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Homelessness and Mental Illness

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

Newsperson Lauren Petrowski, who interviewed the woman, says,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reactions?

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

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Brain Injury, Neglect, and Self-Destruction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ventura says,

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

Reactions?

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

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Los Angeles and the Vets

Sargeant Fast FreddyA 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.

Reactions?

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.

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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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The Minimum Wage and the Big Ideas

Wages

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.

Reactions?

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.

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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.

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Homeless Vets — The Good News

LEGO Mini Construction Site

Around the country, some hearty efforts are being made to make the phrase “Homeless Veterans” obsolete. In Jewett City, Connecticut, the American Legion Veterans Housing, Inc. recently held a groundbreaking ceremony. Legion Post 15 is renovating its old building, and putting up a new building which will contain 18 one-bedroom apartments, an uncredited article tells us. These units are of the “supportive housing” variety.

Supportive housing basically means that the inhabitants, who have special needs, are not just left on their own. They have caseworkers, aides, and various other people watching over them. Regarding the physical plant, the plans include an energy-efficient thermal heating system, conference rooms, counseling rooms, offices, and an exercise room. William Czmyr, the organization’s president, is quoted as saying:

Seven years ago, at one of our meetings, we discussed the military creed ‘that no comrade is left behind.’ Today, as the culmination of that discussion, we are excited to break ground and see our dream for these deserving veterans become a reality.

David Abel, staff writer for the Boston Globe, recently profiled Vietnam veteran Tom Clark. Yes, there are still plenty of them around. The number of homeless veterans is not constant, but of that number, about half are Vietnam-era vets. Clark was getting ready to move into the Gordon H. Mansfield Veterans Community in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

It’s apparently run like a condominium association, so the people who move in will build equity. There is a $2,500 deposit and the payments are as much as $740 per month. (Government words, the link is ours: “The amount of basic benefit paid ranges from $123 to over $3,100 per month, depending on your level of disability and number of dependents.” But financial help is available. And just across the parking lot, there are therapists and social workers. It’s not a just a building, it’s a community, with mental health and addiction services.

Soldier On was the group that set this in motion. This nonprofit organization has been providing shelter and services, and its president, Jack Downing, believes that the answer to homelessness is housing. Soldier On also plans to repurpose the state police training facility into another 120 housing units, and create even more housing in other locations.

Abel quotes a fellow from the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs, Peter Dougherty, who directs the homeless veterans’ programs. He says,

There’s nowhere else like this in the country. It offers a unique opportunity to take veterans that have been homeless and turn them into homeowners. It really is an opportunity that has not happened in other places yet. We’re really interested in seeing how well it works.

In the southwest part of the country, we learn from Sadie Jo Smokey of The Arizona Republic, a plan will be unfolding over the next year and a half. Many veterans have less than $15,000 a year coming in, an amount small enough to ensure economic homelessness, the condition of people who can’t afford housing even though they have income. But the Arizona Department of Housing has done something about housing tax credits that will help encourage builders to construct apartments that these veterans can afford.

A complex called Madison Point (60 units in two buildings) is planned near the Veterans Administration medical center. Another development is planned that will include 75 apartments. Additionally, Smokey’s account also tells of a home for women veterans called Mary Ellen’s Place:

Named in honor of the late Mary Ellen Piotrowski, former chairwoman of Unified Arizona Veterans, the Sunnyslope community calls for 16 apartments that would rent for $250 month.

These are a few of the encouraging signs that the nation is becoming more conscious of the need to house veterans. Of course, those who are able to work need to make a living wage, and we encourage the adoption of the Universal Living Wage, as outlined by Richard R. Troxell in Looking Up at the Bottom Line. The Universal Living Wage would end homelessness for more than a million minimum-wage workers, and prevent economic homelessness for more than 10 million minimum-wage workers.

Reactions?

Source: “Homeless veterans housing project gets under way in Griswold,” TheDay.com, 11/16/10
Source: “A haven for homeless veterans,” Soldier On, 11/08/10
Source: “Availability of affordable housing rentals to increase for veterans,” AZCEntral.com, 12/18/10
Image by Bucklava (Buck), used under its Creative Commons license.

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Homeless Vets: Why We All Should Care

UK VeteranOn 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.

Reactions?

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.

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Homeless Vets — Does It Matter How Many?

Colorado TAG speaks with homeless vets

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.

Reactions?

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.

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Many Cities Observe Homelessness Awareness Week

In the soup kitchenToday, 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.

Reactions?

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.