The Mentally Ill Homeless: Cause and Effect

ProfessionalIn Looking Up at the Bottom Line, Richard R. Troxell suggests that the arrangements made decades ago for the care of America’s mentally ill have resulted in another case of good intentions gone wrong. It was a reform movement, concerned with disability rights and independent living. Some institutions were terrible places.

Richard says,

Disgruntled, underpaid workers were physically and mentally abusing our mentally ill citizens. Legal Aid in Chicago filed a lawsuit that called for deinstitutionalization. Similar lawsuits swept the country. This coincided with the advent of psychotropic drugs such as Lithium. Mental health providers faced heavy social service dollar reductions. There was the hope that these things could be balanced by treating people on an outpatient basis. They would treat people while they were on a kind of invisible tether.

We have talked about why the consequences didn’t match the theory. When Richard was drafting the Homeless Protected Class Resolution, about one-fourth of the adult homeless in America suffered from some type of mental illness. When he was writing Looking Up at the Bottom Line, the low-side estimate was more like one-third. When House the Homeless in Austin conducted its 2010 health survey, 175 of the 501 respondents had been diagnosed with mental illness.

This was an issue in the struggle over Austin’s No Sit/No Lie Ordinance earlier this year. The ordinance was bad enough already, but it discriminated against people with disabilities of all kinds, and especially against those with mental disabilities. With the help of several other agencies, House the Homeless was able to file some of the roughest edges off the ordinance.

Unintended consequences are the dark side of any social experiment. When plans are being made, the person who says, “But, wait…,” and describes a possible bad outcome, is often labeled as a naysayer and a negative thinker. But sometimes optimism, especially optimism based on the availability of funding, turns out to have been unjustified.

Our country in the 1980s was not prepared for a massive influx of troubled and dysfunctional people into the mainstream. Maybe it all happened too fast, maybe nobody was thinking ahead. Whatever programs and protections were organized for the support of so many confused individuals turned out to be inadequate, and the situation has only gotten worse.

A fascinating brand-new report from Dr. Guy Johnson and Prof. Chris Chamberlain of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia reveals a surprise:

They found only 15 per cent had mental health issues before becoming homeless, while 16 per cent of the sample developed mental health problems after becoming homeless.

Are you getting that? Half of the mentally ill homeless became that way after becoming homeless. Australia is a lot like the United States, and has about the same proportion of the mentally ill people experiencing homelessness. It wouldn’t be at all surprising to learn that half of America’s mentally ill homeless, too, got that way after becoming homeless. It’s enough to tip anybody over the edge, especially in a life already filled with stressors.

Worse, the Australian research shows that the young are most vulnerable to mental health challenges that are caused by or exacerbated by the homeless condition. And, even worse than that, the young are apt to develop substance abuse issues along with mental health problems.

Dr. Johnson, who is a researcher for the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute, seems to be saying that treating mental illness is too little, too late. It may lop off some of the problem’s branches, but it does not attack the root. Homelessness is the root of a large share of mental illness, not the other way around.

Concentrating on mental health, he says, deflects attention from the lack of housing, the inability of people to pay for what housing there is, and the inevitable family breakdown that results. The belief that mental illness is the primary cause of homelessness sends the wrong message to policy-makers about exactly what services are needed to end homelessness.

Dr. Johnson goes for the Housing First approach, saying:

Homelessness does cause mental health issues, particularly anxiety and depression, and is a serious problem for a significant minority of homeless people… For homeless people directly affected by these structural factors, the solution lies outside the medical arena – and research indicates that providing housing to homeless people before treating their mental health issues is actually a more effective approach.


Source: “Looking Up at the Bottom Line,” Amazon.com
Source: “Research sheds light on homelessness and mental illness,” RMIT.edu, 06/06/11
Image by AR McLin, used under its Creative Commons license.


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.


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.


Meanest Streets, Part 3

IMG_3618In 2005, the National Coalition for the Homeless listed the 20 American cities where people experiencing homelessness seemed to be most unwelcome. We are looking at the top five, then and now. Las Vegas, Nevada, and Atlanta, Georgia, have already been considered, and so has Little Rock, Arkansas.

Back in 2005, this was named the second-worst urban area in which to experience homelessness:

#2 Lawrence, Kansas [THEN]
After a group of downtown Lawrence business leaders urged the city to cut social services and pass ordinances to target homeless persons, the city passed three ‘civility’ ordinances, including an aggressive panhandling law, a law prohibiting trespass on rooftops, and a law limiting sleeping or sitting on city sidewalks.

In 2006, Jesse Zerger Nathan reported that activists were working to create a Housing Needs Conference, encompassing people in danger of becoming homeless, and people trying to buy houses, as well as landlords, developers, service providers, and bureaucrats, for reasons which Nathan clarifies:

If, as these activists suggest, a city can tackle affordable housing it will, in turn, be addressing a range of issues from homelessness to neighborhood and community development.

The conference, held in June of that year, was written up by Ron Knox, who has noted that the attendees asked three questions of themselves and each other:

What are the greatest unmet housing needs, and how can city leaders meet them?

What housing problems should be solved first?

How can the city provide the best possible support to existing programs?

Lawrence’s Housing Needs Task Force had been formed in 2004 in reaction to a report originating from Kansas University. Forty percent of renters in the city were found to be spending over 35% of their total income for housing. This is called a “housing cost hardship,” and we have talked about it before:

Just a little while ago, the experts were telling us not to spend more than 30% of our income on rent. Now it’s more. As responsible citizens today, we are supposed to feel as wise and mature about paying 35% as we felt a few years ago when the experts advised us to put a lid on at 30%.

Flash forward to July of 2010, less than a year ago. At a meeting of the Coalition for Homeless Concerns, one of the people who expressed his thoughts was Richard Price, a resident at Lawrence Community Shelter. The shelter was always full, he said, and there was literally nowhere else to go. And people turned away from the shelter were issued tickets for “camping.” Brad Cook, the coalition’s co-chair, added that homeless people can’t pay the fines, and ended up in jail, costing the city’s taxpayers a lot of money.

A lot of interesting things have happened since then in Lawrence. Earlier this year, plans were afoot to move the Lawrence Community Shelter to an industrial park. Not a neighborhood, not a block on which there were several schools and day-care centers. Not a downtown area full of nervous boutique owners. A vacant warehouse in an industrial park, which is said to be near the jail. But even that location would not satisfy.

Chad Lawhorn reported,

The business park’s board of trustees have argued the covenants allow only business, industrial and governmental uses to locate in the park. They contend, among other issues, that the shelter is prohibited because it is a residential use… The shelter’s special use permit that allows it to operate downtown is set to expire this spring.

In March, the City Commission voted to let the shelter stay one more year. And then, something amazing happened. Despite the shelter’s tenuous hold on existence, members of the Mustard Seed Church stepped up to refurbish it anyway, inside and out, and if you hit the link you’ll see a splendid set of before-and-after pictures. There is also a full account of the project from church member Tatyana, who says,

The results were not just about new paint, refinished floors, cleaner windows or brighter surroundings… Shelter staff described the atmosphere among the residents the next day as ‘calmer and more peaceful.’

And which American metropolis was, in 2005, deemed to be the #1 meanest city?

#1 Sarasota, Florida [THEN]
After two successive Sarasota anti-lodging laws were overturned as unconstitutional by state courts, Sarasota passed a third law banning lodging outdoors. This latest version appears to be explicitly aimed at homeless persons. One of the elements necessary for arrest under the law is that the person ‘has no other place to live.’

Surprisingly, because this is, after all, Florida, there appears to be some progress. A substantial piece by Carrie Wells in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune spoke of a “transformative shift.” Being singled out as the most heartless place on the map probably started the change in consciousness and conscience for the people of Sarasota. But things didn’t really start to happen until January of this year, when The Economist magazine published a rather unflattering article that gave Sarasota a “black eye.”

Almost immediately, 200 people showed up for the first workshop about a 10-year plan, and further workshops were spoken of, in many areas of civic life that have an impact on homelessness. Even so, the negative attention was not powerful enough to motivate the housed citizens to repeal repressive laws.

Wells wrote,

The thousands of people living in the woods, on friends’ couches and on the streets have long taken issue with policies that made it illegal to be homeless, implemented five years ago. Those policies will likely still remain, with the 10-year plan instead focusing on securing funding for housing assistance and homelessness prevention programs.

There are an estimated 7,500 people experiencing homelessness in Sarasota and Manatee counties, and fewer than 900 emergency shelter beds, so it’s obvious how much needs to be done. But no matter how well-intentioned the citizens might be, nothing can be done without money, and money is what nobody has these days.


Source: “A Dream Denied: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities,” NationalHomeless.org, 2005
Source: “National Coalition Pegs Lawrence KS as 2nd Meanest City Toward Homeless,” BeyondChron.org, 06/01/06
Source: “Conference seeks housing solutions,” LJWorld.com, 06/18/06
Source: “Costly Camping for Lawrence Homeless,” Change of Hearts KS, 07/14/10
Source: “Judge rules against Lawrence homeless shelter; move away from downtown up in the air,” LJWorld.com, 02/14/11
Source: “Lawrence Community Shelter Update,” MustardSeedChurch.com, 05/12/11
Source: “New goal: A roof over everyone’s head by 2021,” Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 02/14/11
Image by Mr D Logan (Miles Smith), used under its Creative Commons license.


How to Become Homeless

Ueno ParkHere, in no particular order, are a few contributing factors to becoming homeless.

1. The earthquake/tsunami combination is a guaranteed creator of homelessness on a massive scale. Live in a place like Japan, Haiti, or California, and sooner or later, you or someone you love will be displaced by natural disaster. Same goes for hurricanes, just about anywhere. Floods are also a traditional and almost totally reliable way to be rendered homeless.

Richard R. Troxell says in Looking Up at the Bottom Line:

Many factors led to the full-blown homelessness in which we now see our nation embroiled. For the last several years, the number of people experiencing homelessness on an annual basis in our country has risen to three and a half million people. At times, the numbers have swollen beyond that due to disasters like hurricanes Rita and Katrina.

2. Fire is a popular way to become homeless. Quantitatively, fire may not account for the largest number of people experiencing homelessness for the first time, but it sure does make headlines. Nowadays, after every fire, there is not only a death toll and an injured toll, but a homeless toll. This is a perfect example of what we mean by awareness. These numbers help to remind us that there are other kinds of damage besides being dead or wounded. Also, there are other losses more important than the destruction of buildings.

3. Mortgage foreclosure used to be a relatively rare and extremely awe-inspiring phenomenon, but now it’s like the common cold. It leads to a wider range of possible outcomes. Some former homeowners manage to get into a cheaper house, or a rental, or they move in with relatives. Others wind up in family shelters, or live in vehicles. And, of course, there is always the street.

Buying a house is the biggest purchase and most serious financial commitment that most people will ever make. It takes a truly analytical mind to appreciate the deep absurdity of some of the stuff that has been going on. Robert Scheer, for instance, described how the process that controls the fate of millions of homeowners is run by robots. Astonishingly, even some of the voracious banks in charge of the disastrous housing market had to admit that it was time to curb the insanity and call a temporary moratorium on foreclosures. Scheer asked,

How do you foreclose on a home when you can’t figure out who owns it because the original mortgage is part of a derivatives package that has been sliced and diced so many ways that its legal ownership is often unrecognizable?… To engage in the recklessness of turning people’s homes — their castles and nest eggs — into playthings of Wall Street market hustlers, or securitization of the assets, as it was termed, homeownership record-keeping had to be mangled beyond recognition.

Speaking of working at a minimum-wage job… According to the last several U.S. Conference of Mayors reports, you can work a full 40-hour minimum-wage job and still be unable to afford basic housing. This is true throughout the entire U.S. Imagine working full time and still not being able to put a roof over your head… other than a bridge.

4. Domestic discord. This can occur between couples, between generations in a family, or between friends. In any shared household, somebody is always vulnerable to being kicked out. It might be you! Or… sometimes there is an intolerable situation, and a person has to leave home. If you are one of them, you will probably run up against critics who just don’t get it. They think the best thing for you would be to get back under the parental or spousal roof. It’s hard for them to imagine that sleeping in a shelter or in an alley could be a step up from what you had before.


Source: “Looking Up at the Bottom Line,” Amazon.com
Source: “Invasion of the Robot Home Snatchers,” Truthdig, 10/12/10
Image by yeowatzup, used under its Creative Commons license.


A Few Shelters Here and There

Homeless Man in SnowIt’s hard to say anything negative about shelters when municipal and state budgets everywhere are being cut. The last thing you want to do is give some bureaucrat the excuse to decide, “Shelters can be awful places, so let’s stop funding them.” And no one wants to denigrate the efforts of the people who found, fund, and administer non-government facilities. Thousands of volunteers have given untold hours to help keep these places of refuge open and stocked with food, blankets, and all the other needed materials.

Still, there are reasons why people experiencing homelessness would rather not sleep in a shelter. One of them being, it might not even be possible to get any sleep. BTW, in case you missed it, the House the Homeless 2011 Health Sleep Survey contains some eye-opening facts about what it’s like to attempt a night’s sleep as a person experiencing homelessness. Even an otherwise healthy person who is not in pain finds it a real challenge. Just imagine how little sleep is available for those with medical problems.

A while back, we reminisced about how cities prepare for the Olympics or a political convention by taking extreme measures to remove street people. In those circumstances, people very much resent being moved around like so much dirt being swept under a rug. Even if offered accommodation in a shelter, sometimes they don’t want to go there. And even in normal times, with no impending major civic event, many street people don’t want to be in a shelter even if space is available and they are eligible. “It may be better than freezing to death, but not by much,” is the feeling in some quarters.

When Australia was preparing for its turn as Olympic host, Mary Beadnell reported on how the first priority of a city council task force was to create a dossier on every person experiencing homelessness, as the initial step in finding a place to warehouse them. But many of the unhoused had no intention of cooperating. Beadnell wrote,

Among homeless people, hostels and boarding houses throughout the Sydney metropolitan area have the reputation of being more dangerous than the streets, because of the increasing frequency of violent assaults, theft and food poisoning that occur there.

In January, the Times of India reported that even though the city contains as many as 150,000 people experiencing homelessness, many would rather not stay in the shelters, which can only accommodate 12,000 anyway. So, why bother mentioning that some think the streets are better? Why is this news? Probably to emphasize the danger. This article says,

Even as Delhi shivers in the bone-chilling winter, the city’s homeless… prefer to sleep in the streets under the open skies rather than use the 150 night shelters, citing lack of safety and facilities.

So there it is again — safety. In many shelters, the inhabitants face danger not only from predatory or violent individuals, but from contagious diseases and insect pests. In Canada, the problems are the same. John Colebourn, reporting on the situation in Vancouver, British Columbia, interviewed a fellow named John Green, who told him that the problem for many is that they are not allowed to bring their possessions into the shelters, and of course anything you leave outside will be stolen. The loss of everything you own, even if it’s not much, is a steep price to pay for a night indoors.

Of course, in a way, this makes ultimate sense, because bundles of belongings can contain life forms that are not wanted inside the shelter. In fact, insect parasites are a major problem in shelters, and are another factor that makes people prefer to take their chances outside. Green himself told the reporter,

Right now I’d rather be homeless than be bitten alive by bed bugs.

Bed bugs have become a huge problem, not only in homeless shelters but in regular houses and apartments, too, and even in vehicles. The bugs like to travel from place to place in clothing, in baggage, and in furniture. They especially like to live in wooden bedframes, which kind of discourages the whole recycling concept. They also hitchhike around on pets and wild animals. One experienced online commentator says the bites hurt so bad, you want to cry.

Inside a building, bedbugs migrate from one area to another via the heating ducts. Once ensconced in their new home, they are very hard to detect, although specially trained dogs can alert to their presence. Once found, they are hard to get rid of. They have developed resistance to DDT.

In Africa, the bed bugs have adapted so well to the stuff, it makes them even livelier and more robust. Any chemical that can wipe out bed bugs is pretty bad for humans. The good news is, they can be quashed by biological control. The bad news is, their natural enemies are things like cockroaches, which you don’t want in the place either.

On the Change.org website, Homeless Nate contributed this to the discussion:

The Berkeley shelter had the most horrendous bedbug problem. I showed to them where the problem was and how they could fix it (by removing the wooden part of the beds). And they were like ‘What do you know? You’re homeless!’

But all this is small potatoes, compared to what goes on in China, where ruthless managers of private shelters have been selling people to factories for years. The mentally disabled start out at an agency with a comforting name like “Disabled Self-Reliance Group” and wind up as slave laborers. An uncredited article from a German news service reported,

State media have reported several other cases of forced labor since the government promised a crackdown after a scandal in 2007 involving the enslavement and maltreatment of more than 1,000 beggars and mentally disabled people at brick kilns in the northern province of Shanxi.

In one of the more interesting alternatives to public shelters, some volunteers open their own homes. In Bradford, West Yorkshire, England, there is a faith-based organization called Hope Housing where housed people sign up to let someone stay, usually only for a night, but sometimes for a week or a month. It was begun to help people over 26, supplementing the efforts of an already-existing volunteer organization, Nightstop, which was created for people under 26. These organizations also offer help in finding more permanent accommodations.


Source: “Sydney’s homeless to be removed for Olympics,” WSWS, 02/03/00
Source: “Delhi’s homeless prefer streets to night shelters,” Times of India, 01/11/11
Source: “Homeless struggle with decision to seek shelter or risk theft, bed bugs,” The Province, 01/05/11
Source: “Why I Choose Streets Over Shelter,” Change.org, 06/03/09
Source: “Shelter manager detained for selling homeless as forced labour,” Monsters and Critics, 12/14/10
Image by brownpau (Paulo Ordoveza), used under its Creative Commons license.


A Certain Income Level

Earth EggImagine a world where 80% of the people are without such basic needs as water, sanitation, education, healthcare, food security, or the old-age pensions — a planet where four out of five people lack what the United Nations (U.N.) calls “adequate social protection.”

Well, there is no need to imagine it, because that’s the kind of world we already have. Juan Somovia, a U.N. official, recently pointed out something we are reminded of daily by the frightening headlines from everywhere. He calls it the “linkage between social justice and national stability,” a polite way of saying that if a nation’s people do not have food, jobs, housing, fair treatment at the hands of their government, and certain other basic amenities, the leadership will definitely need to watch its back.

Now, imagine a world where everybody makes a living wage and has access to basic services. Somovia is director-general of the ILO (International Labour Organization), which is part of the U.N., and he says it’s possible. The ILO has established the basic entitlements that ought to apply to every person on earth:

— basic income security for children;
— access to some social assistance for people of working age that prevents them from falling into absolute food poverty;
— a basic old-age pension for people over a certain age;
— and essential health services for all.

Susan Jones reported on these ideas and others proposed on February 20, the “World Day of Social Justice.” All of the 183 member nations of the ILO have arranged to send delegates to a convocation in June, where they will discuss long-term plans for a worldwide “social protection floor.” The ILO believes that a worldwide universal living wage could be accomplished by spending only 2% of the Global Domestic Product.

Since they are already so clear about what is wanted and needed, it would seem that the main problem will be to discover how to get the money from wherever it is now to the people who presently live below this “floor” level of a living standard. The U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also emphasized the necessity of social justice for all, saying,

No one should live below a certain income level, and everyone should have access to essential public services such as water and sanitation, health and education.

Specific to the United States, we have mentioned some of the things Richard talked about when he was interviewed by Wayne Hurlbert for Blog Talk Radio. This is Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless, of course, talking about the ideas proposed in his book, Looking Up at the Bottom Line. It was a very wide-ranging discussion, and it’s worth touching on a few of the topics again.

In these hard economic times, we (as a nation) need to be strategic. We are smart enough not to operate on a sick patient with a chain saw as opposed to a scalpel. We should also realize that we are not a nation with just one economy. We are a nation of a thousand economies. Taking a one-size-fits-all approach with the federal minimum wage is not good for anybody. Currently, it’s enough to hurt some, for instance small rural businesses, and yet at the same time not enough to help others, such as workers in expensive cities like New York and San Francisco. In other words, it’s a lose-lose proposition.

Richard sees the Universal Living Wage as a clear, simple way to turn things around, and certainly as a large part of the solution to get economy moving. The idea has already been proven, and only needs to be extended. The military adjusts the pay scale for off-base housing according to the geographical locality. The US Government has also adopted a pay policy that considers geographic considerations when federal employees are transferred from region to region. The concept has been tried and found to be successful and valuable.

Everyone knows it doesn’t cost the same to live in Harlington, Texas, as it does to live in Boston, Massachusetts. This results in “economic homelessness,” where even an employed person can’t afford basic housing. We need a Federal Minimum Wage that is indexed to the local cost of housing (the number-one most expensive item in every American’s budget). By indexing it to the local cost of housing, we ensure that anyone working 40 hours a week will be able to afford basic food, clothing, and shelter (including utilities). Richard estimates that the Universal Living Wage could end economic homelessness for over a million people and prevent economic homelessness for all 10.1 million minimum-wage workers.

By showing how easily a “social protection floor” could be established in the United States, we could once again lead the world by setting a good example.


Source: “‘No One Should Live Below A Certain Income Level,’ U.N. Secretary-General Says,”CNSNews.com, 02/21/11
Source: “Richard Troxell Looking Up at the Bottom Line,” BlogTalkRadio, 12/08/10
Image by AZRainman (Mark Rain), used under its Creative Commons license.


The Very Sane “Housing First” Approach

Homeless hotelJoseph Krauss is one of the journalists who have written about the Housing First concept as practiced in a particular place. In Washington, D.C., the nonprofit organization Open Arms Housing administers a building with 16 single-occupancy apartments, three of them wheelchair-accessible. Each efficiency apartment has a full kitchen and bathroom. On each floor there is also a community room with phones, TV, computer, and space for residents to gather.

Krauss interviewed a resident who remarked on a little-noticed aspect of the housing process, namely, how it can take many months simply to mentally adjust to the fact that one is no longer homeless. Moving from the street into a safe, secure environment is of course a huge positive step, but it is also a culture shock. It can be just as disorienting as the original change from housed to homeless was, and a person needs to become acclimated. The women of OAH are doing well, and some are even employed.

Open Arms Housing was established in 1997 to serve the most vulnerable women, who are least likely to benefit from other programs because of their serious problems. Apparently, it took 12 years to get to the point of being able to actually house people, which began in the fall of 2009. To monitor and assist the residents, there are staff members; live-in volunteers; and volunteers and interns who come and go. OAH is interested in developing methods that can be replicated anywhere. Its “Philosophy” section on the website states,

Our model rests on the premise that stable, safe housing is necessary to promote the physical and emotional well-being of all people. We operate under a Housing First approach which holds that all individuals are entitled to safe and decent housing and that access to this housing is not contingent upon participation in services. Those services can come later, but HOUSING IS FIRST.

Krauss also discusses says the 100,000 Homes Campaign, saying,

Under traditional federal housing programs, applicants had to spend years on waiting lists and were barred from housing by drug or other convictions, a process that offered little hope for the most vulnerable. The Housing First approach, by contrast, sees permanent housing and supporting services as prerequisites for curing the other ills that plague the homeless.

The strategy of “housing first” is to identify those who are at most risk of dying on the streets, namely, addicts, the mentally ill, and those with chronic physical ailments, and move them into permanent supportive housing. In any given community, there will be people who disagree, and the protests are generally based on moral grounds. The dissenting voices usually say something like, “Why should we first take care of addicts, alcoholics, and burn-out cases, when there is so much need among deserving young families, young adults, and others who actually have some potential?”

To save the chronic, apparently hopeless cases first is a counter-intuitive solution for anyone whose subconscious attitudes were formed from the battlefield model for medical triage. In a combat situation, the most seriously injured soldiers will probably die no matter what, so they are left to their fate. The person for whom immediate care can make a difference will get the attention, rather than the grievously wounded. Precious limited resources are used for the curably injured. (In fact, a clever assailant takes advantage of this by deliberately designing weapons that will injure rather than kill, to tie up as much of the enemy’s transportation and manpower resources as possible.)

But, fortunately for all of us, this battlefield model does not apply in the area of homelessness. The Housing First model, if it works out the way it should, ought to free up even more resources for those with a chance to be “saved,” as defined by the usable opportunity to become productive citizens. Life does not often present us with such a clear-cut instance of how doing the right thing can also be the economically efficient thing.

The reason for this is obvious, once the potential costs of emergency medical care and law enforcement are factored in. Arresting people who are experiencing homelessness is a no-win situation for society. They can’t pay fines, so they go to jail, to be housed, clothed, guarded and fed at a net loss to the public wallet. A comment on this article, from a citizen named Paul Seldon, notes,

The cost of leaving someone to survive on the street is enormous: $40,000 to $50,000 a year… The cost of moving them into supportive housing may be close to the same during the first year, but decreases every year after.

Another objection brought up by community members to the “housing first” model is the fear that it will be implemented in the wrong way, namely, by de-funding other programs, as Krauss says happened our nation’s capital:

When Washington’s then-mayor Adrian Fenty embraced the Housing First approach in 2008 he also closed a major shelter downtown that had provided 400 beds, pushing dozens of homeless people into an adjacent park.

In other words, it’s a big mistake to pull resources from emergency shelters, food programs, and other services, right away. It’s necessary to wait until the city’s budget begins to reflect the savings from housing the chronically homeless.

In an earlier post, we quoted an official who noted that although the chronically homeless constitute only one-fourth of the total, a disproportionate amount of public funds are spent on hospital emergency treatment, emergency shelters, and the dealings of this group with the legal system. Supportive housing, including treatment and counseling, has been found to result in a 40% saving.

We also looked at the At Home/Chez Soi program in Canada, where the savings are apparently much greater. The numbers mentioned there were $100,000 per year to keep a chronically homeless person on the street, versus $18,000 per year to provide supportive housing. One of the longest-running “housing first” initiatives in the U.S. is the Lamp Community in Los Angeles, where the motto is “No strings. No barriers. No intermediate steps.” The Lamp Community was founded by a former nun in 1985, and has been caring for the addicted and the mentally ill ever since.

By the way, House the Homeless was the first organization to call for Housing First, even to the point of putting it into our name when we formed in 1989.


Source: “New approach brings US homeless in from the cold,” NewsYahoo.com, 02/06/11
Source: “Our Services,” OpenArmsHousing.org
Source: “Our History and Mission,” OpenArmsHousing.org
Source: “The Model,” 100Khomes.org
Image by quinet (Thomas Quine), used under its Creative Commons license.


Some Heroes Who Help the Homeless

Are you reaching the lost?

Bobby and Amanda Herring, along with a number of volunteers, used to feed some of the people experiencing homelessness in downtown Houston, Texas. For about a year, they dispensed between 60 and 120 meals a day, made from food donated by individuals and businesses. Then, reporter Bradley Olson tells us,

On Nov. 8, they were approached by Houston police officers and asked to provide food at another location under an overpass at Commerce and Travis streets adjacent to Buffalo Bayou, he recalled. They were happy to move to the new location and continued to provide food there until Dec. 30, when a park ranger and two police officers told them they would have to stop until they could obtain a permit.

Actually, they would need two permits, one from the parks department and one from the health department. The place they were moved to is on city park land, and it’s not clear why they can’t move back to the old location, except now this health permit thing has also come up.

Here’s a piece of official reasoning worthy of George Orwell. You know, the slogans from his dystopia of Nineteen Eighty-Four: “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength.” Now, we got “Starvation is Health.” The following statement was made by Kathy Barton of the Health and Human Services Department. The regulations are all the more essential in the case of the homeless, Barton said, because “poor people are the most vulnerable to foodborne illness and also are the least likely to have access to health care.”

Connie Boyd of the Coalition for the Homeless offered hope that by connecting with another group, perhaps a local church that already has a certified kitchen and certified food manager, the Herrings could continue their mission.

Ryan S. Riddell is pastor of the Shelter Community Church of the Nazarene in Dayton, Ohio, where there are about 4,000 people experiencing homelessness that he wants to help. Riddell is also in the real estate business and the roofing business. He has been making a video diary of his 30 days of voluntary homelessness. Not wanting to take up a shelter bed that an actual homeless person could use, he sleeps in a van. Meredith Moss of the Dayton Daily News says,

The clergyman is hoping to bring awareness to the issue of homelessness this month by sleeping and living in his van on the streets of Dayton instead of in his comfortable Miamisburg home.

It’s not a total simulation of homelessness. Riddell has been visiting home twice a week to see his wife and kids, and he has a credit card ready for when someone needs help. His website offers video documentation of such events as a visit to a homeless man who lives in a hut in the woods, and reports such surreal experiences as running into a woman he had sold a house to, who didn’t recognize him.

The goal of Riddell’s month-long excursion into homelessness is to raise awareness, and it’s working. Along with the website, he has a Facebook page and a Twitter account, and the larger media have obliged by covering the story in newspapers and on television.

From Denver, Electa Draper describes the St. Francis Center, a co-ed daytime shelter open from 6:30 in the morning till 6 in the evening on weekdays and weekends. This mission of the Episcopal church has been in existence for nearly 30 years. On an average day, over 600 people experiencing homelessness will drop in to take a shower, pick up mail, make phone calls, or do laundry. No alchohol or other substances are allowed, nor is anyone admitted in an intoxicated condition. Best of all, a staff of 37 helps with job counseling and housing placement. The outreach program finds lost people on the street and brings them in. Draper says,

For the newly and first-time homeless — which the center is seeing more and more all the time — St. Francis is a great orientation in how to navigate a complex system of human services scattered throughout the Denver area.

Don’t forget to learn from Looking Up at the Bottom Line, how the Universal Living Wage could help millions of Americans be self-sufficient, taking a great many burdens from the shoulders of volunteers and taxpayers, and, of course, from the very overburdened shoulders of the working poor.


Source: “City puts a stop to homeless outreach,” Houston Chronicle, 01/13/11
Source: “Ohio pastor living in van aims to aid the homeless,” Dayton Daily News, 01/22/11
Source: “St. Francis Center works tirelessly to find homes, jobs for the homeless,” Denver Post, 01/12/11
Image by kelsey_lovefusionphoto, used under its Creative Commons license.


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.


Economic Homelessness, Rent, and Deadened Memories

Jimmy McMillan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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