A journalist’s first instinct is always to quote statistics, and there is nothing wrong with that. For instance, the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans says, “107,000 veterans are homeless on any given night” [link is ours]. USA Today says that out of every four people experiencing homelessness, one is a veteran. One in four is 25%, and if you multiply it out, that would make a total of 428,000 homeless in the U.S.
However, in 2009, the National Alliance to End Homelessness put the total at 656,129, and you know things have only gotten worse since then. It’s not an exact science.
In the era of information saturation, it’s nice to think that readers have developed enough savvy to know that statistics can mean a lot of different things. Nothing is more tedious than a dispute with someone who says, “You’re wrong, because according to this other survey, only 22% percent of the homeless are veterans.”
Can we just accept the fact that, for a number of reasons, sociological surveys can’t be exact, and move on? In fact, here’s a destination to aim for: the plain, unvarnished truth that 100,000 homeless veterans are too many, and 1,000 homeless vets are too many. One homeless vet is too many. That’s the signal, and everything else is just noise.
Perhaps the biggest news on this front is the battle over some prime real estate smack dab in the middle of Los Angeles. Back in February, the ACLU demanded an investigation of what the Department of Veterans Affairs has been doing with the 387-acre piece of property. The deed, dating from 1888, specifies that it should be used as a home for disabled veterans, and forbids its use for anything not related to veterans. Portions of the veterans’ land have been leased out to a car rental company, a charter bus outfit, a hotel laundry, and a deluxe private school, and the finances looked murky.
The very next day, it was announced that the local government and the Dept. of Veterans Affairs had started a project designed to house 60 veterans within two years. (There are an estimated 8,000 homeless vets in Los Angeles, so that only leaves about 7,940 on the streets.) Question: How is the military capable of flying into another country and setting up a complete base within hours, yet unable to create housing for just a few more than 60 personnel, and a bit quicker than 24 months?
In June, the ACLU filed a lawsuit alleging that…
… the federal Department of Veterans Affairs has misused large portions of its West Los Angeles campus and failed to provide adequate housing and treatment for the people it was intended to serve.
This was reported by Martha Groves, who further explained,
The complaint, which seeks class-action status, was filed in U.S. district court on behalf of four disabled homeless vets; the Vietnam Veterans of America, a leading nonprofit organization dedicated to helping Vietnam-era vets and their families; and a descendant of one of the property’s original owners.
About a week later, Matt Sledge told The Huffington Post readers about a brand new report from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. It indicated that although homelessness in the metropolis was declining overall, veterans as a class have been making up an ever-larger proportion of the homeless.
The reporter names one of the stumbling blocks:
The chronically homeless have burned through their social safety net of friends and family. Physical or mental disability — along with addiction — often contributes to their plight… VA officials, however, disputed the notion that space on the West L.A. campus provided under a “housing first” rubric — which would not require those suffering from addiction to stay sober for housing — would be appropriate for the land.
Following the debate has been a surreal experience. On June 8, one news source said that $20 million had been committed a year ago to convert a building into therapeutic housing. It said the project was not completed, which would seem to imply it had at least been started. Same day, a different news source, Congressman Henry Waxman, announced that the president has signed a 2011 budget item for the $20 million renovation of an existing building. Is that supposed to refer to the same project, which was supposedly already funded and had begun?
Then, on June 16, a fellow named Dave Bayard, the VA’s regional public relations director, told Sledge that the buildings on the land are around 60 years old, seismically unsafe, environmentally unsound, vermin-infested, and possibly lined with asbestos. He said,
These are not places where someone could live.
They got a bad case of “the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.” Five days later, Fox News quoted VA spokesperson Josh Taylor:
The VA plan calls for three of the 12 buildings to be renovated to provide housing for homeless veterans. The other structures would be used for outpatient clinics and research facilities involving the care of vets… he said the VA’s renovation plans have been in the works for months.
A mere two days after that, BusinessWeek published a story by Jacob Adelman outlining the ACLU’s objections to the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center’s plan. Attorney Mark Rosenbaum noted that it included no commitment to care for disabled veterans who need permanent homes. He said,
It is a direct slap in the face for tens of thousands of homeless vets. If you want to imagine a document that says `We don’t care about you and we’re turning our back to you,’ this is that document.
Furthermore, what first seemed to be a promise of three renovated buildings turned out to be only recommendations for which three buildings to renovate. Even the one they talked about in early June as already financed and underway, as it turns out, also awaits its turn for Congressional approval like the other two. It’s just possible that work could begin in December. Or not.
Source: “Homeless vets sue VA alleging inadequate housing and treatment,” LA Times, 06/08/11
Source: “Homelessness In Los Angeles Drops,” The Huffington Post, 06/16/11
Source: “VA moves to renovate buildings in LA for homeless,” Fox News, 06/21/11
Source: “ACLU faults VA plan for homeless Los Angeles vets,” BusinessWeek, 06/23/11
Image by Elvert Barnes, used under its Creative Commons license.
The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) points out the unsurprising fact that the minimum wage is worth much less than it previously was worth. Its graph illustrated the value of the minimum wage since 1960, adjusted for inflation and translated into 2009 dollars:
When adjusted for inflation, the minimum wage was worth $8.54 per hour in 1968, compared to the current minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. Based on a typical, 2,000-hour work year, the 1968 inflation-adjusted minimum wage would equate to an annual salary of $17,080 per year, versus $14,500 for today’s minimum wage.
In other words, the minimum wage decreasingly resembles a living wage. Historically, the peak of minimum wage value was in the 1960s, a long-gone era many people who are working today don’t even remember, because a lot of them weren’t born yet. The EPI also points out that raising the minimum wage stimulates the economy by giving workers more spending power. You’d think this would be obvious, but apparently many politicians overlook this basic fact.
We previously mentioned the very comprehensive interview that Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless did not long ago. It’s worth mentioning again, because when Wayne Hurlbert of Blog Talk Radio conducts an interview, he skillfully leads his subject to lay out the most important principles, as well as explain things in detail.
Painting first with a broad brush, let’s review some of the big ideas. Changing people from tax-takers to taxpayers is one of them. If the working poor were making a fair, adequate living wage, it would reduce the tax burden, because there would be less need for food stamps and other sorts of government assistance. Even if it can’t happen right this minute, people need to know that there is hope, they need to see that pathway stretching out before them. They need to know opportunity exists, and to be inspired to take advantage of opportunity, rather than subside into hopelessness.
Another basic principle of Richard’s is, solutions that come from the grassroots are faster and more effective than those involving the government. Of course, for something big like the Universal Living Wage, the government has to be behind it. But if homeless veterans in your community need socks, an appeal to the local goodhearted people will get them a lot quicker than a request to an official bureaucracy. And we have to show the way, because the old saying is true — “When the people lead, the leaders will follow.”
The biggest idea of all is that homelessness does not have to exist. This situation we have today does not have to be the situation we have tomorrow. We’re in a mess, but it can be undone and fixed. Richard’s proposal for fixing it is implementing the Universal Living Wage. In the interview, Hurlbert asks how the ULW is different from the minimum wage already in effect, and the answer is, it’s not really that different. What we have now needs to be tweaked and perfected, and if it is done over a 10-year period, the shock for anyone need not be too unbearable.
As a background, Richard talks about when the federal minimum wage was instituted in 1938, to make sure every working American could afford basic shelter, food, and clothing. It was a humane, fair, and much needed measure, but it was based on an assumption that it costs pretty much the same to live anyplace in America, so it was not indexed to anything. Still, it worked acceptably until the mid-1980s, when extreme booms and busts in the economy had really messed things up.
Another thing happened too, that would impact the nation very adversely by increasing not only the number of people experiencing homelessness, but the number of such people who were truly incapable of taking care of themselves. By the ’80s, the whole structure of mental health institutions had become so abusive, it seemed better to integrate the mentally ill into society.
The first part of the plan worked fine, dumping thousands of seriously ill and disoriented people on the streets. The second phase didn’t work so well, and rather than getting “mainstreamed,” the people ended up drowning instead, denizens of the streets, free but so impaired that freedom became “just another word for nothing left to lose,” as Kris Kristofferson phrased it.
In the interview, Richard talks about how the minimum wage always falls behind the poverty line, and how it didn’t increase for a whole decade between 1997 and 2007. We ended up with a situation where one of the largest labor organizations, Service Employees International Union, was training people in how to apply for food stamps. At one point, the University of Texas had 200 staff members on food stamps. And because of the unrealistic minimum wage, the federal government had become a creator of homelessness.
Source: “State of Working America preview: The declining value of minimum wage,” EPI.org, 11/17/10
Source: “Richard Troxell: Looking Up at the Bottom Line,” Blog Talk Radio, 12/08/10
Image by EPI, used under its Creative Commons license.
On Christmas weekend, Bob Woodruff of ABC News presented a report on homeless veterans, and cited the statistic that on any given day, 107,000 vets are homeless (including 9,000 from Iraq and Afghanistan). Women vets are homeless at twice the rate of men, proportionate to their total numbers. (Unfortunately, Woodruff repeats the old story of how Vietnam veterans were spat upon by civilians when they returned, an urban myth which Jerry Lembcke wrote an entire book to disprove, but these news guys keep perpetuating it anyway.)
Last time, we talked about the dispute over the exact number of people experiencing homelessness who are also military veterans. We understand that exactness in numbers is desirable for writing reports and apportioning tax dollars. Nobody here is anti-numbers. But it’s vital to remember that debating (or quibbling) over numbers can easily become an end in itself, and it can drain energy from our good intentions. We end up merely quantifying the world rather than changing it. We quoted Mary Cunningham of the Urban Institute, who said,
In general, it’s important to remember that there are far too many homeless who are veterans.
And there it is: Far. Too. Many. Thirty-three percent is too many, 23% is too many, 13% is too many, and 3% is too many.
Following are two messages for the two extreme types of Americans, and anybody else who is reading along can extrapolate themselves in between, wherever it’s appropriate.
Message #1 is for the enthusiastic patriot who fully endorses every military adventure the U.S. has ever involved itself in, who believes in maintaining military superiority and supporting the troops. This person is happy to know that U.S. military spending is more than the entire rest of the world combined.
Here’s the message: You, more than anybody, ought to be out there making sure the government keeps its promises to veterans. If you love seeing the red-white-&-blue flying over landscapes, how can you lose sight of the fact that these are the people who make it happen? Veterans are the ones who went to some miserable place and got wounded in various ways, and watched their friends fall victim to horrible fates. We won’t go into it all here, but the saying “War is hell” came into being for a reason.
So, never mind the yellow ribbons and the bumper stickers. Do something concrete. Support the troops by making sure they get everything they need once they are back in America. And that includes government recognition and acknowledgement of mysterious ailments caused by exposure to defoliants and depleted uranium, and whatever else was in the arsenal that was supposed to defeat the enemy, and defeated our own troops instead by making them sick.
People who are in favor of the military culture should not even need to be reminded that every veteran deserves the very best that the country can do for him or her. Now, the harder sell.
Message #2 is for the peace lovers who mistrust and resent every vestige of militarism. Here’s the message: It is possible to hate war and not hate veterans. Just because they wore a uniform, they do not deserve to be homeless pariahs. Some of them didn’t even go voluntarily. There are still Vietnam-era veterans around, including plenty of draftees.
People enlist for many different reasons. Some are idealists, whose beliefs about creating a good world are just as sincere as your own. Some joined up hoping for job training that would be applicable in civilian life, and weren’t taught anything except an obscure skill useful only to the military. Why blame them? They got screwed twice. No skill usable on the outside, plus they got so messed up, one way or another, that they couldn’t hold a job if somebody had offered them one.
Who knows what recruiters are promising these days, but there was a time when a stint in the military looked quite attractive to an awful lot of people, for a multitude of reasons. It might have been the only way out from an intolerable home situation. If a boy’s father made drill sergeants seem warm and cuddly by comparison, the Army was an acceptable escape. And to parentless kids who age out of group homes or foster care, in many cases the security offered by another institution, even the army, could look pretty good.
Whether or not one personally agrees, it is a fact that many a judge has offered a juvenile delinquent the choice between enlistment and jail. A lot of people ended up in the military that way. Not because they wanted to slaughter foreigners, but because they didn’t want to be locked up or acquire a criminal record. I knew a guy who joined up because his parents raided his college fund to buy his brother an expensive toy. That left the G. I. Bill as his only hope for pursuing higher education. He didn’t want to go kill babies. He wanted to get a degree.
Here’s one for the spiritual descendents of hippies and flower children. Often, the most gentle and tender-hearted of the recruits become the veterans with the most severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. They couldn’t successfully be turned into the kind of people who can stomach doing the things that soldiers sometimes do. They came back and went all dysfunctional. They need treatment, and if they can’t get it, they at least need some compassion and a new pair of socks now and then. Anybody who cracked up because he or she didn’t “have what it takes” to enjoy being a professional soldier is a person worth saving.
Moving on to libertarians, the attitude about militarism varies, but one thing is clear: Since World War II, every conflict we’ve been involved in was undertaken without a constitutionally-mandated declaration of war. Still, it isn’t the veterans’ fault. Probably any libertarian would agree that any contract made by a government with a member of its armed services should definitely be lived up to by that government.
Currently, many libertarians are angry because the federal government is profiling Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans as potential terrorists. No kidding. Here is Paul Joseph Watson on the subject:
The government seems to be obsessed with targeting disgruntled veterans with pre-crime and other unconstitutional forms of surveillance, demonization and harassment… The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Mind Machine Project… is primarily aimed at weeding out ‘troubled veterans’ who may be planning to commit terrorist bombings or political assassinations, by illegally wiretapping their phone calls and Internet communications in order to build psychological profiles.
No matter where you are on the political spectrum or what your feelings are about war and the military, every last American has sufficient reasons to be incensed about the homeless veterans, and ought to be.
Source: “Fighting Abroad, Homeless at Home — ABC News,” ABC News, 12/26/10
Source: “Spitting on the Troops: Old Myth, New Rumors,” VVAW.org
Source: “Veterans commission representative says one in three homeless men is a veteran,” PolitiFact.com, 01/10/11
Source: “Feds Use Pre-Crime To Target Disgruntled Veterans,” MilitantLibertarian.org, 10/01/10
Image by Basterous, used under its Creative Commons license.
Of the total number of men experiencing homelessness in the United States, one out of three is a veteran. Ericka Walmsley of the Texas Veterans Commission gave this often-repeated statistic to a reporter in early December, and a controversy began.
The Austin American-Statesman has a regular column called PolitiFact, which is like Snopes.com without the humor. PolitiFact looks at claims made by journalists and government agencies (and promises made by politicians) and evaluates them, separating rhetoric from truth. In 2009, PolitiFact won the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting, for its coverage of the 2008 election.
This particular column was meticulously researched and written by W. Gardner Selby, who consulted more than a dozen sources to determine where the one-in-three assertion came from. Selby’s conclusion:
Bottom line: Experts outside Texas agree the claim that one-third of homeless men are veterans is based on obsolete data, though some cautioned that it’s hard to pinpoint how many homeless men are veterans, and one sorting of the data appears to justify the claim. We rate the statement Barely True.
Ericka Walmsley’s source was HelpUSA, which based its figure on the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) homelessness data gathered in 1996. Lawrence Cann of HelpUSA told Selby that it’s hard to tell because a lot of homeless veterans may not identify themselves as veterans when questioned by the volunteers who go out and count the homeless, and may not show up in the system in any other way if they don’t seek shelter or other services. Still, HelpUSA subsequently changed its webpage to read, “around one out of every four homeless men is a veteran.” Though, further down the page, it still says 30% (or about one in three.)
National Coalition for the Homeless director Neil Donovan told Selby his organization used the same HUD figures, and a January 2009 one-night “snapshot” revealed that of all the homeless people, sheltered or not, who could be contacted on that date, 13% were veterans. That number had previously been 15%. Donovan also noted that not many Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans have shown up in the homeless population yet because Post Traumatic Stress Disorder often takes years to fully manifest. So he’s suggesting that the number of homeless veterans in our future will indeed increase.
Of course, Selby also checked with HUD, the original source of the figures, and with Project CHALENG, whose report is available as a PDF file. According to CHALENG, in 1990, there were 27.5 million veterans (3 million of them poor), and 10 years later there were 23 million veterans (1.8 million of them poor), and…
[…] it does appear that a significant, long-term reduction in the numbers of homeless veterans has occurred.
A person could also interpret that as meaning there are fewer homeless veterans than 10 years ago because a lot of them have died in the meantime. This is not exactly the ideal way to make homelessness statistics go down. In December of 2010, the U.S. Secretary of veterans affairs estimated that there were 107,000 homeless veterans. After consulting Duncan McGhee, of the Texas Veterans Commission (where the statement that started this whole thing came from), Selby wrote,
Using U.S. Census Bureau statistics to extrapolate the percentage of males among veterans (93 percent), McGhee comes up with a figure of 99,720 homeless male veterans — slightly more than one-third of the total number of adult homeless people calculated from the January 2009 one-night survey.
So we’re back to approximately one-third again. Perhaps the most important quotation here came from Mary Cunningham of the Urban Institute, who told Selby that although the one-in-three figure might be outdated, all such numbers should be considered rough estimates, adding,
In general, it’s important to remember that there are far too many homeless who are veterans.
And that is the real bottom line.
Source: “Veterans commission representative says one in three homeless men is aveteran,” PolitiFact.com, 01/10/11
Source: “Veteran Services,” HelpUSA.com
Image by The National Guard, used under its Creative Commons license.
Today, we’re looking around America to see what is being done in various cities about the National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. The news is encouraging. Many groups, both secular and faith-based, are taking on the responsibility for doing something useful to alleviate the growing problem of people experiencing homelessness. Here is a small sampling of what folks throughout the land are up to this week.
In Vero Beach, Florida, housed citizens take turns living in a car for 24 hours in a public place, while a local radio show broadcasts their reactions and sends out requests for donations to help the involuntary homeless, whose number in the area is estimated at 2,000. Volunteers staff 10 collection sites around the city to take contributions, and many businesses put on special events where part of the profit is donated.
In Pensacola, Florida, the main organizers for the Week are the Waterfront Rescue Mission and EscaRosa Coalition on the Homeless. Events there include food and clothing drives, a candlelight vigil, a prayer breakfast, a sale of art created by people experiencing homelessness, and the screening of a film called On the Edge.
On the opposite coast, in Portland, Oregon, a group called Human Solutions has opened its 60-bed Family Warming Center (it will be open for 12 hours every night), and also offers help with housing information and help with job hunting. Located at Eastminster Presbyterian Church, the Center is always looking for volunteers to help out in the recreation room with the evening activities leadership, and to mentor the children. Community members volunteer in the kitchen and, as always and everywhere, food donations are gratefully accepted.
In California, Project Homeless Connect holds an event in three towns (Hanford, Porterville, and Visalia), visited this year by close to 800 people in need of help. Actually, this is only a small portion of the activities of PHC. Machael Smith gives the background:
Created in 2004 in San Francisco, Project Homeless Connect is equal parts welcoming homeless neighbors into the life of the community, changing the way resources are accessed and achieving quantifiable results for people experiencing homelessness. The innovation has taken off like wildfire across the country as communities look for solutions to end homelessness. More than 330 events in 220 communities have taken place so far.
Thanks to the efforts of many volunteering agencies and individuals, clients receive an amazing array of services from haircuts and showers to vaccinations for their pets. The State Department of Motor Vehicles is on hand to issue ID cards for those who need them, and many other needs are also met, improving the lives of people of all ages.
In San Francisco, Craig Newmark himself (the founder of Craigslist) takes the time to publish an appeal for the sock drive sponsored by St. Anthony’s. This may sound like a small thing, but, as the article explains, people experiencing homelessness are rarely in a position to be able to do something as simple as take off their shoes, let alone wash any of their clothes. Clean, dry socks are rare, and a brand new pair of socks can seem like a luxury fit for a king.
This is a reminder to all of us that no matter how little we have, and regardless of how close to the edge we ourselves might be, there is still something we can do for a person who is even worse off. A pair of socks is not much to give, but it can be a bounteous gift to receive.
Meanwhile, down in Southern California, STANDUP FOR KIDS (SUFK) hosts a wine-tasting benefit to raise money toward the construction of a drop-in center and transitional housing facility for young people. Orange County, long regarded as a center of affluence, estimates that it contains an astonishing 26,000 homeless youth. And that’s only the kids. The SUFK organization concentrates on helping the young gain a foothold in society before they can slip too far into the hopeless situation of seeing homelessness as their only possible future.
From Evansville, Indiana, Richard Gootee reports that this is one of the many cities participating in the “Totes for Hope,” a program that provides tote bags and backpacks to homeless veterans.
Last but certainly not least, The Statesman carries a report from Andrea Ball on the doings in Austin, Texas, the center of operations of House the Homeless, and the site of the annual Homeless Sunrise Memorial Service.
Source: “HFC joins National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week,” TCPalm.com,10/04/10
Source: “Homeless Families Warming Center Opens…,” Chuck Currie, 11/04/10
Source: “Events urge awareness of hunger, homelessness,” pnj.com, 11/13/10
Source: “A day of hope offered to the homeless,” Visalia Times-Delta, 11/06/10
Source: “St. Anthony’s needs socks for homeless veterans,” San Francisco Chronicle, 11/09/10
Source: “‘STANDUP On The Vine’ To Benefit Local Orange County Homeless Youth,” San Francisco Chronicle, 11/03/10
Source: “‘Totes for Hope’ gives hand to local homeless veterans,” Evansville Courier & Press, 11/12/10
Source: “Who Are the Homeless?,” The Statesman, 11/15/10
Image by Elsie Esq. (Les Chatfield), used under its Creative Commons license.