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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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Medical Ethics and the Hospital Industry

HomelessThe lives of people experiencing homelessness are inextricably involved with hospitals. One of the most affecting parts of Richard R. Troxell’s book, Looking Up at the Bottom Line, is the story of Diane Breisch Malloy, whose tragic death in Texas inspired the inauguration of Austin’s annual Homeless Memorial. If this sick woman had been in a hospital where she had probably belonged, she would not have been sleeping in a dangerous spot, and would not have been swept away by storm water and drowned.

A few days ago, we talked about past behavior by an Inglewood, California, hospital that strikes many people as quite irresponsible, and some consider it downright unethical. At the very least, it was lousy patient discharge management. That news story was the latest, but not the only case of what has been rudely called homeless dumping, which looks like a growing trend.

Los Angeles Times reporter Richard Winton writes,

Since 2006, the city attorney’s office and Los Angeles Police Department have uncovered hundreds of cases in which patients were dumped by hospitals across the region at facilities in skid row and other homeless shelters.

Winton previously reported on other examples of what LA City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo calls a “horrendous and unconscionable practice.” For instance, the journalist wrote about how 54-year-old Gabino Olvera had been unloaded from a Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital van and left on Skid Row. This was done in front of several witnesses who questioned the driver about the lack of wheelchair or other support equipment. Winton wrote,

Olvera, wearing a soiled hospital gown and a broken colostomy bag, was found in February 2007 crawling in a gutter downtown.

In 2009, Winton joined with fellow reporter Cara Mia DiMassa to expose other similar disposals of discharged patients, like the one performed by College Hospital. The patient was Steven Davis, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder:

Doctors at the Costa Mesa mental institution prescribed him numerous drugs to deal with paranoid delusions that had led to an earlier suicide attempt. But that didn’t stop the hospital from hauling Davis into a van and driving him more than 40 miles north to downtown L.A., where they dropped him off outside the Union Rescue Mission. When mission officials complained to the hospital, the van returned and drove Davis a few miles south to another shelter. Davis wandered away without ever entering.

When these various news articles were published, comments from the public voiced emotions that ran the gamut from intense sympathy for the patients to total exasperation. What is a hospital supposed to do with a patient who has nowhere to go? If the person still suffers from the presenting diagnosis, but it’s not life-threatening, what then? If the person has been cured of an acute illness but is still burdened by one or more chronic illnesses, what then? If the person is as well as a homeless person ever gets — what then?

The reporters tell us about a new city law that requires the written consent of a patient to be taken anywhere other than his or her residence. Exactly how this will help any homeless patients is not clear. The Southern California hospitals that have been reprimanded and fined for wrongful disposition of discharged patients have also been made to sign an agreement about future behavior. An injunction orders them to not transport homeless psychiatric patients to the streets or shelters of the “patient safety zone,” in other words, Skid Row and the extended area of downtown and south LA where most of the missions and shelters are.

But… that’s where the missions and shelters are. What if that is exactly where the patient wants or needs to go? Taking them somewhere else just makes it more difficult for them to obtain the needed services. It’s hardly a solution. And, of course, like any rule, the rule against dumping discharged patients in the worst inner-city areas has to be enforced by somebody. That would be the police, and it’s another wrinkle in the overall situation. Apparently, law enforcement agencies are also in the habit of routinely dropping off people released from custody in the Skid Row area. Well, where else are they going to take them? Rodeo Drive?

Who is responsible for what? The situation is complicated by larger questions of personal freedom and autonomy. What if a person of legal age is discharged from an institution and simply does not want to be delivered anyplace? What if she or he doesn’t feel like requiring anyone to show up and take responsibility? Shouldn’t an adult citizen have the right to just walk out the door? The whole situation is a mess from any point of view, and it’s one problem that really, really needs to be handled.

Reactions?

Source: “Hospital accused of dumping L.A. homeless woman to pay $125,000 fine,” LA Times, 03/18/11
Source: “Skid row dumping suit settled,” LA Times, 05/31/08
Source: “College Hospital to pay $1.6 million in homeless dumping settlement,” LA Times, 04/09/09
Image by miss pupik (Shira Gal), used under its Creative Commons license.

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Richard R. Troxell Speaks in Nation’s Capitol

Event posterYesterday, Richard R. Troxell spoke about Looking Up at the Bottom Line at the Catholic University of America (CUA) in the heart of Washington, D.C. As we know, and now the attendees of this event know, his message is that the Universal Living Wage can change America by ending homelessness for over a million minimum-wage workers, and prevent 10 million minimum-wage workers from falling into economic homelessness.

Economic homelessness is the lamentable condition people find themselves in when they are employed, maybe even working more than one job, and still can’t afford basic rent and utilities. Richard was invited by the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies, whose interest in both the national economy and the housing crisis are longstanding.

Last month, for instance, Anthony Stasi wrote about the Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH) program. Stasi has been a policy associate with the National Alliance to End Homelessness and senior policy analyst for the Department of Homeless Services in New York City.

VASH, Stasi informs us, is the only permanent housing program focusing solely on military veterans. He points out the shameful fact that while veterans make up only 1% of the general population, they account for 10% of the homeless. He is concerned, as we all should be, about the large number of servicemen and women who have yet to return from foreign lands to this increasingly sick economy. Here is a sample of what Stasi is thinking:

Cities with high inventories of foreclosed property are desperate to find owners for these homes. Just this week, the Mayor of Detroit began offering police officers a similar incentive. What makes offering foreclosures to veterans even more sensible is that of the 20 cities with the highest foreclosure rates, most of them are in California, Florida, Nevada, and Arizona. These are all locations where many veterans already live after serving out their contracts.

Richard’s visit was also sponsored by the university’s National Catholic School of Social Service, whose very comprehensive program achieves a harmonious blend of scholarship, social justice, and service. CUA is the national university of the Catholic Church, founded way back in 1889, and currently teaching students at every level, from 97 different countries. It is right next to Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the largest Catholic church in the United States, and a short Metrorail ride from the Library of Congress and numerous other cultural monuments.

From the Sublime to the Publicity-Conscious

As always, Hollywood has been doing its bit for the cause. Not long ago, we noted Janet Jackson’s revelation that she and her late brother, on at least one occasion, bought food from a restaurant in Los Angeles and drove around giving it away. Michael was the driver and his sister took care of the distribution.

Also, for Celebrity Baby Scoop, Jenny Schafer reported on the doings of the world-famous singer’s extraordinarily attractive kids, as they shared resources with people experiencing homelessness:

Michael Jackson’s children — Prince, 14, Paris, 12, and Blanket, 9 — were photographed playing games and donating time and money ($10,000.00) to a homeless shelter in Los Angeles, Calif. on Wednesday (February 23).

In another part of Los Angeles, a musician calling himself Paz crashed Hilton’s birthday party and absconded with a birthday cake. An artifact of surpassing ugliness, the cake was worth $2,000 or possibly $3,200. Paz drove the cake down to Skid Row, cut it in 125 pieces, served it up to 125 homeless people, posted the photos on Facebook, and wrote very entertainingly about the whole episode, too.

This kind of news cannot be ignored, no matter how frivolous a person might think Paris Hilton is, because every effort to aid people experiencing homelessness deserves to be honored for its good intentions, and that includes even goofy publicity stunts like the cake caper which, believe it or not, probably went some way in raising awareness about homelessness. In under a week, Paz fielded nearly 150 requests for interviews, and claims to have tracked 12,560 news articles about the event, and 322 mentions on TV.

2011 Homeless

by Thom the World Poet (Thom Woodruff), dedicated to “Vagabond” Dustin Russell

you need to carry all you own
so you learn the art of stash-
perhaps a car that no longer works
can be your library /crash pad
perhaps couch surfing
trusting to the kindness of strangers
you are food for police
and anyone in authority
who forget we are all just one degree of separation
job cuts make homeless/dispossession is eternal
when you move, it will be walking-
a bicycle gets flat tires /a car breaks down
your two legs ,a bag, perhaps a shopping trolley
You learn by watching/earn by panhandling
perhaps you can drum or play guitar
(it needs new strings/you improvise)
Even if you seek work, you need an address
You hang out with the dispossessed-
in Green Belt or bush cover-away from eyes
where you can light a fire and stay calm
You know one hundred and sixty two of you
died on these streets this very year
You look for opportunities to work-
even the bad jobs are gone
There will be more of you when you are gone
you write this down. Settle down. Stay calm.
Whatever happens next is still unknown

Reactions?

Source: “Housing Our Heroes… And Helping Our Economy,” ipr.cua.edu, 02/09/11
Source: “National Catholic School of Social Service,” ncsss.cua.edu
Source: “The Jackson Siblings Donate To Homeless Shelter,” CelebrityBabyScoop.com, 02/26/11
Source: “Let Them Eat Cake,” Facebook.com, 02/22/11
Event poster courtesy of Catholic University of America; used under Fair Use: Reporting.

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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.

Reactions?

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.

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Homelessness, Wishful Thinking, and Insanity

Anti-Homeless Device

Not long ago, Denise Wong reported from Reno, Nevada, on a special day set aside to strictly enforce a city ordinance that forbids “camping,” i.e. existing. People experiencing homelessness had already been discouraged from hanging around in certain areas, and those areas were expanded. This quotation from the piece is reminiscent of a comedy rule learned in screenwriting class: “A punch line is a punch word, and it belongs at the end.” Get this:

And police are allowed to arrest anyone camping on sidewalks outside the Record Street Homeless Services Center.

In the December sweep, Wong reports that no one was cited or arrested, but official warnings were issued. Rumor has it that many homeless people were forced to abandon their bedrolls and other possessions. Others say the street people had three days’ notice of the impending action and plenty of opportunity to move their stuff. Either way, three days’ notice doesn’t help when there is nowhere to go. Apparently, the other local possibilities are the railroad tracks or the riverbank. The same generous choices are available in many American cities. And then, if the homeless congregate in those places, the housed people still complain.

In January, Steve Chawkins of the Los Angeles Times wrote about the situation in Santa Barbara, California. It seems that in a fashionable area of town, benches are aligned parallel with the sidewalks, making it easy for beggars to sit around all day displaying to the shoppers and tourists their pitches written on cardboard. As one indignant business owner put it,

It’s just like they’ve made the street their living room. They just sit there — all day, every day. One of them even has a portable TV. It’s totally inappropriate.

Inappropriate? Anyway, the dignitaries in charge figure, they will hit those indigent homeless people where it hurts — in their overstuffed wallets. Here’s the plan: They’re going to rotate the benches 90 degrees, to be perpendicular to the flow of foot traffic. Thus, according to a re-development official Chawkin interviewed, the panhandlers’ backs will be facing half the people on the sidewalk, cutting their solicitation opportunities by 50%. Ta-dah!

But wait, there’s more. Benches along the “city’s most vibrant commercial thoroughfare” will also have their backs removed, so nobody can get too comfortable. The reporter spoke with a dismayed social worker who characterized the entire project as “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.” Chawkin says,

Benches have been an issue elsewhere. Some cities install armrests in the middle of benches to keep people from lying down. In La Jolla two years ago, one community activist tried recruiting residents to sit three-hour shifts to keep homeless people off public benches.

By the way, to turn 14 benches to a perpendicular angle is going to cost — guess how much? $50,000. Now, that’s inappropriate. In Looking Up at the Bottom Line, Richard R. Troxell relates how, when House the Homeless was considering ideas for the Homeless Memorial, the city of Austin offered to sell the organization a $5,000 park bench with a divider in the middle to prevent sleeping. No, thanks!

Please see Richard’s report on the current state of things in Austin, where it looks like the city is trying to do the same thing that many other political entities have done so many times in the past, which is to legislate a problem out of existence. The solution, in the minds of many Austin residents, is to change the homeless into non-persons, by using the force of law to deny them the right to sit in public places. (And, of course, there are already plenty of laws everywhere, about what can be done on private property.)

The theory behind such measures is, if the homeless are forbidden to do something, and then another thing, and another thing, eventually the accumulated weight of all these ordinances will somehow magically make the homeless go away.

When I saw these bus stop benches in Shanghai I had to snap a picture. They are clearly designed to stop anyone from sleeping on them, but are also very uncomfortable to sit on at all. Another example of ‘Architecture of Control.’

So says Albert Sun, who took the photo on this page. (Follow the link to Flickr where, in the Comments, there’s an artistic yet very un-sleepable park bench spotted in Los Angeles.)

The following might apply to an individual or a society: The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results. Every time legislation is made to increase the misery of the homeless, it’s based on a belief that a certain category of people should not exist, and that they can be made to go away by illegitimatizing everything about them. This belief is as quaintly erroneous as the belief that blowing out all the birthday cake candles will make your wish come true.

The park bench maneuvers are a perfect of example of a society’s tendency to “cut off its nose to spite its face.” Some cities solve the park-bench dilemma by simply removing them. Take that, homeless people! Try sitting on our park benches now!

The downside, and it’s a big one, is that nobody gets to sit on park benches. Not the young mother, who is taking her kids out for a walk because it’s free, and they need some exercise. Not the retired teacher, who is still recovering from knee replacement surgery, or the young sweethearts, who need a few minutes to talk, away from their parents.

How about this? How about putting more park benches around town, so there are plenty of places for anybody who wants to sit down, without having to spend a day’s pay for the right to sit inside the fenced patio of a sidewalk café?

Quotation of the Day:

It’s from a video by Patricia Espinosa and Christine Mai-Duc of Mission Local, regarding the sit/lie ordinance in San Francisco’s Mission District. One woman says, and this is really worth thinking about:

I do not typically sit or lie on sidewalks, but I think that if I needed to or if I wanted to, I’d like to have the right to.

Reactions?

Source: “Homeless Residents Forced Off Reno Sidewalks,” KOLOTV, 12/06/11
Source: “Santa Barbara seeks to turn the tables on the homeless,” LATimes.com, 01/21/22
Source: “Homeless React to Sit/Lie,” MissionLocal.org, 11/11/10
Image by Albert Sun, used under its Creative Commons license.

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Putting Jesus in Jail

Criminalizing homelessness

It was Brother Michael of the Morning Star Monastery who said it, in Austin, Texas, back in 1996. House the Homeless and many others were trying to repeal the then brand-new No Camping Homeless Ordinance. The City Council had passed this atrocity in the belief that it will make homelessness go away by outlawing it. Council members spoke openly of the “Homeless Ban,” and a city official was caught on tape stating that the goal was to “run these people out of town.” Being homeless in Austin was punishable by a fine of up to $500 or time in the Gray Bar Hotel. What Brother Michael said was,

This ordinance would have put Jesus in jail.

How many pastors have said those words, over how many years, in reaction to how many laws that were designed to further restrict the lives of people experiencing homelessness? Not to deny Austin its originality, but the script for the No Camping Homeless Ordinance drama has been passed around from city to city for decades. It’s all too sadly predictable. Here is another generic quotation, issued in this case from the mouth of the District Attorney:

The ordinance does not punish persons for being homeless.

How many law enforcement spokespeople and politicians, in how many cities, have had occasion to use that line? And, of course, it’s nonsense. By the time Austin’s ordinance had been in place for a year, more than 2,000 people had been charged with violating it, and by some strange coincidence, all of them were people experiencing homelessness.

In Looking Up at the Bottom Line, Richard R. Troxell says,

The ‘No Camping’ ordinance is punitive in nature and is being selectively enforced. Students are sleeping outside while waiting to get concert tickets without worry of being arrested. Visitors at Barton Springs and travelers in our airport and bus stations also sleep without fear of being arrested. This is obviously a crime of economic status.

As in so many other cities, the politicians talked about a “safer climate,” and none of them were talking about what was safe for the people experiencing homelessness. Does anybody ever stop to think that maybe homeless people like to be safe, too? Maybe they like to be around ordinary people, in places where there are plenty of witnesses if anything goes wrong, instead of out by the railroad tracks, vulnerable to any kind of predator. A few people, with more sensible heads and better intentions, noted that laws like this only drive people deeper into the woods. How many times has that been said, and hasn’t it been true every time?

Even a city council member who claimed to have once been homeless himself was in favor of the ordinance, and, in fact, cast the deciding vote. This is another cliché found all too often in human life: The person who claws his way up the success ladder and kicks anybody in the face who clings to a lower rung:

We already have laws against public harassment, trespassing and intoxication, the nuisances that the anti-camping measure is intended to counter.

That was another thing pointed out by Richard and other sensible people, and, alas, it too is a totally predictable bit of dialogue. The people who say it are absolutely correct, but no matter how often they repeat it, a lot of other people don’t listen. Every once in a while it occurs to somebody that there are situations in which more legislation might not be the solution. If societal problems could really be solved by passing laws, it seems like some of those problems would have been fixed by now, by the last four million laws that were passed. Along with the predictable sense, there was yet more predictable nonsense:

In the first year alone, close to $200,000 has been spent on processing ‘criminal sleepers.’ Additionally, the pressure and the costs to the court system have also been enormous as these victims continue to seek jury trials. Furthermore, the ban has now cost Austin well over 2000 misspent police hours.

You know what comes next. How many cities have put themselves through the same kind of financial wringer, using up limited resources that could much better be spent in some other way, and had gotten minimal results?

The Austin struggle attracted the attention of few celebrities, including Bruce Springsteen, who was in town to do a show and donated the proceeds from the concessions and t-shirt sales to the cause. Molly Ivins got mixed up in it too, and if you’re not familiar with her writing, you’re missing a lot.

The whole story is in Looking Up at the Bottom Line, which is one reason why professors in many disciplines ought to be assigning this book to their students as required reading. It’s an excruciatingly detailed account of the workings of city politics, and a harsh lesson in what aspiring social workers and activists will find themselves facing in the real world.

The homeless ban is still in force, and now it appears that Austin is trying to make mental illness illegal, or something. An effort to improve the No Camping Homeless Ordinance gave the city a chance to tamper with it in a way that guarantees even worse results. (Please see Richard’s description of the current situation and of the importance of the Universal Living Wage).

And then, to lighten the mood, check out Statesman reporter Andrea Ball’s story about Austin’s famous goose, Homer:

In the 1980s, the Austin fowl grabbed headlines when local homeless activists threatened to eat him unless city leaders agreed to a meeting about homelessness. He survived, met Willie Nelson, went to the 1988 Democratic National Convention and spent several months on a raft in Lady Bird Lake with two human companions protesting homelessness.

The conscientious journalist, not content to let Homer be forgotten, has tracked him down and followed him up, even learning the details of his current diet and his arthritis. Homer, now on his third wife, has been credited with being the catalyst that focused the attention of the Austin community on the problem of homelessness. We think House the Homeless had something to do with it, too.

Reactions?

Source: “Looking Up at the Bottom Line,” Amazon.com
Source: “Homer the Homeless Goose: Where is he now?,” Statesman, 12/30/10
Image by ItzaFineDay, used under its Creative Commons license.

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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.

Reactions?

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.

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Economic Homelessness, Rent, and Deadened Memories

Jimmy McMillan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reactions?

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

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The Homeless, the Government, and the Genuine Free Enterprise

2010 Uptown Super SundayWayne Hurlbert of Blog Business World is interested in such concepts as how cooperation is the most effective technique for everyone in a society or a world. In his capacity as radio host, Hurlbert had the author of Looking Up at the Bottom Line on his show recently. Yes, of course we mentioned this in a previous House the Homeless post, but the dialogue is so rich with material, it’s worth expounding and expanding. The whole interview is available as a free podcast download from Blog Business Success Radio.

The federal government has been the biggest cause of homelessness, Richard R. Troxell says, particularly under the Reagan administration, when large areas of inner cities were demolished without any substitute housing taking their place. But the destruction goes back as far as the Marshall Plan after World War II, when the U.S. provided so much aid to other countries to rebuild their industries, that American industry wasn’t able to be competitive and ended up closing factories and laying off workers. And then, more recently, the overseas outsourcing of jobs caught on. That’s a big factor in the current mess, but by no means the only factor.

Another very large and harmful factor is that having a job is not enough, these days, to keep a person out of the “economic homeless” class, which is where you are when you work full-time and still can’t make rent. Richard recounts how, when the mayors of American cities get together for their annual conference, they consistently agree that an average person working a 40-hour week cannot afford basic rental housing in their cities.

Richard’s solution is the Universal Living Wage, which is not so different from the minimum wage we have now, except it would be indexed to the single most expensive item in the budget of every American:housing …on a local basis.  This concept is similar in spirit to the bio-regionalism that environmentalists talk about, which is also based on the concept that America is just too big and diverse for one-size-fits-all rules that are handed down from the federal level.

Different places have different conditions, and the people in them have different needs. A full-time worker in a small Midwestern city might be able survive on the current minimum wage. In New York or Los Angeles, not a chance. Looking Up at the Bottom Line tells how to fix this.

A mellow person might say, “You can’t expect the government to do everything.” But the mood of many Americans today is far from mellow, and they are more likely to say, “You can’t expect the government to do anything except screw up.” Kevin Carson is against corporatism, and feels that the free market concept is blamed for current evils that are not its fault at all. Almost nobody in America really understands what free enterprise is, because for so long we have been presented with an imposter going by that name. Carson says,

But we haven’t had anything even remotely resembling a free market for over 150 years… Since the mid-19th century, what we’ve had is massive collusion between big government and big business… What we have is not a free enterprise system, but an interlocking directorate of giant, centralized government and corporate bureaucracies… We’re not talking about socialism for the rich and a Dickensian work house for everyone else. When we say we believe in free enterprise, we mean it.

That is what the “free market left” is all about. In another piece, Carson explains further the disastrous effects wrought by the federal government, to which the crisis of homelessness can be traced.

Wouldn’t it be great if every household with children could have one parent at home, instead of both of them out scrambling for the bucks? Wouldn’t it be great if people could retire at an age young enough to still get some enjoyment from life, rather than having to stay in the labor market, wearing a silly hat and serving tacos at age 60? Wouldn’t it be great if people could make enough when employed, to have some slack, so they could survive comfortably until a job suitable to their training and education turned up? And wouldn’t it be great if the property-owning class could be prevented from soaking up every available dollar? Carson has ideas about how to make all these dreams come true.

For instance, there are far too many zoning laws, health and safety codes, and other laws that prevent an ordinary person from running a small business from home. He would like to see neighborhoods bursting with thriving “microenterprises” — bakers, brewers, daycare providers, hairdressers, clothing makers, and one-person taxicab services, to name just a few. A lot more people could be self-supporting if the government would just get out of their way.

And the same goes for the creation of housing. Too many “safety codes” are created for the purpose of cutting anyone but high-priced contractors out of the market. When only massively capitalized companies with high overhead are allowed to remodel bathrooms or install porch railings, an artificial monopoly is created that harms the ordinary citizen. Big businesses are protected from the possibility that anyone can be self-sufficient, because of the laws that require their services to be retained. Carson says,

I frequently argue that, far from the result of the ‘free market,’ the recent speculative bubble was the result of over a century’s worth of government intervention. The bubble resulted from vast disparities of wealth — disparities created by the state and its enforcement of privilege — with a growing share of income going to classes looking to use it for investment rather than consumption.

Carson would like to see a big increase in the “share of total consumption needs that could be met through low-overhead production in the home, or by trading with others engaged in such production, and to reduce the total amount of wage labor required to meet one’s needs.” In other words, people become more prosperous not only by making more money, but by spending less money.

Reactions?

Source: “Richard Troxell Looking Up at the Bottom Line,” BlogTalkRadio.com, 12/07/10
Source: “Back in the USSA,” C4SS.org, 12/22/10
Source: “The Rent’s Still Too Damn High — Here’s How to Lower It,” C4SS.org, 01/13/11
Image by Infrogmation of New Orleans, used under its Creative Commons license.

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Predictions on Homelessness and More

Frank Bramley: A Hopeless DawnOf course, all kinds of predictions became available around the new year. “New Year’s Prediction (II): The US Economy in 2011″ is one of them, and its author’s capsule bio is presented here:

Robert Reich is Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. He has written thirteen books, including The Work of Nations, Locked in the Cabinet, Supercapitalism, and his most recent book, Aftershock. His ‘Marketplace’ commentaries can be found on publicradio.com and iTunes.

Like many other observers of the economy, Reich has noticed the phenomenon described by the first line of A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

Reich feels that the coming year will be maybe not the best of times, but pretty good for the stock market and anybody connected with Wall Street. Giant corporations will make giant profits. What he calls the Big Money economy will do just fine.

The rest of us, not so much. What Reich calls the Average Working Family economy is doomed to more of the same. American workers will continue to be lucky to be working at all, but no matter how fervently grateful they are to be employed, their pay isn’t going to go up. The working poor will stay poor, though not necessarily working. The number of people who wish they had jobs will keep growing. Americans will sink deeper into debt, if they can even get loans or credit at all.

Small businesses will flounder and fail. The housing situation won’t get any better for either owners or renters. Reich does not specifically mention the population of Americans experiencing homelessness, but it’s easy enough to extrapolate from the foregoing, and understand that “dismal” is not too strong a word. Here’s part of the problem as Reich diagnoses it:

America’s big businesses are depending less and less on U.S. sales and U.S. workers. Their big profits are coming from two sources: (1) growing sales in China, India, and other fast-growing countries, and (2) slimmed-down US payrolls….

In short, profits aren’t coming from American consumers — and profits won’t be coming from American consumers in 2011.

Reich mentions that General Motors makes more cars in China than in the United States. Gee, I hope they do a better job with cars than with audiocassette players. I just threw away an American-brand, made-in-China, personal cassette player because batteries could not be inserted into its body. To make a compartment that holds a couple of AA batteries — how complicated an engineering feat is that?

And the other General, General Electric, plans to invest $2 billion in China very soon. Wal-Mart’s customers are mainly outside America and its workers will soon be too, if not already. Reich says,

Most Republicans and too many Democrats are dependent on corporate America and Wall Street. Their version of tax reform is to cut taxes on the wealthy and on big corporations, and either raise them on everyone else (sale and property taxes are already on the rise) or cut spending on programs working families depend on.

He sees a new progressive movement forming up, composed of (not surprisingly) progressives, Independents, minorities, organized labor, and the young. He also includes the “enlightened Tea Partiers,” which is an important distinction to make. There is too much stereotyping and labeling going on, and not enough serious consideration of views.

—–

What else can help to change the dire outcomes predicted by many prognosticators? How about the Universal Living Wage? We really urge every American to get familiar with the idea, as described in Looking Up at the Bottom Line. Here is the essence:

The benefit of the ULW is that it will end homelessness for over 1,000,000 minimum-wage workers, and prevent economic homelessness for all 10.1 million minimum wage workers.

Reactions?

Source: “Robert Reich,” RobertReich.org
Source: “New Year’s Prediction (II): The US Economy in 2011,” Truth-Out.org, 12/29/10
Image by freeparking, used under its Creative Commons license.