1

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.

Reactions?

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.

0

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.

0

San Francisco Sit/Lie Ordinance Documentary

No PanhandlingThe impressive Mission Local website is only part of a grander scheme, which encompasses print and multimedia avenues in two languages. Its aim is to generate quality journalism that fairly and thoroughly covers San Francisco’s Mission District. The staff are from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, San Francisco State, and the community.

Reaching back a couple of months, we’re looking at a piece of video journalism by Patricia Espinosa and Christine Mai-Duc, in which everyday people react to the Sit/Lie ordinance. Not surprisingly, the local law represents yet another misguided attempt to “do something” about the problem of homelessness by sweeping it under the rug. (It’s getting mighty crowded under that ragged shred of national carpet.) The reportage itself is great, but even more interesting are some of the comments the piece inspired.

For instance, “pdquick,” a doctor who treats people experiencing homelessness, points out the absurdity of forbidding people to sit or lie as a way to reduce aggressive panhandling. How aggressive can a panhandler be, after all, who is sitting or lying? That is some pretty laid-back aggression. Good point, pdquick!

“Lee” is impatient with housed people who convince themselves that the homeless are already spoiled and pampered by a plush existence, and is also angry with those who use a certain word:

The notion that the homeless are living a ‘lifestyle’ — which they could choose to stop living at the snap of their fingers — is truly ludicrous… You’d rather have the garbageman sweep up the unsightly blights on your block so you can walk down the street without having to think about all the bad stuff happening in your country. That’s why you have to convince yourself that homelessness is a ‘choice,’ a ‘lifestyle,’ a ‘decision,’ easily reversed, and that the homeless already have a vast and generous infrastructure of support.

“Lynae” makes a very good point about the sit/lie ordinance. How stupid is it, on the one hand, to encourage people to become employed, productive citizens, and at the same time hit them with criminal charges that will stick to their records, and make job hunting even more impossible? Plus, agencies providing basic services have more barriers against those with criminal records. This commentator reminds us of an even more basic truth:

It’s not illegal to be homeless. People have a right to NOT have housing. With that in mind, making laws that make it virtually impossible to be homeless without constantly being ticketed/arrested is just as wrong as making tons of laws that infringe on someone’s right to be black/Jewish/handicapped/what-have-you.

Many critics of the ordinance have also mentioned its redundancy, and this is true not only in San Francisco but just about every place where such ordinances are passed. There are already laws in place forbidding aggressive panhandling, loitering, public alcohol drinking, and so on. Additional rules are not really needed, and only serve to make the overall situation worse for people experiencing homelessness.

A society is only as good as the treatment it extends to its most vulnerable members, and America could be scoring a lot higher in this performance area. The thinking seems to be, if society can cut off the homeless from enough amenities, such as food and the right to sit on a park bench, all the drifters and transients and refugees will come to their senses and say, “Well, duh! This homeless thing just isn’t working out!,” and go get themselves a place to live, like decent people. And that’s not the worst of it. For some, the thinking is, take away enough amenities from people experiencing homelessness, and they will come to their senses and kill themselves, saving everybody else the trouble of dealing with them.

Paradox alert: We said that some hard-hearted Americans wish the people in the “homeless” category would just simply cease to exist. And we soft-hearted Americans also wish the category of “homeless” would cease to exist — only, we want to see this happen by finding everybody a place to live. We talked about the insanity of trying to legislate homelessness out of existence by forbidding homeless people to do just about anything.

Here’s a question. Name one social problem that has ever successfully been legislated out of existence. If you can’t think of one in five seconds, the point is made. Racism? Domestic violence? Murder? Addiction? We have plenty of laws, and still have plenty of all of the above. It’s unlikely that homelessness can be made to disappear by persecuting its victims.

Reactions?

Source: “About,” MissionLocal.org
Source: “Homeless React to Sit/Lie,” MissionLocal.org, 11/11/10
Image by TheTruthAbout, used under its Creative Commons license.

0

I Am My Brothers’ Keeper… but for Everyone?

Minimum-wage workerAgain this year, 3.5 million people will experience homelessness in America. In the land of milk and honey, this is unconscionable.

Let’s examine the word homelessness for a moment. Who are the homeless? Well, clearly they come from all walks of life: homeless veterans, single women, women with children, people with mental health disorders, people with substance abuse problems, and the list goes on.

In January 2009, House the Homeless conducted a Health Survey of 501 people experiencing homelessness in Austin, Texas. Our survey showed that 48% of the people experiencing homelessness were so disabled that they could not work at a full-time job.

And in December 2007, another House the Homeless survey of 526 people experiencing homelessness showed that 37% of those surveyed were working at some point during the week, with 97% expressing a desire to work. In fact, we have come to understand that homelessness, for all its components, can be viewed in two major categories: those who can work and those who cannot work.

Reports from the last several U.S. Conferences of Mayors show that a person working full time, in a forty-hour-a-week, minimum-wage job, is unable to afford a basic, one-bedroom apartment, and remains homeless.

Who Are the Working Homeless?

They are the someone in our schools serving green beans and corn to our children in the cafeteria lines. They are the people in local dry cleaner operations pressing our suits and dresses. They are our janitorial staff cleaning our office buildings and urinals after we’ve gone to bed. They are the motel/hotel workers who change the sheets and clean up the trashed out rooms that we have left. They are the cashiers who cheerfully ask how they can help us.

They are our restaurant workers who work at below minimum wage ($2.13) and rely on us to (hopefully) boost their base pay with tips. They are poultry processors who work in our nation’s processing plants nationwide. They are farm workers who, even today, stoop behind the field machinery and continue to pick thorny cotton by hand.

They take our tickets in movie theaters, so we can see the next exciting 3-D movie. They are the healthcare aides in nursing homes who constantly turn over our loved ones to prevent bed sores. They do all the “dirty jobs” that you see on TV, and they flip our burgers at all the fast-food restaurants, and fold and refold the linen at every Wal-Mart.

And yet, the federal government continues to tell businesses nationwide that they only need to pay a minimum wage — not a living wage. A living wage would afford them basic food, clothing, and shelter. But as it is, nowhere in this country can receptionists, daycare aides, garage attendants, car washers, manicurists, grocery baggers, landscape workers, data entry workers, and elderly care aides afford the basics without a second job or relying on some outside support. That’s just wrong.

Who Should Pay?

Who should pay a wage sufficient to afford life’s most minimal necessities? Who profits from their labor if not business? Clearly it is businesses who benefit from their labor. So why are taxpayers footing the bill for food stamps when someone is working? Why do able-bodied individuals qualify for general assistance or the Earned Income Tax Credit, which is just another tax-sponsored program that would be unnecessary if businesses acted as responsible/ethical community partners?

If half these people who are homeless can work, why should you or I as taxpayers have to support them? I don’t want to. In fact, as a society, I’m not at all convinced that we could afford to support these millions of people indefinitely anyway. If a person is not disabled, then their homeless situation is really just an unmet economic need. This should be dealt with at the source: “A fair wage for a fair day’s work.”

When I was growing up, the saying was, “If you don’t work, you don’t eat.” I still believe in that postulate; however, that begs the question, if you work 40 hours in a week, shouldn’t you be able to afford the basics? If you work a full 40 hour week, shouldn’t you be able to afford a roof over your head (other than a bridge)?

I work in a homeless shelter. Every day I arrive to see hundreds and hundreds of people, half of whom are able-bodied. What they lack is opportunity.

There needs to be a spot on that shelter floor that I can point to and encourage people to get up off their chairs and go to that spot. It should be a spot that provides the big “O”: Opportunity. A spot where if they tuck their head down, lean into the wheel with their shoulder, apply themselves, they’ll know that, ultimately, they will be able to work themselves off the streets of America.

In other words, we simply need living-wage jobs. Then, as a compassionate taxpayer, I can get down to the work of helping people with disabilities. Perhaps in time, many of them will also be able to stand on that spot.

Take Action!

Tell President Obama that as he provides incentives for businesses to help in our economic recovery, he also needs to balance the equation by instituting the Universal Living Wage. Call the White House: 202-224-3121/1-800-459-1887, or email the President using the form at the White House website, http://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/.

Richard R. Troxell
House the Homeless, Inc.
National Chairman, Universal Living Wage Campaign

Source: “Mayors National Housing Forum Fact Sheet” (PDF), U.S. Conference of Mayors.
Image by schmuela (Karen Green), used under its Creative Commons license.

0

Economic Homelessness, Rent, and Deadened Memories

Jimmy McMillan

Economic homelessness is an important concept in the overall picture examined in Looking Up At the Bottom Line. The economic homeless are the working poor who have some kind of a job, but nothing close to a living wage that would provide, for instance, rent. They inhabit cars, shelters, squats, friends’ couches, and other temporary and very marginal quarters. Or no quarters at all.

An interesting thing happened when New York State was electing itself a new governor last fall. Jimmy McMillan, representing a political party called The Rent Is Too Damn High, participated in the televised debate, and his remarks are worth listening to. This video clip gives the gist, in under two minutes. The candidate did not succeed in the gubernatorial election, but that’s okay, because it frees him up to concentrate on his 2012 presidential campaign.

Suzanne Rozdeba conducted an interview with McMillan for the East Village local edition of The New York Times. At one point, the candidate underwent a spell of homelessness himself. The entire interview is highly recommended, and Rozdeba must be profusely thanked for capturing a number of excellent quotations from Jimmy McMillan. Here are just a few:

*Market value is a bunch of crap. It’s a plan to run out the poor.
*You’ve got to stop paying people in the government a football player salary.
*I would have no problem getting any bill passed before the House and the Senate.
*I guarantee you, if I’m sworn in in January, jobs will pop up in February.
*Whatever party I run under, I want them to know I’m not satisfied with anything coming from any elected official.
*We have bird-brained economic leaders. People need money to spend. And it boils down to one thing: the rent is too damn high.

Is McMillan just a freakshow? Maybe not. He was written up in the Wall Street Journal. For a very different establishment, the Center for a Stateless Society, Kevin Carson considered the ideas held by the very entertaining politician, and compared them with the ideas of Franz Oppenheimer. Here, roughly, is the argument, and it has a lot to do with homelessness. Economic exploitation, of course, goes way back. Carson says,

In sparsely populated areas of the New World, the state preempted ownership of vacant land, barred access to ordinary homesteaders, and then granted title to favored land barons and speculators. The result is that we see enormous tracts of vacant and unimproved land held out of use by state-privileged landlords, so that land is made artificially scarce and expensive for those who desire an opportunity to support themselves.

This artificial scarcity exists because the state wrongfully enforces artificial property rights. Of course, the first thing you want to ask is, what’s the difference between an artificial property right and a genuine property right? Capitalism creates artificial private property rights by coercion, backing up the right of a privileged few who control access to natural opportunities. Genuine, legitimate private property, by contrast, is about the right to possess the fruits of one’s own labor, for instance by growing a crop on land that nobody is using. Carson says,

[… T]he privileged classes of landlords, usurers and other extortionists seek to close off opportunities for self-employment because such opportunities make it too hard to get people to work for them on profitable terms. [… T]he artificial dearth of natural opportunities to produce creates a buyer’s market for labor in which workers compete for jobs instead of jobs competing for workers.

When everything is owned by the government plus a lucky few people at the top, the vast majority of the people can’t be self-sufficient, because they have no resources to work with. Which makes them sitting ducks, ripe for economic exploitation. For instance, they wind up paying a grotesque percentage of their income just on rent — or are totally unable to afford even the lowest available rent.

Which brings us back to Jimmy McMillan, a voice of sanity crying out in the wilderness. It puts him in the same realm as Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless. We very much recommend the excellent radio interview (with host Wayne Hurlbert), during which Richard talks how the Universal Living Wage is good for business, and how it can get a million minimum-wage workers off the streets, while preventing economic homelessness for 10 million minimum-wage Americans.

In many cases, those with mental illness or substance abuse problems, or both, fall into the chronically homeless category. A lot of the “chronically homeless” are just plain unfit for the work force. But mental illness can be treated with conscientious medication, followup, and luck. Substance abuse can be treated with 12-step programs and other modalities. People experiencing either condition, or both, can find their way back to being productive members of the work force if there are jobs for them. They can escape the homeless condition, if there are places for them to live within the means provided by those jobs.

Those are two very big “ifs,” as Richard discovered in the late 1990s. He was working with people experiencing homelessness who had two major things going on — mental illness and substance abuse. With great struggle, he secured funding to put 20 people through a “continuum of care” program including detox, substance abuse counseling, housing, job training, and job placement. Despite the reported 100% trainee placement rate, they all ended up homeless within two years, unable to make rent with their minimum-wage paychecks.

“Substance abuse” is an interesting shorthand term. Richard expresses the same idea in different words, as “self-medicating with some memory deadening substance.” There is a valuable clue here, to the whole skid-row, lowest-common-denominator drug culture. There is a question that needs to be asked: What is it about life in contemporary America that makes so many people want to deaden their memories? When we confront that question, we will be ready to make some progress.

Reactions?

Source: “Looking Up at the Bottom Line,” Amazon.com
Source: “The Rent Is Too Damn High Party’s Jimmy McMillan at the NY Governor Debate,” YouTube.com
Source: “Interview | Jimmy McMillan,” The Local East Village NYT, 01/18/11
Source: “Yes — The Rent Really Is Too Damn High!,” c4ss.org,10/26/10
Screen capture of Jimmy McMillan is used under Fair Use: Reporting.

0

Austin, Texas, Debates Best Approach to Homelessness

I Heart AustinRecently, the Editorial Board of the Austin American Statesman has made a wise observation:

It is very difficult for a man or woman to gain stability, get and keep a job, recover from substance abuse or stay out of jail if they are living on the street or in a temporary shelter.

Somebody in that group comprehends a basic concept that many housed people fail to grasp. If you’re homeless, how do you get a job?

Where do you keep your social security card and birth certificate and a tattered copy of your most recent resume, saved from back when you had access to a typewriter or a word processor? How do you wash and iron your shirt? Where do you shave or style your hair? Where do you leave the rest of your stuff when you go to apply for this job? Will the guard in the office building lobby watch your duffel bag for you?

The Editorial Board marked the end of National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week by publishing a piece called “Better approach needed for housing the homeless.” It recaps how the City Council plans to create 350 units of permanent housing, and some of the difficulties the project will face. It goes on to say that the same problems apply to a proposed RV park. The City Council likes the blending and integrating approach better, the proposed Marshall Arms Apartments in particular. The Editorial Board says,

Ideally, permanent housing for homeless people would be matched with a host of services to address their medical, mental, employment and social needs, giving them their best shot of overcoming factors that keep them down and out.

So we’re looking at how one city is attempting to cope with a situation faced by many cities. Below is the reaction of a local Austin citizen, intimately familiar with the workings of the municipality, Richard R. Troxell, founder of House The Homeless:

The lead editorial stated that a ‘Better approach (is) needed for housing the homeless.’Our organization, House The Homeless, could not agree more. The paper praised the City Council for creating 350 units of permanent supportive housing, as do we. But in searching for a better approach, let’s consider that it took our community almost 10 years to create a Housing Trust Fund and pass a bond that produced the millions of dollars needed for the 350 units. It is also estimated that the units will be built over four years with the push past NIMBYism taking an additional two years, if then. (In other words, one of the forces to be dealt with is the tendency of residents to react by saying, ‘Not In My Back Yard.’)

And that’s only 350 units. With 4,000 folks experiencing homelessness, to get everybody housed would bring the total to 11 times that amount, at a cost of half a million dollars per person, and a response time of a couple years. We can hardly wait that long, not with 159 names of men, women, and baby girl Vasquez having been read this year alone at the Homeless Memorial.

Now, add into this equation that the Federal Government (according to the last several US Conference of Mayor’s Reports) has set a minimum wage so low that even a full-time worker cannot afford basic housing anywhere in this country! Instead, 40-hour-a-week workers are unable to afford the basics of food, clothing, and shelter. They end up living under bridges, in our woods, and panhandling for survival on our streets.

House The Homeless views those experiencing homelessness in two categories: those who can work and those who cannot work. As a taxpayer, am I expected to take care of all 3.5 million people experiencing homelessness nationwide? I gag at the thought. HTH completed a survey in January, of 501 people experiencing homelessness in Austin. The results exposed that 52% of the homeless can work but are lacking one thing… opportunity. If the only roof the full-time worker can expect is a bridge… then why bother? The alternative of selling drugs or the girl down the street is a lot easier and much more rewarding financially.

So, here’s how to cut the need for subsidized housing in half — by employing that 52% who just need an opportunity and a job that pays enough to live on. Then they can make their own housing arrangements. Then taxpayers only need to be concerned with the other half, the people experiencing homelessness who are unable to function as full-fledged participants in the economy. With the entire population need reduced by half, and the remaining folks being so vulnerable and needing focused support, then collective site programs such as the Mobile Loaves and Fishes mobile home park, just might be the thing.

Again, for those who can work, let’s consider the idea where the Federal Minimum Wage ensures a Living Wage: enough to afford the very basics; food, clothing, shelter (including utilities), as both halves of Congress had originally intended following the last depression. Wouldn’t the result be better all around? See House the Homeless for complete information on the Universal Living Wage.

Reactions?

Source: “Better approach needed for housing the homeless,” Austin American Statesman, 11/20/10
Image by Krikit, used under its Creative Commons license.

3

Celebrities, Thanksgiving, and People Experiencing Homelessness

AkonMaybe you’re a fan of the most-watched soap opera on TV, The Bold & the Beautiful. Apparently, it has 26 million devoted viewers. Journalist Becky Blanton focused her attention on this television program because the creative team has written several homeless people into the script. If we’re understanding this right, one of the characters, a Stephanie Forrester, has been told that she would die of cancer very soon. This news inspires her to become interested in the plight of people experiencing homelessness.

The show’s producers hired 25 people right off Skid Row and recorded them telling their stories, and some of these documentary segments will be woven into the show’s plot line. And there is more. The head writer and executive producer of the show, Brad Bell, is said to have also hired an additional 30 homeless individuals as extras, or actors with non-speaking parts. He has told journalists that this interest is not just temporary, and that he intends to continue to incorporate people experiencing homelessness into the unfolding narrative.

Blanton is interested to discover whether this show will go along with the same old stereotypes, or have the integrity to do something better. She asks,

Will they provide a realistic view of the homeless and the challenges they truly face, or will they sanitize life on the LA streets for viewers?… I hope Bell takes time to address the real issues that affect the majority of the homeless — the lack of affordable housing and child care and living wage jobs.

Blanton sees this as a great opportunity on Bell’s part to influence the attitudes of Americans regarding people experiencing homelessness. Depending on how this widely-viewed serial depicts members of the homeless community, a powerful force for good could be exerted. It might also, she feels, give the housed American public some useful ideas for how to help, and, in some cases, might even put into their heads an idea that wasn’t there before, the idea that we should all help.

Although not a soap opera star herself, Becky Blanton is another kind of celebrity. You’ve heard of TED, which stands for Technology Entertainment and Design. Every year, this nonprofit organization sponsors a series of conferences where people with “ideas worth spreading” come to spread them. In 2009, Becky Blanton spoke at TEDGlobal in Oxford, England. This is a credential of almost unparalleled cachet. Her topic was “The year I was homeless,” and there is a seven-minute video clip on TED’s website. For an appetizer, here are a couple of soundbites:

Homelessness is an attitude, not a lifestyle.

Hope always finds a way.

The Universal Living Wage is the concept that Richard R. Troxell, president of House the Homeless, offers as a solution that will help all Americans. The foundations on which his argument rests are included in the Protected Homeless Class Resolution, whose full text is found in Looking Up at the Bottom Line. Here are just a few of the points he makes:

● There is a shortage of affordable housing stock nationwide.
● The national minimum wage is an insufficient amount of money to secure safe, decent, affordable housing even at the most basic financial level.
● 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.

The Universal Living Wage could bring about the day when no American is unhoused or hungry. Meanwhile, highly publicized celebrities continue to adopt the cause of helping the homeless.

There is an interesting website called “Look to the Stars,” which keeps track of Hollywood personalities and show business folk, and what charities they are connected with. The search word “homelessness” matches up with 29 celebrity names. Among them are such luminaries as George Clooney, Whoopi Goldberg, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nicolas Cage, Scarlett Johansson, and Eddie Murphy.

The search word “Thanksgiving” brings up 28 matching news items published on the site, where we learn about the philanthropic activities of Kirk Douglas, Gisele Bundchen, Ludacris, Akon, Drew Barrymore, and many other actors, musicians, and fashion models. Celebrities donate their time, talents and money to turkey giveaways, or serve dinner at the Los Angeles Mission, and just generally give it back or pay it forward, to show their gratitude for their own good fortune.

Here, from another source, is a story about a typical celebrity response. It is a cooperative effort including promoters of hip-hop and martial arts to provide Thanksgiving dinners for families. All over the country, people who are famous, and a whole lot of people who are not so famous, do their best to make this holiday a happy occasion for others.

Reactions?

Source: “The Bold & the Beautiful to Feature Homelessness & Poverty,” Homelessness.change.org, 10/27/10
Source: “The year I was homeless: Becky Blanton on TED.com,” blog.ted.com, 07/09
Source: “Looking Up at the Bottom Line,” Amazon.com
Source: “Search results for homelessness,” Look to the Stars
Source: “Master P to Help Feed Homeless People on Thanksgiving,” AceShowBiz, 11/13/10
Image by petercruise, used under its Creative Commons license.