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First-Person Homeless: Kirsten Anderberg

Apartment houseAs we recall from English class, if someone tells or writes a narrative using “I,” that story is being told in the first person. There is a quite a growing body of “first-person homeless” literature, and Kirsten Anderberg is one of its shining lights. Her first university degree was in political science. Last year, she became a Master of Arts in history and archiving.

This is from her bio:

She has published more articles in first person by a woman street performer than ever published prior in history. Her historical work regarding street performance and busking is filling a gap too long neglected.

These achievements are splendid, but consider the irony. If ever there was a writer with no need of diplomas to certify her mastery, Anderberg is that writer — brilliant, with street cred up the wazoo (a perfectly valid expression, meaning “in great abundance or plentiful supply,” and, in this case, it also means “equivalent to a Ph.D.”)

Most of her published work has stemmed from first-hand experience in the areas of natural health, political activism, civil rights, poverty, feminism, performing arts, homelessness, and institutional history. Her “Philanthropy in Child Protection Institutions,” subtitled “Community Volunteers Be Aware: Gifts Can Make Kids Targets in Institutions,” is outstandingly powerful and revelatory. We admire those who speak truth to power, but Anderberg does something even more rare and courageous: she speaks truth to the well-intentioned but clueless.

With a target in her sights, Anderberg is merciless and unrelenting. Her piece on the Section 8 voucher program for low-income housing assistance is absolutely scathing. It drips with scorn, and not in any fuzzy, generalized way. It is packed with specific examples of egregious failure spelled out in chapter and verse. She relates several nightmare scenarios — not imaginary ones — but horrible situations that have actually happened to people she knew and has worked with.

Apparently, in any given area, 90% of the rental units cost more than the Housing Authority has decided a Section 8 tenant can pay. Excesses and follies, Anderberg tells it like it is, explains it all for you, and ties it up in a ribbon with a bow. How many people do you know who would actually call 300 different Los Angeles apartment ads to determine that only three landlords would take Section 8 vouchers?

And then she explains the big Catch-22. Really, it’s amazing that anyone ever finds a place to rent. The waiting time to get into the program can be unbelievable, long enough so a single mother’s kids grow up and leave home before she can qualify, and then because there are no kids, she still can’t qualify.

Anderberg says,

It seems at every turn the government is trying to make sure only a small percentage of those who qualify for Section 8 can get it, and then those who finally do get it, cannot use it!… Many people give up every month in exhaustion, not using their Section 8, forfeiting it after waiting years for it, as they could not find any way to actually use it for rent anywhere.

Even the minor irritations are inimical to the quality of life. Like having the marked Housing Authority vehicle pull up to your door to make an inspection, letting all the neighbors know your loved ones are Section 8 riff-raff.

Furthermore,

The Section 8 ‘inspections’ seem more to check on the participants’ behaviors and lifestyles than to actually inspect for housing code and standards violations.

Then there is the ridiculous rule against shared housing:

If two welfare moms with Section 8 wanted to team up and try to find an affordable house together, costing the state less in funds for rent, Section 8 will not pay for that: the two women must rent separate rental units, probably apartments instead, at higher prices, which actually pleases the landlords.

A comment to Anderberg’s (republished elsewhere) article noted that things were somewhat better on the East coast, and added,

Section 8 housing is actually to the advantage of the owner because that means he has to keep places open as section 8 housing and gets a check regardless of if someone is living in it… Any landlord who doesn’t have section 8 housing is an idiot. Most will instantly take it because if there is an empty house in your unit you can pimp the system… A lot of the funds for repairs on the units come from the section 8 money. They are instant money in the bank.

Getting back to Anderberg: She has more to say about landlords, too. And the government:

In all reality, the only reason the Section 8 program is funded and allowed to continue is that it is designed to benefit land owners, much more than the renters. Section 8 does not help renters become home owners. Section 8 will not allow Section 8 renters to pay their rent towards home ownership, as in a mortgage, they may only use Section 8 for temporary rentals, turning it in essence, into a benefits program for land owners…

There is a serious housing crisis and the chasm between the have and have-nots has never been more obvious. This band-aid program of Section 8 vouchers barely functions in reality… Section 8 vouchers are often not worth the paper they are written on… In essence, the government has made the Section 8 voucher program nearly impossible to use, while feigning the illusion of concern and remedy.

“Minimum wage is not equal to minimum rents,” Anderberg says, and, of course, that is what the Universal Living Wage is all about. All Americans who work 40 hours a week should be able to afford basic housing wherever they live. We can end economic homelessness for over a million people and prevent economic homelessness for all of 10.1 million minimum-wage workers. Learn more about the Universal Living Wage.

Reactions?

Source: “Kirsten Anderberg,” Amazon.com
Source: ““Section 8″: The Myths of Low Income Housing in the U.S.,” Mostly Water, 09/19/08
Image by Sir_Iwan (Pawel), used under its Creative Commons license.

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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.

Reactions?

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

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HomeAid Live – a Social Media Event

HomeAid

HomeAid is scheduled for November 11 and 12, during the National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. It is a virtual happening, very Earth-friendly. (And besides, everybody is too broke to travel. If any spare change is lurking between the couch cushions, better to donate it to the cause than spend it on gas.) David Mathison, CEO and co-host of Be The Media, says:

This will be a truly green event. Since everything is online, there is no place to fly or drive, no trees to cut down for posters or tickets, and minimal waste: there’s almost no damage to the environment.

Parts of it will come, courtesy of YouTube live streaming video, from the Apollo Theater in New York and also from Nashville, Tennessee, and many other places. The event’s publicity literature says,

Celebrities, artists, and performers from across the country are contributing exclusive video content that will be streamed on the HomeAid.net website… Many artists plan to hold live ‘house parties’ right from their homes, streamed via webcam… Fans will have many ways to participate, from uploading their own videos to spreading the word on social media sites, and even downloading mobile applications for the iPhone or Android.

And house parties! The whole point here is to share the experience with friends. Participation guarantees a global audience for the performers and the video artists. Regular people can participate just as much by helping spread the word and encourage others to join in. And have a party! In terms of sheer unprecedented numbers, HomeAid will probably become known as the Woodstock of the Internet.

HomeAid is also a national nonprofit organization that has, over the last 20 years, helped 100,000 people get back on their feet. What they do is, build and maintain shelters where homeless families and individuals can regain their dignity and reconstruct their lives. Currently, there are 20 chapters in 14 states.

The most recent addition to the crew is Ken Kragen, who put together the immensely successful We Are the World, as well as Net Aid and Hands Across America. The CEO of HomeAid is Jeffrey Slavin, who is understandably jazzed about the prospect of this event, which is still in the planning stages, and still looking for sponsors and for suggestions on more ways to be even more spectacular. Slavin says,

Because the event takes place online, anyone can watch it from anywhere in the world, and anyone can donate to the cause.

Never has an event been so easy to get involved with, for either an organization or an individual. That’s why the graphic on this page is the first image from their Sponsor Deck, which is pretty much what you’d see if you were in a conference room for a presentation. If you would like a Sponsor Deck of your very own, please go to the Sponsor Page and fill out the form. After receiving the Sponsor Deck, you will be equipped with an immense amount of detail about every aspect of the project and exactly how to become involved.

Here are four more online ways to connect with HomeAid:

The Website
Facebook
Twitter
YouTube
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Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless has been (again) a guest on BlogTalkRadio, interviewed by Zane Safrit. He is the host of a long-running show on small-business success, business innovation, and the economy. Richard and Zane first met in February to discuss Richard’s new book, Looking Up at the Bottom Line: The Struggle for the Living Wage. Zane was so surprised at finding common ground with someone advocating a major increase in the entry-level wages that he has invited Richard back to further discuss the economics of the living wage.

After a brief update on House the Homeless‘ campaign against Austin’s “No Sit/No Lie” ordinance, Richard and Zane talk about the working homeless in the United States: those who hold minimum-wage jobs but can’t afford minimum housing. What would happen if these millions of workers got a raise? A massive economic boom, as the least among us are able to buy the products generated by a consumer society.

For information on how to prevent homelessness before it even happens, please learn more about the Universal Living Wage, the plan that can end homelessness for over 1,000,000 minimum-wage workers and prevent economic homelessness for all of 10.1 million minimum-wage workers.

Reactions?

Source: “HomeAid: A Virtual Event to Benefit America’s Homeless,” HomeAid.net, 01/11/11
Source: “Richard Troxell: Author Looking Up at the Bottomline, Part 2,” BlogTalkRadio.com, 05/04/11
Image from HomeAid, used under Fair Use: Reporting.

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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

Reactions?

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.

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Homeless is Another Word for Nothing Left to Lose

Homeless HoarderIn Houston, Texas, a pair of documentarians roamed the streets to connect with people experiencing homelessness.
They had one specific purpose in mind: to learn what possessions people hold onto when everything else has to be jettisoned. The writer is John Nova Lomax, the photographer is Daniel Kramer, and their first discovery was old news:

It practically goes without saying, but the homeless are everywhere downtown — they throng San Jacinto Street pretty much from southern Midtown all the way to Buffalo Bayou and beyond, they are all around the vicinity of the downtown library, and many of them line the bayou’s banks at Allen’s Landing, and many others make their homes near the courthouse complex.

It comes as no surprise that photos are the most cherished of portable items, because they are certainly among the most portable of cherished items. One man kept a photo of his daughter in her official high school graduation robe, and he’s proud to relate that she went on to college. Another kept an Army beret to memorialize his veteran father. One depended on his laptop computer.

A very practical fellow named his bedroll as his favorite possession, and his second was a small pocketknife. He told the documentary team, “I ain’t had to cut nobody yet or nothin’ like that…” At the other end of the spectrum, some street people find comfort in a rosary or a New Testament. One person’s treasured item had been a Bible, but it went missing. Another had owned a John 3:16 medal, but it was gone. (The verse is, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”)

One man said his prized possession was his own heart, because it held his love of Jesus. Of course, the interviewees talked about other matters too, such as how they ended up on the streets. When a trained electrician with 18 years experience can’t find work, something is seriously awry with society. By the way, if it’s ever been in your mind to give one small, quick, no-strings-attached present to a homeless person, Lomax has a suggestion. Apparently, a cheap transistor radio with headphones and a lanyard for suspending it around a person’s neck can be bought for about $6. It’s a small thing, but the kind of gift that really does keep on giving.

Small things are really all you can have if you’re homeless. What does a person even do with a jacket on a warm day? Wear it or carry it. Because you’re going to need it at night. But what about high summer, when it’s hot as Hades all night long? You sure don’t want to keep a jacket with you all the time. What about when winter comes? A jacket will sure come in handy then. But what the hell are you supposed to do with it in the meantime?

Maybe you’re lucky enough to own a suitcase or duffel bag or even a nice big camping-style backpack. It’s a place to keep stuff, but then you need a place to keep it. Or lug it around everywhere — to the soup kitchen, to the free clinic. To the job counseling office, and if you’re lucky enough to get some kind of interview, then where do you leave your stuff? Carrying a duffel around says “homeless” to the world, it’s a much a sign of pariah status as the bells that lepers used to wear.

When a city has a No Camping ordinance — what city does not these days? — the law very likely forbids not only fire-making, cooking, setting up a tent, and sleeping, but “storing personal belongings.” That’s right, thou shalt not leave thy stuff anywhere.

At Change.org, SlumJack Homeless discusses his method of dealing with possessions, which is a bicycle with an attached trailer. It’s better than a shopping cart, but still precludes a lot of activities. The problem of material goods is one of the reasons why he prefers the streets to the shelters, because there is no provision for the safety of belongings.

Now, it’s easy to understand why a shelter doesn’t want all these various conglomerations of stuff on the premises. For one thing, bedbugs are a continuing and terrible problem. The more items that are allowed through the door, the more likelihood of infestation, which of course can only be bad for any shelter residents who aren’t yet carrying bedbugs around. SlumJack Homeless says,

This forces people to a ridiculous minimum of belongings… one of the factors that actually contributes to perpetuating a person’s homeless predicament. Also, you DON’T want other people at shelters to see what you DO own and have. There are many thieves that will then know what you’re carrying around with you, many of whom you WILL run across later… at night, alone, etc.

Let’s just short-circuit this problem by bringing into reality the Universal Living Wage, which can end homelessness for over 1,000,000 minimum-wage workers, and prevent economic homelessness for all 10.1 million minimum wage workers. Then people can keep their stuff in their own place, and close and lock the door. Sounds like a plan!

Reactions?

Source: “Prized Possessions — Homeless in Houston share their most important objects,” Houston Press, 01/20/11
Source: “Why I Choose Streets Over Shelter,” Change.org, 06/03/09
Image by Richard Masoner, used under its Creative Commons license.

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The Crime of Breathing While Homeless

No PanhandlingIn the United States over the past three decades, we have seen the invention of many new crimes (Driving While Hispanic, Voting While Black, Flying While Muslim, etc.) that are not officially on the books. But they are all too real for the people caught up in them. One of the new crimes is, apparently, Breathing While Homeless.

Check out this Executive Summary from the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH). Its full title is “A Dream Denied: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities.” The numbers it utilized are a few years old, but if anyone imagines that things have improved since then, we have a nice bridge to sell them. (The bridge comes ready-equipped with a used tarpaulin, several sheets of prime cardboard, and… well, that’s all, actually.)

Depending on location, the statistics on people experiencing homelessness, and on available shelter space, may fluctuate. But the tendency to make homelessness a law enforcement problem continues to change for the worse. The authors of this report studied laws and practices in 224 cities and concluded,

This trend includes measures that target homeless persons by making it illegal to perform life-sustaining activities in public.

It mentions activities we have discussed on this blog, such as sitting, sleeping, camping, cooking, eating, or begging in public places. Of course, most cities figure out quickly that a two-pronged approach works best. Go after the people experiencing homelessness, AND go after the people who try to help, such as organizations that provide food. Here are some of the measures that have been taken by municipalities in the Orwellian name of “Quality of Life,” according to the NCH report:

* Legislation that makes it illegal to sleep, sit, or store personal belongings in public spaces in cities where people are forced to live in public spaces;
* Selective enforcement of more neutral laws, such as loitering or open container laws, against homeless persons;
* Sweeps of city areas where homeless persons are living to drive them out of the area, frequently resulting in the destruction of those persons’ personal property, including important personal documents and medication; and
* Laws that punish people for begging or panhandling to move poor or homeless persons out of a city or downtown area.

There are of course numerous civil rights issues. Laws against vagrancy and loitering have always been constitutionally shaky, especially when the exact same behavior is accepted if the miscreant has a home where the police can tell them to go. (At Venice Beach, California, there used to be a street guy with a great line. If some tourist or local resident offended him, he would yell like a scolding parent, “Go to your room!”)

When a homeless person’s belongings are searched, or seized and arbitrarily destroyed, that’s Fourth Amendment territory. Begging for spare change just might be protected under the First Amendment. Then you’ve got the Eight Amendment, the one concerning cruel and unusual punishment, which applies when a person is accused of the heinous crime of sleeping.

So, what is accomplished by anti-homeless laws? They move people away from the centers, usually located in the inner city, where services such as food and job counseling are available. They make getting to these places even more difficult for people who must depend on buses (if they are lucky) or their own power of walking, to get around. Restrictive ordinances award thousands of homeless people with criminal records, as if they needed any more strikes against them in their efforts to emerge from the bottom layer of society. And the price of incarceration — don’t get us started. Jail is two or three times as expensive as supportive housing.

And then, there’s the little matter of international law. Our nation has signed on to global human rights agreements, prescribing humane treatment of people experiencing homelessness, which is fine for other countries but which we ourselves apparently don’t feel compelled to honor.

The report also offers some rays of light in a section called “Constructive Alternatives to Criminalization,” which is full of good ideas that have been either tried or contemplated by various localities. It offers helpful recommendations for the benefit of city governments, business groups, and the legal system, in dealing with these issues. Answers are proposed for both the chronic homeless, and the working poor or “economic homeless,” those who are unable to afford basic housing even though they have jobs.

However, House the Homeless has one big idea that would pretty much cover everything, and take away the need for each city to figure it out for themselves. It’s called the Universal Living Wage, and it will end homelessness for over 1,000,000 minimum-wage workers, and prevent economic homelessness for all 10.1 million minimum wage workers. You can also find out all about it in Richard R. Troxell’s book, Looking Up at the Bottom Line.

Reactions?

Source: “A Dream Denied: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities,” NationalHomeless.org
Image by quinn.anya (Quinn Dombrowski), used under its Creative Commons license.

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Brianna Karp — One Woman’s Homeless Story

Homeless ShelterA lot of people have been writing about homelessness lately, and they fall into categories. In one group are the people who are chronically or temporarily homeless, telling their own stories from first-hand experience. We have talked about Becky Blanton, who spoke at the prestigious TEDGlobal conference in 2009 on the topic, “The year I was homeless.”

Because people experiencing homelessness form friendships and relationships just like anybody else, the writer might also tell stories of street comrades. For instance, Ace Backwords has been for many years the chronicler of the lives of Berkeley’s legendary street characters, like Blue, Talon, and Hate Man, “your typical, dress-wearing, former New York Times-reporting, hatred-spewing, homeless freak,” who is actually one of the nicest people you’d ever want to know.

Then, there are the objective reportorial types, journalists, bloggers, and allies who gather and then disseminate the stories of others. We have mentioned B. N. Duncan, longtime recorder of homeless lives in both words and photographs. Then there are the subjective reporters, who are not actually homeless themselves but who enter that world in order to bring back stories and publicize them, in hopes of raising public awareness. We’ll have more to say about them another time.

Today’s spotlight focuses on Brianna Karp, a native Southern Californian who started working at age ten, apparently because nobody else in her family was able to. All she ever wanted was to grow up to be a solid citizen, employed and home-owning. But it didn’t turn out the way she had planned — at least, not for long..

Karp had what anybody would call a good job, not that it mattered once she had been laid off. Only executives get those multi-million-dollar golden parachutes. The average employed person is just “let go” like a like an enemy spy shoved out of a helicopter over the ocean — bound, blindfolded, and with no parachute of any hue. Karp was luckier than many, and acknowledges it:

The company that I worked for was enormously kind and fair to each and every one of us, and compensated us well with a severance package, so I was OK for a while.

Thanks to that lucky break, and by scrambling for every possible opportunity to make a few bucks, Karp remarkably managed to delay her transition from housed to homeless for an entire half-year. But, inevitably, harsh exigency caught up. Because of another tragedy — the suicide of its owner — a travel trailer came into her possession and she set up a tenuous base from which to try and rebuild her life. Introducing her book, The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness, Karp says,

I am an educated woman with stable employment and residence history. I have never done drugs. I am not mentally ill. I am a career executive assistant –- coherent, opinionated, poised, and capable. If you saw me walking down the street, you wouldn’t have assumed that I lived in a parking lot. In short, I was just like you — except without the convenience of a permanent address.

Reviewed in Publisher’s Weekly and featured by TV shows, The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness was also written about by prominent author Augusten Burroughs in these words,

Brianna Karp is the perfect example of how a person can triumph not in spite of adversity but as a direct result of it. This smart, pragmatic young woman takes us inside the new face of homelessness in America and her dramatic memoir guides us through our assumptions, fears and judgment into a place of understanding, compassion and respect. Truly essential reading.

Once reestablished in the world of the housed and employed, Karp has not forgotten her desperate days, but wishes to help others cope, and to extend hope to people experiencing homelessness.

Here’s an idea that could change the landscape: the Universal Living Wage, which can end homelessness for over 1,000,000 minimum-wage workers, and prevent economic homelessness for all 10.1 million minimum wage workers. Please learn more about the Universal Living Wage and how to make it a reality.

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Source: The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness by Brianna Karp
Source: “Where It All Began,” GirlsGuidetoHomelessness.com
Source: “Reviews,” GirlsGuidetoHomelessness.com
Image by PJFurlong06 (Patrick Furlong), used under its Creative Commons license.

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Homes Needed to End Homelessness

Seven Deadly SinsFollowing the success of our guide on “How to Become Homeless,” here are a few more suggestions. We spoke of earthquake, fire, foreclosure, and domestic disharmony as popular methods of achieving homelessness. Another strong force has been the change in entire societal institutions. In Looking Up at the Bottom Line: The Struggle For the Living Wage, Richard R. Troxell describes some of the ways in which large demographic segments have been rendered homeless, especially young men and single older men. He writes,

Adding to the complexity of homelessness was the loss of several million SROs (single room occupancy units) when motels and cheap apartments were torn down and replaced with condominiums or made into parking lots. Another dynamic affecting our nation’s poor was the decision by the YMCA, the Young Men’s Christian Association, to leave the SRO field of housing.

Back in the day, and we mean way back, even a family of lower economic status could conceivably be living in a large, rambling house. Almost any house could be made into a boarding house. Rooms could be rented to traveling salesmen, or teachers (who were not allowed to be married), or even actors.

More recently, the trend in houses became smaller, yet more open. It’s much more difficult to carve out a space for an extra person or family. Now, cities and neighborhoods and housing developments all have rules about how many unrelated people can cohabit, how many cars per household, how many toilets, and so on. Nobody’s home is their castle, not if they want to rent out a room. This is bad both for homeowners who need some extra cash, and for people who need cheap temporary digs.

If rental housing is available, the prospective renter is faced with numerous hoops through which to jump. High move-in costs, don’t get us started. First, they charge you to even look at the place. Yes, there is a fee to even apply. And if the manager is crooked, you may expect more special fees to be extracted, down the line. To move in requires a lump sum of first and last month’s rent plus security deposit, with of course more deposits for special circumstances like pets.

Not to say this is necessarily wrong. It costs a lot to refurbish a trashed apartment, and people can be pigs. The self-justification is, “So what? It’s the landlord’s money.” Maybe so, but he’s gonna get it back from all the other tenants. For that kind of vindictiveness, everybody pays. It may be necessary, out of fairness to landlords, to pay the equivalent of three months’ rent up front. But it’s not easy. Here’s the situation, as described in Looking Up at the Bottom Line:

More than the minimum wage is required in every state to be able to afford a one bedroom apartment at Fair Market Rent, as set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

This is why America is seeing a lot of economic homelessness, which is what happens when even those who are working full-time can’t afford a place to live. You are invited to learn more about the Universal Living Wage, which is expected to end homelessness for over 1,000,000 minimum-wage workers and prevent economic homelessness for all 10.1 million minimum-wage workers.

We have talked about Jimmy McMillan, who got a lot of attention in last year’s New York State gubernatorial race. His platform, “The Rent Is Too Damn High,” inspired AnnaMaria Andriotis to explore the question in The Wall Street Journal.

She relates how, in the midst of a phone conversation with another reporter, McMillan stopped a passerby on the street to ask if his rent was too high. And one of the examples she gives of impossible rent comes from Austin, Texas, coincidentally the city where Richard R. Troxell lives and works with House the Homeless. Andriotis writes,

In Austin, Texas, a new two-bedroom two-bath condo runs around $1,800, but cost $1,200 before the downturn, says Jack McCabe, CEO of McCabe Research & Consulting, which tracks the housing industry. In Austin, income fell 4.9% to $35,522, making that 35% of income threshold a meager $1,036 rent payment.

Andriotis also mentions the mysterious formula that addresses the question, “How much rent should a renter pay, if a renter could pay rent?” She writes,

Many personal finance experts say you should spend no more than 35% of your take-home gross income on rent (not including renter’s insurance) whether you live in a high- or low-cost area.

Wait a minute! Just a little while ago, the experts were telling us not to spend more than 30% of our income on rent. Now it’s more. As responsible citizens today, we are supposed to feel as wise and mature about paying 35% as we felt a few years ago when the experts advised us to put a lid on at 30%. And it’s not as if we have a choice about it. Even 30% and 35% are not the worst. Apparently, some people spend more than 40% of their income on rent. That is one of the criteria for eligibility when Habitat for Humanity helps a family build a house.

You know what? It used to be 25%. That’s what the financial advisors used to say. Within living memory, it was taught in home economics class. You were a prudent money manager and a good citizen if you followed the rule of not paying out more than a quarter of your income for rent. It’s insidious percentage creep, meant to fool us into thinking we are doing the grown-up thing by handing over such a large proportion of our income for rent. They keep raising the bar, and pretending that nothing is amiss. They’re messing with our heads, and it’s positively Orwellian.

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Source: Looking Up at the Bottom Line: The Struggle For the Living Wage by Richard R. Troxell
Source: “Is Your Rent Too Damn High?,” The Wall Street Journal, 10/19/10
Image by Rex Dingler/dingler1109, used under its Creative Commons license.

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Richard R. Troxell Speaks in Nation’s Capitol

Event posterYesterday, Richard R. Troxell spoke about Looking Up at the Bottom Line at the Catholic University of America (CUA) in the heart of Washington, D.C. As we know, and now the attendees of this event know, his message is that the Universal Living Wage can change America by ending homelessness for over a million minimum-wage workers, and prevent 10 million minimum-wage workers from falling into economic homelessness.

Economic homelessness is the lamentable condition people find themselves in when they are employed, maybe even working more than one job, and still can’t afford basic rent and utilities. Richard was invited by the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies, whose interest in both the national economy and the housing crisis are longstanding.

Last month, for instance, Anthony Stasi wrote about the Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH) program. Stasi has been a policy associate with the National Alliance to End Homelessness and senior policy analyst for the Department of Homeless Services in New York City.

VASH, Stasi informs us, is the only permanent housing program focusing solely on military veterans. He points out the shameful fact that while veterans make up only 1% of the general population, they account for 10% of the homeless. He is concerned, as we all should be, about the large number of servicemen and women who have yet to return from foreign lands to this increasingly sick economy. Here is a sample of what Stasi is thinking:

Cities with high inventories of foreclosed property are desperate to find owners for these homes. Just this week, the Mayor of Detroit began offering police officers a similar incentive. What makes offering foreclosures to veterans even more sensible is that of the 20 cities with the highest foreclosure rates, most of them are in California, Florida, Nevada, and Arizona. These are all locations where many veterans already live after serving out their contracts.

Richard’s visit was also sponsored by the university’s National Catholic School of Social Service, whose very comprehensive program achieves a harmonious blend of scholarship, social justice, and service. CUA is the national university of the Catholic Church, founded way back in 1889, and currently teaching students at every level, from 97 different countries. It is right next to Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the largest Catholic church in the United States, and a short Metrorail ride from the Library of Congress and numerous other cultural monuments.

From the Sublime to the Publicity-Conscious

As always, Hollywood has been doing its bit for the cause. Not long ago, we noted Janet Jackson’s revelation that she and her late brother, on at least one occasion, bought food from a restaurant in Los Angeles and drove around giving it away. Michael was the driver and his sister took care of the distribution.

Also, for Celebrity Baby Scoop, Jenny Schafer reported on the doings of the world-famous singer’s extraordinarily attractive kids, as they shared resources with people experiencing homelessness:

Michael Jackson’s children — Prince, 14, Paris, 12, and Blanket, 9 — were photographed playing games and donating time and money ($10,000.00) to a homeless shelter in Los Angeles, Calif. on Wednesday (February 23).

In another part of Los Angeles, a musician calling himself Paz crashed Hilton’s birthday party and absconded with a birthday cake. An artifact of surpassing ugliness, the cake was worth $2,000 or possibly $3,200. Paz drove the cake down to Skid Row, cut it in 125 pieces, served it up to 125 homeless people, posted the photos on Facebook, and wrote very entertainingly about the whole episode, too.

This kind of news cannot be ignored, no matter how frivolous a person might think Paris Hilton is, because every effort to aid people experiencing homelessness deserves to be honored for its good intentions, and that includes even goofy publicity stunts like the cake caper which, believe it or not, probably went some way in raising awareness about homelessness. In under a week, Paz fielded nearly 150 requests for interviews, and claims to have tracked 12,560 news articles about the event, and 322 mentions on TV.

2011 Homeless

by Thom the World Poet (Thom Woodruff), dedicated to “Vagabond” Dustin Russell

you need to carry all you own
so you learn the art of stash-
perhaps a car that no longer works
can be your library /crash pad
perhaps couch surfing
trusting to the kindness of strangers
you are food for police
and anyone in authority
who forget we are all just one degree of separation
job cuts make homeless/dispossession is eternal
when you move, it will be walking-
a bicycle gets flat tires /a car breaks down
your two legs ,a bag, perhaps a shopping trolley
You learn by watching/earn by panhandling
perhaps you can drum or play guitar
(it needs new strings/you improvise)
Even if you seek work, you need an address
You hang out with the dispossessed-
in Green Belt or bush cover-away from eyes
where you can light a fire and stay calm
You know one hundred and sixty two of you
died on these streets this very year
You look for opportunities to work-
even the bad jobs are gone
There will be more of you when you are gone
you write this down. Settle down. Stay calm.
Whatever happens next is still unknown

Reactions?

Source: “Housing Our Heroes… And Helping Our Economy,” ipr.cua.edu, 02/09/11
Source: “National Catholic School of Social Service,” ncsss.cua.edu
Source: “The Jackson Siblings Donate To Homeless Shelter,” CelebrityBabyScoop.com, 02/26/11
Source: “Let Them Eat Cake,” Facebook.com, 02/22/11
Event poster courtesy of Catholic University of America; used under Fair Use: Reporting.

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Problems with Numbers

No ShelterMaria Foscarinis is founder and executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. (Her complete biography is found at the NLCHP website.) She calls for a commitment to the principle that “in a country as wealthy as ours, everyone should have a place to call home.” Homelessness is simply not a thing that should be tolerated in this country.

Foscarinis discusses two reports that came out recently, on people experiencing homelessness in America. Last December, the U.S. Conference of Mayors found a 9% increase in family homelessness. Then the National Alliance to End Homelessness announced another set of dire numbers. Foscarinis has a problem with its definition:

The Alliance numbers capture only a very narrowly defined slice of homelessness: People in shelters or other emergency housing, or in public places.

Unlike some other organizations or government bureaus, the Alliance does not count as homeless the families that double up with relatives, or singles who are couch-surfing. Sometimes these arrangements are meant to be temporary, and sometimes they end unexpectedly because of personality clashes, inability to contribute to the household finances, or any number of other stress factors inherent in shared living quarters. The people who are staying with relatives or friends this year have an estimated one-in-10 chance of being literally homeless next year, in a shelter or on the street.

A lot of these people are experiencing “economic homelessness.” They are not bums or freeloaders. They may be working full time, but even so, the expense of an apartment is beyond them, even if they are lucky enough to be in an area where there are apartments to rent. This is why House the Homeless endorses the Universal Living Wage. It is believed that implementation of the Universal Living Wage will end homelessness for over 1,000,000 minimum-wage workers, and prevent economic homelessness for all 10.1 million minimum-wage workers in America.

Getting back to the two reports Foscarinis talks about, both of them point to unemployment and the foreclosure crisis as the major causes of homelessness, which, frankly, seems fairly obvious to anybody who has lost his or her job and/or had gone through the hell of paying mortgage on time while unemployed. And even the government admits that around 40% of the homeless are unsheltered because the resources just are not there. Whether a family or an individual needs housing, legal help, or food, the safely net is in shreds. Foscarinis calls it a human rights crisis and she’s right. She says,

Last year, our country spent hundreds of billions of dollars to save banks that were considered ‘too big to fail.’ Now the conventional wisdom in Washington is that there’s ‘no money’ to help ordinary people who are suffering in poverty and homelessness.

As for the estimated six million American families that have been forced to move in with relatives, this is really only new for some Americans. Even in the decades when middle-class white America spread out into suburbs and single-family homes, minority families have always been squeezed together by economic necessity. New arrivals to our shores and undocumented people have always lived eight or 12 to a room.

For at least some doubled-up families there might be a bit of a silver lining. In a way — and this is by no means meant to sugarcoat or excuse homelessness — there could be an upside. For decades, sociologists have lamented the demise of the extended family. For a lot of different reasons, it is not optimally healthy for each nuclear family to be sequestered in its own little shell. Well, like it or not, many Americans have now been forced to move in with relatives or endure having relatives move in. That adds up to a lot of overcrowding, friction, and discord.

On the other hand, we can hope that at least some families have benefited from the mingling of generations and the increased contact with family members, or even unrelated families. In the 60’s, communal living was an eagerly sought alternative to the traditional nuclear family. Living with a bunch of people doesn’t have to be a nightmare. It would be nice if at least some people were able to find unexpected blessings in adversity.

The enumeration of people experiencing homelessness is a complex undertaking, and it turns out to be a touchy, tricky subject everywhere. Especially important is the definition of exactly who should be considered homeless. Also vital is the methodology. In Australia, the Bureau of Statistics (ABS) wants to change how homelessness is calculated, as Farah Farouque explains. There would be a new counting method, and the old statistics would be revised retroactively. Farouque says,

The ABS will revisit figures based on the 2001 and 2006 censuses using a new formula devised by in-house statisticians in a discussion paper to be released this month.

Among opponents of the proposed change, there is talk of inconsistency, and of goalposts moved in the middle of the game. It really doesn’t even matter if a new counting method is better or worse than the old method, because either way it will skew the results over time.

The thing is, the Australian government promised to cut homelessness in half by the year 2020. Homeless advocates believe that using the proposed method could magically reduce the number of apparent homeless by as much as one-third. But the actual situations of the people experiencing homelessness would not be changed. It would be a clever way of understating the problem, consisting of smoke and mirrors. The next census happens in August, so they need to figure it out pretty soon.

Reactions?

Source: “Too Big to Fail? Homelessness Increases as Help Decreases,” The Huffington Post, 01/13/11
Source: “Fears over re-count of homeless,” The Age, 03/14/11
Image by Quinet (Thomas Quine), used under its Creative Commons license.