words “indigent” or “urban poor.” There is, however, a question and answer about how the project will help economic development in the city and county:

The Waller Creek Tunnel Project will put hundreds of people to work, including engineers, construction managers, electricians, truck drivers, plumbers, computer specialists, safety inspectors, general laborers, traffic control specialists, and landscapers, to name a few.

This is reminiscent of something — oh, right, the Soros organization’s Neighborhood Stabilization Initiative, which sounds like exactly the type of program that Austin needs. The NSI’s goal is to:

Link neighborhood stabilization to workforce development and broader economic opportunities for residents of the hardest hit communities through the use of transitional employment programs in property rehabilitation and asset management.

One might very well ask what has been done about training and hiring the people experiencing homelessness in Austin. And one might also wonder, like self-described disgruntled libertarian anarchist Charles Heuter, if any of it amounts to a hill of beans. He writes,

… the job-creation claimed in this document is temporary construction stuff, shoveled to well-connected civil engineering contractors. That’s something I don’t see mentioned often enough about these things: these aren’t jobs in the sense of a proper career. Some will last a few weeks, some maybe a fiscal quarter or two. Pulling out every dusty, graft-machine-and-neighborhood-association-approved wish list item doesn’t generate the kind of fundamental economic growth that stimulus proponents assume will happen. It’s a layer of icing over a hollow cupcake.

Then there were the comments on a page that can no longer be found for some mysterious reason. One of them said, “We need to have a city where the wealthy won’t feel nervous and uncomfortable.” This shows a touching concern for the privileged, which seems kind of unfair. The wealthy can always choose to stay home, enjoying every conceivable comfort and adequate security systems. The homeless have nowhere else to go. On that same lost page, a commentator called “loogrr” wrote,

…and the TRANSIENT problem must be dealt with too…how do you ever expect people to be attracted to LIVING downtown and pay 7 figures for high rise condo yet be unable to walk the streets after dark with Grandkids?? get real

On the other hand, a person known as “Old Blowhard” contributed this,

As strongly as I endorse conservative values, I’m just as strongly opposed to turning central Austin into a sanitized playground for the wealthy.

An enlightened society realizes that “our entire city” means the poor, too. An enlightened society realizes that homeless people also want to walk in safety after dark, or maybe sit in safety, and, yes, even sleep in safety. They have to be out there. They don’t have a choice about it. And, strangely enough, some of them have grandkids, too. An Austin acquaintance recently wrote, regarding the homeless, “The way they are treated here is criminal.”

Now, someone might ask, “And who are you to criticize and challenge what goes on in Austin?” That’s a valid question, and the answer is, nobody. Which is precisely why I decided to flap my jaws about it. I don’t have a dog in this race. As an outsider looking in, I’m in an ideal position to cheerlead the good-hearted people of Austin and point out how this beautiful city is in a position to show the world that a metropolis can prosper and help its least privileged citizens flourish at the same time. Austin has an unparalleled opportunity to set an example and be a shining light, and, yes, even create a crown jewel.


Source: “Waller Creek Conservancy, City of Austin Enter Into Historic Public-Private Partnership,” PR Newswire, 04/28/11
Source: “Choreographing Waller Creek’s reclamation,” The Statesman, 04/27/11
Source: “Waller Creek FAQ,” City of Austin
Source: “Austin’s Government Wants $1,032,296,350 of Our Money,” Drizzten.com, 02/04/09
Image by William Beutler, used under its Creative Commons license.


The Waller Creek Challenge in Austin, Texas

Tunnel Conceptual ProfileLast time, we outlined some of the issues surrounding the revitalization project planned for the Waller Creek corridor in downtown Austin, Texas. The first stage, the tunnel that will divert floodwaters, has begun. Businesses logically fear ruination by water damage, so once the threat of flooding is removed, this will encourage the growth of new businesses and, of course, increase the downtown property values and thus the tax base.

You’d think it would be possible to get even that far without objections, but you’d be mistaken. Even though the property owners in the immediate area, comprising Tax Increment Financing Reinvestment Zone No. 17, will be paying for a lot of the upfront costs, the city will be responsible for all the upkeep of the tunnel after 20 years (and, in this context, 20 years tends to slide by quickly). The city and county are paying now, but here’s an interesting footnote, courtesy of Wells Dunbar of The Austin Chronicle:

But the council also agreed to help fund the project via a small ‘drainage’ increase on Austin Water utility bills, an approximate 40-cent increase expected to ultimately collect more than $50 million.

That news prompted Brian Rodgers, co-founder of ChangeAustin.org, to ask the reporter a rhetorical question:

Why should all utility customers be required to subsidize Waller Creek landowners with $55 million from a regressive new drainage rate hike?

The opinion is shared by others, such as an online commentator called “Beano,” who writes,

This is about private gain from public investment. The property owners along this creek bought knowing they were in a flood zone. If they want something nicer and less flood prone, the rest of Austin should not be asked to pay for it.

Another citizen, known as “Big Texan,” adds,

It would be nice if the City Council would put limits on any commitments associated with this ‘project’. The idea of another unfunded and open-ended obligation is reckless.

But what’s done is done. The TIF zone is set up, ground has been broken for the tunnel, and the whole project is underway. Once the tunnel is finished, then the real work begins — the renovation of the above-ground area within the zone: Waller Creek and its surroundings.

The trouble is, from a certain perspective, this whole project looks like one big plot to rid Austin of its people experiencing homelessness — and not by housing them, but by shoving them out of the landscape. Ejecting the homeless is always a hoped-for side benefit when any city undertakes major public works or, for instance, prepares to host the Olympics or a political convention.

Civic leaders and politicians are usually too PR-savvy to come right out and say it, but locals who offer their opinions to the editorial pages and online comment threads can be quite unapologetically frank about the importance of street-people removal on their list of priorities.

Controversy has swirled around the massive and many-faceted Waller Creek master plan since it was conceived, making Austin an ideal case study for what happens when settled, monied interests clash with the needs of the ever-increasing number of the urban homeless. Many different populations will be affected in many different ways.

This is reflected by the composition of the Waller Creek Citizen Advisory Committee. And it is not the only one with an interest in the project. For instance, let’s take the homeless, and ask a question that, one hopes, has been asked by at least somebody on the Citizen Advisory Committee. With a big honkin’ civic project like this going on, what efforts are being made to hire the homeless?

As another Austin Chronicle reporter, Marc Savlov, pointed out, the majority of Austin’s homeless are people who are “struggling to regain a functioning, solid foothold into society-at-large.” Many of them are the working homeless, whom Richard R. Troxell calls the “economic homeless.” Yes, many homeless people do work, and more would work if they could get jobs, and many who are already working would welcome the chance to get better jobs. Savlov says,

For sleeping arrangements, a few pitch their tents as far south as Stassney Lane or West Gate Boulevard, coming into the Downtown area to work at steady employment ranging from roofing companies to construction to maintenance gigs. But none of their day jobs straight-pay enough of a living wage to secure and maintain what you and I would call a home: four walls, a roof, first and last months’ deposit, plus real-world essentials such as utilities and a phone.

Although some of the downtown businesses make some kind of effort to alleviate the symptoms of homelessness, not a lot is being done to solve the underlying problems. The journalist quoted Richard, and we can’t do better here than to quote him again:

Livable incomes breaks down into two factions, those who can work and those who can’t work. For those who can work, we’re promoting the Universal Living Wage, which goes to fix the federal minimum wage, $7.25 an hour, which is currently insufficient to get by on. Our goal is to take it from a federal minimum wage to a universal living wage. Even the U.S. Conference of Mayors, year after year, when asked what the single greatest contributor to homelessness is, says it’s the fact that you can work a full-time, minimum-wage job and not be able to afford basic food, clothing, shelter.

It seems like this should be fairly self-evident, but apparently it’s not quite clear to many solid citizens who have the good fortune to be employed and housed. If people have jobs, they buy stuff. They are magically transformed into customers.

Why can’t merchants and housed citizens learn to see homeless people as potential customers? After all, America did something that would not have been imaginable in the 1960s. We managed the mind-bending feat of learning how to see the Red Chinese as potential customers. (Unfortunately, the noble experiment of normalizing relations with China turned out somewhat differently than envisioned. We buy a bunch of crap from them.) But the point is, compared to that great leap of imagination, picturing homeless Americans as people who might actually go into stores and spend money ought to be easy.

So, Austin, what are you doing about hiring the homeless for this ambitious, multi-staged, multi-million-dollar project? And then, there’s this. Check out the contractor’s name on the Conceptual Profile of the tunnel: Kellogg Brown & Root. Yes, KBR of Iraq war, military-contractor fame. Considering the outrageous pile of money the company has made from that adventure, how about a little reciprocation, on this tunnel project?

I challenge the contractors involved in the Waller Creek Project to use Veterans, Homeless Veterans and Formerly Homeless Veterans to make up 51% of the employed people involved in the construction of this project.
Richard R.Troxell
Viet Nam Veteran- Marines


Source: “Private conservancy outlines plan to rescue, revive Waller Creek,” The Statesman, 04/27/11
Source: “Money Flows to Waller Creek,” The Austin Chronicle, 02/25/11
Source: “DAA Proposes New Anti-Solicitation Ordinance,” The Austin Chronicle, 10/09/09
Image of Conceptual Tunnel Profile, used under Fair Use: Reporting.


The Many Sides of Waller Creek

Upper Waller CreekThese words sound wonderful. Urban greenbelt improvement, smart growth, vibrancy, enhancement, economic viability — what’s not to like? Who could be against any of that? And indeed it does sound pretty good in a lot of ways. This is the Waller Creek District Master Plan we’re talking about, in Austin, Texas.

The creek runs through a long stretch of downtown, and it has been neglected. It’s surrounded by entertainment venues and other businesses that bring in millions in tax revenue, and it’s going to be revamped in a project with several stages, over many years. The idea that Waller Creek will eventually resemble San Antonio’s River Walk is for some Austin residents a dream, and for others a nightmare.

This is not just cosmetic surgery. There is real need for protection against flooding, and that problem is being addressed by the first stage of the project, the Waller Creek tunnel, whose groundbreaking ceremony took place last month (and was described by Jude Galligan in his Downtown Austin Blog.) When the tunnel is complete, 28 acres of previously dicey and unreliable real estate will be available for development and, of course, taxation.

Once the threat of flood damage has been avoided, the creek itself will receive the attention of engineers and landscapers, especially to prop up its banks and put a stop to some serious erosion. So it’s not only good for business, but also good for the environment. And for people who own boats, for whom life will be nicer. (There are even folks who want to remodel the creek to accommodate competitive whitewater rafting.) Downtown property values will rise. All this opulence will attract more citizens to live downtown, which the city devoutly wants, but only if they pay mortgages or rent.

And guess who’s in the way, as usual? Those pesky homeless people, who are even called aggressive, and no doubt some individuals are — just like speculators, merchants, and smug housed people, who can be not only aggressive but hostile and ruthless at times. Some say the creek area is a blighted insult to Austin’s reputation for being “clean, green, and safe.” A local with a poetic streak described it as “sort of a backyard underworld/no man’s land.”

Journalist Wells Dunbar tells us that Waller Creek

[…] never blossomed into the tourist attraction and growth-driver the city hoped for; instead, its overgrown and hidden trails became a watering hole of sorts for Austin’s homeless, surrounded by odious, stagnant waters.

Yes, some creekside areas are inhabited by people experiencing homelessness. And does anyone actually believe that people would really prefer to live in an oversized drainage ditch?

One fear shared by the homeless and their compassionate friends and advocates is that, on some level, this whole project is just a fancy excuse to shove the homeless out of the area. An Austin acquaintance tells us that the wealthy want to keep the homeless away from the University of Texas campus and the nightlife hotspots of Red River. Another informant says “smart growth” seems to mean “bring as many hip young white people into downtown Austin as possible,” and adds,

There isn’t enough money to adequately maintain the parks that we DO have. The city pool closest to my home has been empty for two years now because the city claims there’s no money to fix it. I would imagine the developers in the Waller Creek area would love nothing more than to run off the transient population and continue the ‘gentrification’ of the whole east side downtown area.

Of course, a project of this magnitude has been discussed for a long time. Austin is, and always has been, renowned for its music scene. Several popular venues are within the project’s boundaries, and some of them will be unable to adapt, or so it is predicted. In October of 2009, there was a conversation online among people intensely concerned about the future and fate of that scene, as it will be impacted by the Waller Creek renovation.

Some people want the ARCH to move. That’s the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, which occupies the designated area, along with just about every other social service provider, agency, shelter, and bureaucracy there is. If people experiencing homelessness are to put their lives back together, the tools and assistance they need are downtown, and so is the public transportation to get to them.

Homeless people are downtown not only to sleep and eat, but for medical care, job counseling, legal help, and to get their papers in order. Downtown is where the resources are, and this is not going to change any time soon. Yet there is an arrogant assumption that established services that so many good people fought long and hard to create ought to be displaced so that monied interests can be served instead.

One writer characterizes the shelter as “inexplicably and inappropriately” located in a neighborhood where there are bars. Of course, this same person would probably complain if the facility were in a neighborhood with families. (Some people are never satisfied.) He worries about the “concomitant illegal activity” that accompanies the shelter, as if the tourists and locals who frequent the bars never do anything illegal. And an area resident commented,

I have seen more patrons of these fine establishments peeing outside than homeless.

No one worries that the homeless will actually drink in the pricey downtown bars, which they couldn’t afford anyway. It’s the customers they worry about. An inebriated club patron may be a genial, generous, easy touch to a panhandler, or a tempting victim to a mugger. Either way, the business owners don’t want their clientele hassled.

Another thing that offends housed people, is the sight of homeless people lined up outside the shelter, waiting for nonexistent beds. Every night, according to one critic, as many as a hundred luckless folks don’t get a bed, and then they hang around the area. The presence of the ARCH downtown is equated with the folly of building a nuclear plant on a seismic fault line.

There is a belief that the shelter devalues all the properties in the area, especially the vacant lot across the street, which one commentator is particularly concerned about for some reason. He suggests that selling the land could bring a tidy profit, enough to move somewhere else. Some say the shelter is only downtown because no other neighborhood wanted it. But still, it should be possible to find land outside the city and move the shelter there.

Of course, the voice of common sense replies that relocating the ARCH will not cause the homeless to leave the city, but only make additional trouble and expense for down-and-out people who have enough of those things already. Anyway, nobody seems to be seriously contemplating that move, according to Sheryl Cole, Austin City Council member and Waller Creek Conservancy stakeholder. Cole has also been quoted as saying that homelessness can’t be swept under the rug, and the people of Austin need to be brave enough to address it head on.

And one school of thought holds that anybody who would pay $7 for a beer deserves to be panhandled.


Source: “Waller Creek Groundbreaking Ceremony,” Downtown Austin Blog, 04/08/11
Source: “Money Flows to Waller Creek,” The Austin Chronicle, 02/25/11
Source: “Will the Waller Creek Development be the death of Red River music scene?,” Yelp.com, 10/24/09
Image by MicklPickl, used under its Creative Commons license.


Homeless Women Especially Vulnerable to Violence

Vancouver November 2005The concept of a hate crime has to do with civil rights, identity politics, and quite a few other sociological factors. The idea is that although it is wrong to hurt or kill a person, it is especially wrong to hurt or kill a person just because of their skin color, sexual or religious orientation, or other defining characteristic, depending on the jurisdiction. When people are at risk of being hurt or killed for the hate motive alone, they can be legally deemed a Protected Class, meaning that if the assailant is caught and tried, the penalty ought to be extra tough.

Why do we need the Protected Homeless Class Resolution? Briefly, because some people just simply have no alternative to living in public places. Their ordinary actions are criminalized by the authorities. Uniformed enforcers show up, and are seen to harass or brutalize the homeless. This example encourages every cowardly hater in the area to conclude that it’s okay to prey upon the homeless. Some of these bozos even talk themselves into believing they are doing the world a favor by eliminating the homeless as if they were vermin. On city streets or in rural homeless encampments, women are more vulnerable than men. Their numbers are fewer, and nature has not equipped them for effective self-defense. Objectified and depersonalized, they make attractive victims.

Last week, a homeless woman who occupied the hallway of a Milwaukee apartment building was beaten to death with a brick. From El Paso, Texas, Daniel Borunda reported on the issuing of an arrest warrant for a murder. In March, the body of Venus Sloan Driscoll was found in a desert lot. Driscoll had lived in a tent, and the fact that she apparently was killed by another person experiencing homelessness does not lessen the horror of this crime. In a properly functioning society, both killer and victim would have been somewhere else, doing something else with their lives.

Mid-April, in New Orleans, Chantell Christopher’s body was found under a highway exit ramp. She was beaten to death, and the crawlspace where her body was found was actually also where she lived. Jarvis DeBerry, editorial writer and columnist for The Times-Picayune, tells us that a grieving crowd attended a memorial service for Christopher in the garden of a church last Thursday afternoon. She was mentally ill, and somewhere, two children survive her. To find out more about homelessness as background for his story, DeBerry interviewed clients of a program called Ciara Community Services and Permanent Housing. One of his informants was, like Christopher and so many other people experiencing homelessness, mentally ill. But he was sufficiently in touch with reality to understand that, even if he contacted family members, they too were probably just hanging on in this terrible economy.

It’s like that for a lot of street people, even if they have others who care. The friends and family members are struggling themselves and can’t really do much, except shoulder the added burden of feeling bad about being unable to help. And some, whether rightly or wrongly, have too much pride to reveal that they are homeless, or to ask for help. Apparently, Christopher had not let her family know the depth of her troubles. The writer says,

Put Chantell’s, Cyril’s and William’s stories together, and you’re struck by their determination to make it without anybody’s help — even though help is necessary for anybody trying to overcome the challenges of mental illness.

From Austin, Texas, Chris Sadeghi relayed the news of a homeless woman found in a storage unit, after spending two days there with head injuries and a broken leg. The space was rented by a man who probably used it as living quarters, and he felt entitled to punish his victim for behavior that didn’t please him. Reportedly, he bashed her head against a concrete surface nearly 20 times. Sadeghi sought out Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless, who explained the unfortunate tendency of people to look for such unorthodox living arrangements:

We are talking about the need to have safe decent affordable housing and it is not available at the wage people are being paid. So people are looking for alternatives and sometimes they are not the best alternatives.

These are exactly the kinds of situations that Richard’s Protected Homeless Class Resolution (PHCR) was created to prevent. It contains these words:

THERFORE, BE IT RESOLVED: That persons without a fixed, permanent, individual place of residence, and those that are earning 100% of Federal Poverty Guidelines or less, are sufficient in number characteristics, and vulnerability to compromise a distinct class of people, and as a result, shall hence forth constitute a Protected Class with all rights and protections under such a designation. Herein after, this Protected Class, will be referred to as the Indigent Homeless Population.

The PHRC would protect the indigent homeless from being treated as second-class citizens or non-citizens. It would protect them from laws against sleeping in public, and add extra to the penalties imposed on predators who take advantage of people who have no choice but to sleep in public. Hopefully, it would go some way toward decreasing the number of hate crimes. The PHRC has been adopted by the National Coalition for the Homeless, but not by any city, state or the federal government… yet.


Source: “Homeless woman beaten to death in Milwaukee,” The Examiner, 04/24/11
Source: “Suspect sought in slaying of homeless woman,” El Paso Times, 04/16/11
Source: “At memorial for New Orleans murder victim, a heavenly hope takes on new meaning,” The Times-Picayune, 05/01/11
Source: “Woman beaten, locked in storage unit,” KXAN.com, 04/29/11
Image by quinet (Thomas Quine), used under its Creative Commons license.