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Meanest Streets, Part 1

Bridge Action Day 2010 AtlantaA 2005 report by the National Coalition for the Homeless listed what were, at the time, the 20 meanest cities, the ones with the worst records in terms of anti-homeless laws, selectivity of enforcement, severity of penalties, and their general political climate including whatever anti-homeless legislation was currently being pushed.

Let’s look at what were then deemed the five worst cities and catch up on subsequent events.

#5 Las Vegas, NV. [THEN]
Even as the city shelters are overcrowded and the city’s Crisis Intervention Center recently closed due to lack of funding, the city continues to target homeless persons living outside. The police conduct habitual sweeps of encampments which lead to extended jail time for repeat misdemeanor offenders.

The more recent situation in Las Vegas is outlined by Rodger Jacobs in a three-part series published late last year. The introductory editor’s note mentions a downtown tent city, which the author and his girlfriend fortunately were able to avoid. Jacobs gives 13,000 as the number of homeless residents in the county, and relates details of his problems in obtaining the documents required to apply for services.

Like any endangered renter with good sense, Jacobs was aware of the landlord-tenant law. As he and his girlfriend struggled to pack, he reflected on what would happen if they couldn’t get their belongings out of there by the deadline. The building owner could put their stuff in any rental storage unit, charging any fee. Thanks to the publicity from the news article, a donor paid the moving and storage costs. The next place where the couple landed inspired Jacobs to write that…

… life in a residential hotel is far from ideal, and it has offered me a ground’s-eye view of the full effect of the Great Recession, from entire families crammed into small rooms and a school bus that drops off dozens of children in front of the hotel on weekday afternoons.

In the second installment, Jacobs names and thanks people who came forward with help, but that humanitarian glow is spoiled by the Las Vegas newspaper readers who responded to Part 1 with hostility. Jacobs says,

The day the Sun published my essay… I spent many of my waking hours defending myself against allegations of sloth… hypochondria, arrogance… weak moral and ethical judgment, prevarication, alcoholism, drug abuse, liberalism, solipsism, atheism… ripping off ‘the system,’ a defeatist attitude, poor money management…

In the third installment of his story, Jacobs was still shocked by the outpouring of malice. He writes,

More than the tale of my plight itself, the vicious online response to the New Homeless series… became the story for the press beyond Nevada’s borders… Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak summed it up best when he said, ‘Societies are judged by how they respond to those in need.’ Indeed, the citizens of Las Vegas have been judged by the shrill voices of a very vocal minority… my story has also gained a lot of traction in foreign media.

Well, thanks, unfeeling people of Las Vegas, for once again making America look bad in the eyes of the world. On the other hand, the city apparently is tolerant of the hundreds of tunnel dwellers and does not go out of its way to disturb them.

#4 Atlanta, GA. [THEN]
In the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Atlanta stood firm in its resolve to criminalize panhandlers… In addition, during the first week in December, the Atlanta Zoning Review Board approved a ban on supportive housing inside the city limits.

As we have mentioned, the reputation of Atlanta, Georgia, was dismal due to the massive displacement of the urban homeless in preparation for the 1988 Democratic Convention, and then again for the 1996 Olympic games. The city has some good things going for it more recently, including the Georgia Law Center for the Homeless.

In late 2007, House the Homeless did a survey to find out how many of the people experiencing homelessness in Austin, Texas, were actually working; were, in other words, the “working poor” who can’t even scrape together a living wage. Richard says,

Upon releasing the survey results… we were notified that in Atlanta, Georgia, 45% of their homeless population were working at some point during the week… Apparently, the work ethic is there but the wage is not.

The House the Homeless website features a report on Bridge Action Day 2010 in Atlanta, more formally known as “Bridge the Economic Gap” Day. Its purpose is to focus attention on the gap between an average worker’s paycheck and the possibility of actually living on that amount.

More recently, Lori Chapman reported for CNN about an unusual art studio opened by Anita Beaty, who is executive director of the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless. Chapman says,

The art studio sits in the group’s headquarters, a 1920s-era building on Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta. Beaty says the homeless can find a secure place to paint and a creative community environment there… To get their own free studio space, those interested must show some artistic ability and follow certain rules, including staying drug-free.

There is a coffee bar in the storefront space, to entice passers-by and potential art patrons. Anything the artists sell, the Task Force gets a very reasonable 20% commission. Whether homeless or housed, painters tend to sink their profits back into buying more art supplies. This news story profiles a couple of artists who, between part-time service industry jobs and their art sales, managed to earn enough to rent an apartment. Also important is the chance to mingle with other artists who are not experiencing homelessness, who are also welcome at location.

Reactions?

Source: “A Dream Denied,” National Coalition for the Homeless
Source: “I am frightened,” Las Vegas Sun, 08/29/10
Source: “Hostile toward homelessness,” Las Vegas Sun, 09/26/10
Source: “Homelessness and the indignity of hurtful speech,” Las Vegas Sun, 12/05/10
Source: “Vancouver Olympics Aftermath Studied,” House The Homeless blog, 02/17/11
Source: “What’s New at the Universal Living Wage Campaign,” Universal Living Wage
Source: “At this shelter, art studio helps the homeless paint a brighter future,” CNN.com, 04/01/11
Image of Bridge Action Day 2010 Atlanta by House the Homeless.

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How Change Happens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Richard says,

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

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

Reactions?

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

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Kick ‘Em When They’re Down

Homeless ManNo matter what a homeless person might do, whether it’s to return some lost money, or to be found dead in a dumpster, their identity is “homeless.” It’s as if the individual’s status as a non-owner and non-renter of real estate is the most important thing about her or him. Where property is worshipped as a god, not to own property is a sin. And when a person compounds that sin by not even contributing to help someone else own property (by paying rent), that’s even worse.

Basically, it’s open season on non-property-owners. A person could get the impression that the motto of America, in regard to people experiencing homelessness, is “Kick ‘em when they’re down.” And there are so many ways to do it. The stories range from pathetic to lurid. In Georgia, the declaration that gays deserve to be homeless is made by a clergyperson who is unclear on the concept of Christian charity.

In Missouri, a homeless man loses his public library privileges because a news article tipped off the staff that he lived in a car. The deprivation this represents is described by Tony Pugh in a TruthOut article about libraries struggling with budget cuts. He writes,

They’re the lone source of free computer and internet access in most communities, allowing the unemployed to search for jobs, learn computer skills and spruce up their resumes. Millions use them to stay in touch with relatives, apply for government services or to seek health information. But public libraries’ critical role as neighborhood information hubs hasn’t shielded the nearly 17,000 of them across the country from budget scalpels.

This next one is too perfect. It’s one of those headlines you see and automatically think it’s from the renowned satire publication, The Onion:

Portland One-Legged Homeless Man Discharged From Jail Without Wheelchair

But no, it’s not from The Onion, or Mad Magazine, nothing like that. Mary Plummer reported this story for ABC News. Here is the relevant excerpt:

The security officers apparently watched as Scott Hamilton, 37, used his hands to scoot out of the jail on his butt and head out into the dark street about 1 a.m. Hamilton then made his way to a convenience store about three blocks away where girlfriend Eve Browne picked him up… Hamilton has rheumatoid arthritis, and his hands were swollen and purple after making the trek, Browne said.

A little over a month ago, Chris Sadeghi of KXAN News in Austin reported on the story of a homeless woman who was severely beaten and locked in a storage unit where she wasn’t found for two days. He says,

Richard Troxell with House the Homeless said that many times homeless people who are unable to get into shelter’s have to resort to alternative means such as storage units. ‘We are talking about the need to have safe decent affordable housing and it is not available at the wage people are being paid,’ said Troxell. ‘So people are looking for alternatives and sometimes they are not the best alternatives.’

Sadeghi also noted that House the Homeless prints and distributes cards with information about shelters and services. The organization also provides information about the somewhat improved sit/lie ordinance, to help keep people out of trouble. Some kinds of trouble, anyway.

A while back, we talked about “bum fights,” a disgusting cultural trend. This genre of so-called entertainment hasn’t gone away. In April, The Miami Herald reported that homeless men were being paid by a website specializing in violent pornography, which videotaped them being assaulted by women.

Journalist Emily Nipps says,

Local homeless advocate G.W. Rolle said for months he noticed men walking around Williams Park with black eyes, split lips and limps before he finally got someone to tell him about the ‘beatdowns,’ as they have come to be known among the homeless… The site offers custom videos, made for the buyer’s specifications, starting at $600… The men say they were offered $25 to be whipped and $50 to be beaten by the women. They were not allowed to fight back, they say, and did not get paid if they quit before the 12 minutes expired.

In his book Hollywood Unlisted, phone technician Kim Fahey relates his interactions with everyone from movie stars to street people. This excerpt concerns a conversation Fahey had with a homeless woman he knew, called Sunshine:

I asked her if guys still hassled her for sex. She had a coughing fit at that question. I had to wait for her to get her composure before I could get a straight answer out of her. ‘Sex? These guys don’t give a rolling (bleep) about sex. They just want to stay warm. It gets (bleep)ing cold sometimes. (Bleep)ing road workers will point those big sprinklers on us in the middle of the night in the camp and soak all our stuff. Man are they some real (bleep)ing (bleep)s!’

Reactions?

Source: “Book Bind: Public Libraries Feel Strain of Budget Cuts,” TruthOut.org, 04/20/11
Source: “Portland One-Legged Homeless Man Discharged From Jail Without Wheelchair,” ABC News, 05/25/11
Source: “Woman beaten, locked in storage unit,” KXAN.com, 04/29/11
Source: “Lawsuit: Women beat homeless men for sex fetish videos,” The Miami Herald, 04/12/11
Source: “Hollywood Unlisted,” Amazon.com
Image by Letheravensoar (Tyler M.), used under its Creative Commons license.

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Austin’s Revised Sit-Lie Ordinance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“GFWright” adds,

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

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

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

Reactions?

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

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Homeless Women Especially Vulnerable to Violence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reactions?

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

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Why the Protected Homeless Class Resolution is Needed

87 BudaPest 2006 035Some societal malcontents will talk all day about what is wrong, a useful skill which has its place. But if someone asks how to fix the mess, they fall strangely silent. Not so with Richard R. Troxell. The one thing a person would never need to ask him is, “Yeah, but what are we supposed to do about it?” The complete plan for fixing this mess is already there between the covers of Looking Up at the Bottom Line. Troxell, the founder of House the Homeless, knows what to do about it, and lays it out in transparent, step-by-step simplicity.

One of the most important documents is the Protected Homeless Class Resolution (PHCR). Because many states and cities are passing and enforcing laws targeting poor and homeless people, House The Homeless feels the need for the adoption of this resolution by City, State and the United States governments. We have talked before about various aspects of the PHCR and the reasons for its creation — the shortage of affordable housing, the insufficient minimum wage, and the huge number of Americans who are involuntarily without permanent addresses. We have also talked about how the PHCR contains the foundations of Richard’s arguments for the urgency of adopting the Universal Living Wage, the solution that will help all Americans either directly or indirectly.

The United States has signed on to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We as a nation have agreed that all people are entitled to a minimum standard of living and dignity. This minimum standard’s components include something to eat, something to wear, someplace to live, and some care when sick. It doesn’t say the country has to give everybody these things, because the political systems of some countries are not built that way. But signing the Declaration is supposed to mean that the specific country agrees to recognize, serve, and protect the efforts of its citizens to obtain these things, under its political system, because it agrees with the concept that people should have them.

And then there’s another United Nations Document the U.S. signed, the Habitat Agenda, which has to do with various human rights including equality for women and the poor, and protection from illegal forced evictions, and not penalizing people experiencing homelessness because of their status.

Sometimes you wouldn’t know it from the way we act. Not long ago, Willy Staley, a Rockefeller Foundation Urban Leaders Fellow, and expert on federal urban policy, reported on the harassment situation in one of America’s most beautiful cities. There used to be a popular song that included the line, “If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.” The reason being, because “you’re gonna meet some gentle people there.” No longer. Staley’s piece is titled “If You’re Going to San Francisco, Be Sure to Never Sit on the Sidewalk.”

Staley reported on how the city’s no sit/no lie ordinance came into being. It seems that the Mayor, Gavin Newsom, took a walk on Haight Street and saw a gutter punk smoking crack. That incident was the impetus behind the wave of public support for an oppressive law. Because a politician happened to witness an offensive bit of bad behavior, all of San Francisco’s other various assorted subgroups of people experiencing homelessness paid the price. To make sitting a police matter was an example of civic overkill. Staley wrote,

Furthermore, SFPD doesn’t need a sit/lie ordinance to harass gutter punks on Haight Street; they’ll go ahead and do it anyway. They probably ought to. But a city-wide law that makes it illegal to sit or lie on the street anywhere in San Francisco strikes me as a real threat to any sort of city life other than that which makes the wheels of commerce turn smoother.

In April, an Associated Press story related how official efforts to sweep the homeless from the beaches and sidewalks of Honolulu only succeeded in making life more difficult and dangerous for the young. When an encampment of some 200 people, including 70 children, was broken up, advocates for the homeless voiced their distress. The article says,

Their concern is greatest for homeless children… going along with their families to areas that are increasingly further away from running water, electricity and transportation lines… The cleanup of a homeless encampment last month at Keaau Beach Park spurred many of the residents to move into shelters but led others to more secluded, undeveloped areas of the Waianae Coast farther away from the highway.

As we have often heard, children are the last resort of scoundrels. Any ridiculous restrictive law that the most retrogressive mind can think of, the ultimate argument they always resort to is, “Think of the children!” Now here we have a problem where “Think of the children!” is a legitimate and very real concern. But… these are only homeless children. So the civic leaders no longer cry, “Think of the children!” It’s just the lonely few advocates for the homeless who are thinking of the children this time.

And there is more to it than the difficulty of getting to stores and schools and free clinics, for these scattered people. Living together in a large encampment, no doubt some parents formed friendships that enabled shared child care and other benefits that come along with neighborliness and trust. When such a settlement is destroyed, even those tenuous bonds are torn, yet another loss for families that have lost everything already.

The Protected Homeless Class Resolution is meant to address the needs of people who have no alternative to living on the streets and who have no choice but to live, breathe, eat, sleep, sit, or stand in public places. One of the things it wants to protect them from is being persecuted and prosecuted as criminals for the crime of merely existing. If people experiencing homelessness are a vulnerable group that needs and deserves protection, children experiencing homelessness are many times more deserving.

Reactions?

Source: “If You’re Going to San Francisco, Be Sure to Never Sit on the Sidewalk,” AmericanCity.org, 03/09/10
Source: “Advocates say sweeps pushing Honolulu homeless to streets, remote areas,” Greenfield Reporter, 04/03/11
Image by Mcaretaker (Matthew Hunt), used under its Creative Commons license.

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The Crime of Breathing While Homeless

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reactions?

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

1

Austin Fire Creates Homelessness

fireIn Austin, Texas, Michael Weathers has been charged with arson (another report says felony reckless endangerment) for a fire that burned up 100 acres, causing severe damage to 10 houses and minor damage to six more. Dwellings have been destroyed, and people have been rendered… homeless.

This is a tragedy. Fire is one of the cruelest things that can happen in a person’s life, and its repercussions can last for years, forever. Weathers turned himself in, which is more than a lot of white-collar criminals have ever had the guts to do. How many homeless families are created by one corrupt mortgage company? How many bankers go to prison?

Weathers left the hot coals of a dying campfire unattended and went to buy beer. In a story already causing a great outcry, that’s the perfect detail to tip public sentiment over into virulence. Now it seems as if the reaction to one man’s dreadful mistake threatens to develop into something like a pogrom. That’s a strong word, but it does imply the organized persecution of a group of people, and in that sense it fits. As Andrea Ball, a philanthropy blogger for the Austin American-Statesman, expresses it,

The debate about Austin’s homeless is about to get very ugly.

Yes, the fire was intentionally set, and that is an element of the crime of arson, despite the fact that there was no intention to destroy anything. Yes, the man who did it should be held accountable. But when you’ve got local citizens who think it’s appropriate to talk about using the homeless “for target practice,” as one online commentator recommended, you’ve got a problem. The reporter says,

Austin’s homeless population already causes plenty of outrage amongst neighbors frustrated with the noise, garbage and disruptive behavior stemming from homeless camps in the greenbelt and other wooded areas. Advocates say the problem stems from a lack of affordable housing and other services to help the homeless.

Well, duh! Homelessness results from a lack of housing, that seems pretty obvious. Also, from expecting people who don’t even have facilities to wash themselves or their clothes, to get out there and function like high-powered yuppies. And from about a hundred other factors, none of which are helped by generating an atmosphere of fear and rejection. But even so, the issue has more sides than a pomegranate has seeds. This point was brought up by Statesman reader Mary Ellen King:

Even if affordable housing is an option as suggested in the article, many of them suffer from mental illness and will rarely sleep in shelters when afforded the opportunity.

So housing isn’t the only answer. To go along with walls and roofs, what we need is a society that cares for its members. For the mentally ill, there has to be some happy medium between the old way (incarceration in grim state institutions) and the new way (life on the streets.) Isn’t there a country somewhere on earth where this situation is handled? And if so, why aren’t we learning from that country and following its example?

Ball passed along one report of a large bonfire being irresponsibly built in the recent past, and she has learned that hundreds of people camp in the county’s wooded areas. Maybe a small percentage prefer the al fresco life. Probably, most would prefer not to be there. But what else can they to do? The Salvation Army shelter has space for 259 bodies. At the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, there are only 100 beds. These have to be won by nightly lottery. The rest of the “beds” are 3 inch thick mats that one has to vie for in a second lottery.

ARCH is said to turn away as many as 50 people on a bad night. Lottery losers are turned out into the cold where they face “Quality of Life” ordinances such as no sitting, no sleeping and no camping. And now, because of the drought, the authorities have understandably announced a zero-tolerance policy toward open flames. Violation of the burn ban carries a $500 fine, and good luck on collecting it from a homeless person.

Police officers have begun visiting local homeless camps, urging them not to have campfires or open flames of any kind. In the department’s south district, officers were talking to people in the 35 to 40 known homeless camps and those panhandling at busy intersections.

As President of House the Homeless, Richard R. Troxell sent an email to colleagues that said,

Perhaps it was carelessness or perhaps it was a gust of wind that blew up from a dead still as it did in my presence just 5 minutes ago. The state of Texas is in a high fire condition. One and one half million acres have burned this year already… We all need to help one another and everyone is innocent until proven guilty either of arson or even carelessness.

Debbie Russell contributed this to the discussion:

So far I’ve not seen our community leaders lash out; but plenty of haters are doing so on online forums. I hope our leaders resist catering to the call for homeless-blood. One person is accused here; not a whole community. This is an isolated accident, not indicative of a practice of a group… To embark on a large-scale “sweep” campaign (as we have done already, in different areas of town like Waller Creek and on the camps) in an attempt to “solve” the “problem” would be wholly irresponsible of us… I’m REALLY hoping we can contain the knee-jerk urge to vilify all homeless people because of the act of one careless individual… Attacking the homeless is not the way to solve public safety issues. EVER.

Mellower Austinites suggest that this is a good opportunity to increase general awareness of homelessness, because it would be helpful to understand how people get in this position. Well, one of the ways they become homeless is when their house burns down because a fire was started in a nearby homeless camp. In other words, homelessness is a societal force that tends to grow exponentially. It’s like a snowball rollin’ down the side of a snow-covered hill.

One person’s story is that she let a homeless relative move in, which was against the terms of her government-sponsored housing lease, so she got evicted, and now she too is homeless. A young person’s story is that his homeless uncle moved into the family’s garage, and kept cornering him with sinister intent when nobody else was around. So he hit the road, and now there’s one more teenage runaway with an alley for a rec room. Homelessness begets homelessness.

So, yeah, understanding is good. Doing something is better. Now more than ever, Richard R. Troxell and House the Homeless urge the adoption of the Universal Living Wage. Richard says,

If we work together and house the homeless, then we dissolve the scenario. If local businesses paid fair living wages then 1/2 of the folks experiencing homelessness can work themselves off our streets and out of our woods. It’s not just up to the taxpayers to solve homelessness. We all share in the outcome. We’re all members of this community.

Reactions?

Source: “Oak Hill fire, arson and the homeless,” Charity Chat (Austin American-Statesman), 04/18/11
Source: “Police spread word of outdoor fire ban to homeless,” Austin American-Statesman, 04/18/11
Image by Jelle S. (Jelle), used under its Creative Commons license.

2

Everybody’s Gotta Be Someplace

Homeless ShelterIt’s hard to tell when this National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) page was last updated. But it’s safe to assume that the overall situation has not improved, since whenever. The NCH page, entitled “The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities,” says,

An unfortunate trend in cities around the country over the past 25 years has been to turn to the criminal justice system to respond to people living in public spaces. This trend includes measures that target homeless persons by making it illegal to perform life-sustaining activities in public. These measures prohibit activities such as sleeping/camping, eating, sitting, and begging in public spaces, usually including criminal penalties for violation of these laws.

Last week in Boulder, Colorado, a homeless man who was ticketed last April for sleeping in a parking garage, attempted to use an Eighth Amendment defense against the charge. That’s the one about cruel and unusual punishment. Once convicted, Michael Fitzgerald was supposed to either pay a $100 fine or do 12 hours of community service. Instead… well, let Heath Urie, staff writer for the Boulder Daily Camera, tell the story:

Fitzgerald appealed the case to the Boulder County District Court on the grounds that the city’s law against camping in public places essentially punished him for being homeless and having an involuntary need for warmth and shelter as he sleeps at night.

Yes, it looks like the rule he broke is not only cruel and unusual, but discriminatory. However, unfair as it is from the viewpoint of a person experiencing homelessness, so-called respectable society disagrees. Urie reports how Judge Lael Montgomery expressed a strangely familiar sentiment, saying,

The camping without consent ordinance applies to all persons who wish to camp in Boulder, regardless of whether they are homeless, shoestring travelers trying to avoid the cost of accommodations, or persons who merely enjoy the great outdoors.

Nobel Prize-winning author Anatole France said it decades ago:

The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to beg in the streets, steal bread, or sleep under a bridge.

Attorney David Harrison, no doubt familiar with the classical allusion, echoed it in his argument about the city’s ordinance:

It’s certainly saying people with homes and people without homes can’t sleep under bridges… While certainly as a conceptual matter that’s true, as a practical matter (the law) targets the homeless population.

The journalist tell us that Fitzgerald is one of several local people experiencing homelessness who have challenged the tickets they’re received, on constitutional grounds. Boulder is like that. He also provides a helpful sidebar on the page, detailing the No Camping Ordinance, which has been in effect since 1980.

Recently, we talked about how in Austin, Texas, House the Homeless kept track of how many people were busted for sitting or lying down on public sidewalks in the downtown business area during 2009. Over the whole year, there were 708 convictions and 70 dismissals. The highest month was September, when 518 citations were issued. (The month-by-month count for the entire year adds up to way more than 778, so presumably, some legal processes were still going on when this survey was made.)

Anyhow, out of those mere 70 dismissals, only a paltry 52 were dismissed for mental health or medical disabilities. Statistically, what that means is, a lot of people were unfairly treated. Here’s why: In the health survey, 501 people were asked whether they needed to sit and rest now and then. The large majority answered yes. Even people who aren’t officially disabled need to sit down, occasionally. Think about it. Homes are filled with chairs. If people didn’t need them, they wouldn’t be there. People experiencing homelessness don’t have chairs. But they too need a place to sit.

(To be continued…)

Reactions?

Source: “A Dream Denied,” National Coalition for the Homeless
Source: “Boulder judge rejects homeless man’s appeal, upholds city’s anti-camping law,” Daily Camera, 04/08/11
Source: “Richard Troxell’s Health Survey Testimony,” House the Homeless, 07/20/10
Image by tobyotter (Toby Alter), used under its Creative Commons license.

0

The No Sit/No Lie Ordinance and the Americans with Disabilities Act

Homeless VetFirst tangent: Really, at this moment, the thing to pay attention to is the upcoming Tax Day Action. So, hop over to that page to find out what part you can play in making the Universal Living Wage a reality. Then come on back here, okay?

Second tangent: Did you ever accidentally run across some little tidbit of news or information that just makes your day? Sometimes it even does more than that — sometimes it lifts the heart and gives hope for the future. For instance, Nicole Pariser, having completed a combined honors degree in Global Studies and Anthropology at Wilfrid Laurier University, is now at York University, in Toronto. These words are from her Graduate Student Profile:

In broad terms, my research focuses on migration and mobility; who is allowed to move and who is not, and how these choices are justified, particularly by nation states to their citizenry… My research has primarily focused on human trafficking, however following experiences in Vancouver’s downtown eastside, as well as San Francisco, specifically relating to homelessness and the passage of ‘no-sit-no-lie’ policies, my research interests have expanded to include the ways in which migration and mobility come to be constrained not only across national borders, but within them as well… I believe… in the transformative power of engaged anthropology and activism to expose, contest and change that which is unjust.

Now back to our regularly scheduled post. We’ve talked about Austin’s No Sit/No Lie Ordinance before, but not in as much detail as the subject deserves. Here is the background. In 1989, Richard R. Troxell created House the Homeless (HtH) and began challenging the No Camping ordinance that criminalized the homeless for their economic circumstances by fining them $500 for sleeping outdoors. He is still fighting for change in the rules of that excellent Texas city.

Being especially appalled by the treatment of people experiencing homelessness who are also disabled, HtH strives to banish ignorance by collecting facts. As Richard testified to the Health & Human Services Committee of the City Council in July 2010, the HtH surveys found that nearly half of the homeless have medical (including psychological) conditions that make them need to sit down from time to time. Sometimes it’s the effect of their medication that makes them need to sit down, but they’re on medication because they have medical problems, so it amounts to the same thing. But there were no exceptions for this group of people, not even if they were on crutches or wearing a leg brace. Sitting around in public was good for a fine or a jail sentence.

HtH took the position that Austin was out of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), one of the federal laws that states really are supposed to observe. Also, the ADA is not the Americans with Physical Disabilities Act.

HtH garnered support from other organizations such as Mobile Loaves and Fishes; St. David’s Episcopal Church; Legal Aid for the Homeless; Advocacy, Inc.; and the National Coalition for the Homeless. They were asking for 20 exceptions to the harsh law, but the city would not consider any of them. Among those expected to stay on their feet at all times were people newly released from hospital treatment; people officially recognized as unable to work by the fact that they receive disability checks; patients waiting in line at health clinics; and disabled veterans. Particularly, the city seemed to target people with mental disabilities, who can be persecuted and prosecuted without very much complaint from the voting public. As Richard says,

…people suffering with mental health disorders are routinely treated with very powerful drugs that often cause them to become woozy and dizzy. They often have sunlight and heat sensitivity that depletes them of their energy and causes them to need to temporarily sit and rest.

A mentally ill, disabled person experiencing homelessness is particularly vulnerable to being punished for her or his condition. How does a person like this go to court and prove that they were, on a certain day, at a certain time, suffering from pain, weakness, nausea, faintness or dizziness? But the city insisted that the accused must “create an affirmative defense.” Richard met with various authorities, including the chief of police, but reports, “The Chief said that he simply did not want disabled homeless people sitting and lying down all over the city.”

So there you have it. You’d think the city was being invaded by commies or rabid biker gangs or Black Panthers or terroristic Islamists or interplanetary aliens. But no, it’s worse. It’s a bunch of people who are in the midst of being pretty badly beat up by life. And they have the gall to sit on the ground, or, worse yet, lie on the ground. That is the threat from which the police are happy to defend us.

Reactions?

Source: “Anthropology Graduate Student Profiles,” York University
Source: “Austin City Council Discriminates Against the Disabled,” housethehomeless.org, 01/19/11
Image by Kevin Wong (Marlith), used under its Creative Commons license.