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.


Homeless Women Especially Vulnerable to Violence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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.


The Minimum Wage and the Big Ideas


The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) points out the unsurprising fact that the minimum wage is worth much less than it previously was worth. Its graph illustrated the value of the minimum wage since 1960, adjusted for inflation and translated into 2009 dollars:

When adjusted for inflation, the minimum wage was worth $8.54 per hour in 1968, compared to the current minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. Based on a typical, 2,000-hour work year, the 1968 inflation-adjusted minimum wage would equate to an annual salary of $17,080 per year, versus $14,500 for today’s minimum wage.

In other words, the minimum wage decreasingly resembles a living wage. Historically, the peak of minimum wage value was in the 1960s, a long-gone era many people who are working today don’t even remember, because a lot of them weren’t born yet. The EPI also points out that raising the minimum wage stimulates the economy by giving workers more spending power. You’d think this would be obvious, but apparently many politicians overlook this basic fact.

We previously mentioned the very comprehensive interview that Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless did not long ago. It’s worth mentioning again, because when Wayne Hurlbert of Blog Talk Radio conducts an interview, he skillfully leads his subject to lay out the most important principles, as well as explain things in detail.

Painting first with a broad brush, let’s review some of the big ideas. Changing people from tax-takers to taxpayers is one of them. If the working poor were making a fair, adequate living wage, it would reduce the tax burden, because there would be less need for food stamps and other sorts of government assistance. Even if it can’t happen right this minute, people need to know that there is hope, they need to see that pathway stretching out before them. They need to know opportunity exists, and to be inspired to take advantage of opportunity, rather than subside into hopelessness.

Another basic principle of Richard’s is, solutions that come from the grassroots are faster and more effective than those involving the government. Of course, for something big like the Universal Living Wage, the government has to be behind it. But if homeless veterans in your community need socks, an appeal to the local goodhearted people will get them a lot quicker than a request to an official bureaucracy. And we have to show the way, because the old saying is true — “When the people lead, the leaders will follow.”

The biggest idea of all is that homelessness does not have to exist. This situation we have today does not have to be the situation we have tomorrow. We’re in a mess, but it can be undone and fixed. Richard’s proposal for fixing it is implementing the Universal Living Wage. In the interview, Hurlbert asks how the ULW is different from the minimum wage already in effect, and the answer is, it’s not really that different. What we have now needs to be tweaked and perfected, and if it is done over a 10-year period, the shock for anyone need not be too unbearable.

As a background, Richard talks about when the federal minimum wage was instituted in 1938, to make sure every working American could afford basic shelter, food, and clothing. It was a humane, fair, and much needed measure, but it was based on an assumption that it costs pretty much the same to live anyplace in America, so it was not indexed to anything. Still, it worked acceptably until the mid-1980s, when extreme booms and busts in the economy had really messed things up.

Another thing happened too, that would impact the nation very adversely by increasing not only the number of people experiencing homelessness, but the number of such people who were truly incapable of taking care of themselves. By the ’80s, the whole structure of mental health institutions had become so abusive, it seemed better to integrate the mentally ill into society.

The first part of the plan worked fine, dumping thousands of seriously ill and disoriented people on the streets. The second phase didn’t work so well, and rather than getting “mainstreamed,” the people ended up drowning instead, denizens of the streets, free but so impaired that freedom became “just another word for nothing left to lose,” as Kris Kristofferson phrased it.

In the interview, Richard talks about how the minimum wage always falls behind the poverty line, and how it didn’t increase for a whole decade between 1997 and 2007. We ended up with a situation where one of the largest labor organizations, Service Employees International Union, was training people in how to apply for food stamps. At one point, the University of Texas had 200 staff members on food stamps. And because of the unrealistic minimum wage, the federal government had become a creator of homelessness.


Source: “State of Working America preview: The declining value of minimum wage,” EPI.org, 11/17/10
Source: “Richard Troxell: Looking Up at the Bottom Line,” Blog Talk Radio, 12/08/10
Image by EPI, used under its Creative Commons license.


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.


Austin City Council Discriminates Against the Disabled

Stairs and crutchesOn Thursday, January 27, the Austin City Council is preparing to change the No Sit/No Lie Ordinance. This ordinance allows for fines up to $500 for people who (even momentarily) sit or lie down in public places.

On January 1, 2011, House the Homeless, Inc., a grassroots organization fighting for the civil rights of all persons, conducted a health survey. The survey showed that 48% of people experiencing homelessness in Austin suffer disabling conditions that are so severe they are unable to work. Nonetheless, the No Sit/No Lie ordinance makes no exceptions for this group of people and continues to fine and jail them for the act of momentarily sitting and resting.

The City of Austin, at the encouragement of House the Homeless, recognizing that it is presently in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), has set out to bring the ordinance in compliance with the federal law. To gain compliance, the City Council Health and Human Services Committee was preparing to present the full Council language that would exclude anyone with a disability from fines under the ordinance. Great! However, at the last minute, the committee has mistakenly inserted the work “physical” into the statement. Now, the language would basically read, “Anyone with a physical disability would be excluded from fines under the ordinance.” The effect of this one-word change is both dramatic and devastating.

It would mean that anyone with a mental health disability would be subject to fines and forced to enter the criminal justice system to defend themselves. Imagine the least capable among us, people with mental health disabilities, being steered into our court system and clogging it up just because they had a momentary respite. It is well documented in the journals of American Medical Association that people suffering with mental health disorders are routinely treated with very powerful drugs that often cause them to become woozy and dizzy. They often have sunlight and heat sensitivity that depletes them of their energy and causes them to need to temporarily sit and rest.

The promoters of this one-word change attempt to justify their targeting people with mental disabilities by saying that they would be protected under the language “physical disabilities” because they would be having a “physical” reaction to taking medication that causes them to need to temporarily sit down. Really? This sounds more like slippery lawyer talk and a thinly-disguised rationale created to persecute and prosecute people with mental health problems.

Hey — it’s not the Americans with “Physical” Disabilities Act. It’s the Americans with Disabilities Act, period. The basis of which is not physical problems or mental problems but rather medical problems.

In essence, the Austin City Council is also contending that it is absolutely, 100% impossible for a uniformed City of Austin police officer to identify someone who has a mental health concern. Really? Is it really so hard to read the label on a medication vial that says Haldol, Thorazine, Risperadol, or Zyprexa, and also see that someone needs to sit momentarily? Or to look at an individual presenting a letter from a local mental health facility and make a good judgment as to the legitimacy of the situation?

Furthermore, adding insult to injury, as proposed, the police officer will have no latitude whatsoever but to ticket this mentally ill person and send him or her on to the courts. What are the odds of that person showing up? And if that person stands before a judge (unrepresented or at taxpayer expense) showing that judge the same medical vial or document from MHMR, what then? The way the law will be written, the judge will also have no latitude and be forced to fine the individual hundreds of dollars that he or she will have no chance of paying.

What then? A warrant for their arrest for failure to pay the fine? Once arrested, will we then clog our jail system with people experiencing mental illness needing special medication treatment?

What then? Well, House the Homeless and others will have no choice but sue the city for repeated, flagrant violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act — all at taxpayer expense!

What’s the alternative? Well, we could simply use the original agreed-upon language that excludes all people with medical disabilities from fines and allow police officers to use their good sense and street smarts to determine who can sit and rest momentarily. And Austin can move to become the “world class” city that it purports to be simply by providing enough benches citywide so that anyone, such as moms toting kids and packages, can just sit for a moment and rest briefly before they move on.

Don’t give Austin a Black Eye. The whole world is watching… on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and the House the Homeless website with well over 1,000,000 followers.

Photo by Daniel Lobo (Daquella manera), used under its Creative Commons license.


Success Stories — Yes, There Are Some

Running manPeople experiencing homelessness are all over the news, and it’s too easy to feel hopeless and discouraged about the overwhelming amount of need in every corner of the nation. And then a bright ray of meaningful progress shines from the gloomy prospect. Back on My Feet (BOMF) is a super-organized, super-regimented running-based program for helping people reenter the world of the employed and the housed.

It appears to be a mixture of boot camp and Life College, and there are chapters in several U.S. cities. Philosophically, BOMF seems tuned into the ancient wisdom expressed in the saying, “Give a man a fish, and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.” BOMF is not the place to get a bowl of soup or a blanket, but it just might be the place to get a new life.

Building self-sufficiency is the name of the game, and the building blocks are confidence, strength, and self-esteem. The nonprofit organization’s self-description talks about teamwork and leadership, equality, respect, and discipline. And, of course, it’s not for everybody. BOMF is not the answer for a mentally ill, chronically homeless person who has been on the streets for a decade.

But for someone who is physically healthy and alert enough to benefit from education, it sounds like a dream come true. Participants have to make a commitment and get up early in the morning. BOMF teams are formed at homeless shelters, they go out running three times a week, and many of these energetic, determined achievers enter marathons. They attend financial literacy sessions and finish up their high school education through GED if they don’t already have a diploma. They collect letters of recommendation.

Through the Next Steps program, they connect with various agencies that have the power to move lives forward. The organization is so thorough, it collects donations of suits, shirts, ties, and other necessary business-type clothing for participants to wear to job interviews.

What happens next? In most cases, a degree of success the person might not have been able to imagine. According to the BOMF website,

On average across chapters, BOMF has a success rate of over 50 percent in helping members move their lives forward; this metric is a testament to the efficacy and sustainability of the program.

For more revealing statistics, let’s look at the BOMF blog that tells us that the Philadelphia chapter alone has 59 formerly homeless members who have obtained housing, 73 members who have enrolled in either school or job training programs, and 97 members who have gotten jobs. Via the Baltimore chapter, 48 entered training or re-education, 57 have found jobs, and 21 have found housing.

The website doesn’t go into detail about what the jobs are, or how close they come to providing an actual living wage, but even if some of these folks are still stalled at the level of the working poor, that’s better than being unemployed. In the world of work, it’s always been axiomatic that it’s easier to find a new job if you’re already employed than to find a job if you’re not working. So any job is a move in the right direction. In fact, it may be true now more than ever. I’ve heard that nowadays potential employers only want to take applications from, or schedule interviews with, people who are already working.

The Philadelphia Inquirer says there are about 3,000 people experiencing homelessness in the city. Another source says there are 5,000 homeless children in Philadelphia, and that’s not even counting grownups. Without attempting to determine the exact number, let’s just say, thousands. So, when Philadelphia BOMF and its Next Steps program succeed in getting 59 people housed, a pessimist might be tempted to say, “A mere drop in the bucket. What is that, compared to thousands in need?”

But an optimist would say, “Hot damn!” Because these people who have joined up with BOMF and fulfilled the expectations will probably stay housed. They probably will not wind up in the revolving-door syndrome, in and out of shelters. This will probably stick.

As long as we’re in the area, here’s a magnificent Philadelphia story reported by Christine Olley. The subject of this profile is Nikki Johnson-Huston, who spent part of her childhood in homeless shelters with her alcoholic mother, then later blew a great opportunity by flunking out of college, and still managed to turn her life around. Eventually she earned three degrees and is now an attorney for the city, and a volunteer with Project H.O.M.E.


Source: “The Back on My Feet Program,” BackonMyFeet.org, 11/15/10
Source: “Once homeless, city attorney tells her story to inspire others,” Philly.com, 12/04/10
Image by esbjorn2 (Esbjorn Jorsater), used under its Creative Commons license.