How Change Happens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Richard says,

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

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


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


HomeAid Live – a Social Media Event


HomeAid is scheduled for November 11 and 12, during the National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. It is a virtual happening, very Earth-friendly. (And besides, everybody is too broke to travel. If any spare change is lurking between the couch cushions, better to donate it to the cause than spend it on gas.) David Mathison, CEO and co-host of Be The Media, says:

This will be a truly green event. Since everything is online, there is no place to fly or drive, no trees to cut down for posters or tickets, and minimal waste: there’s almost no damage to the environment.

Parts of it will come, courtesy of YouTube live streaming video, from the Apollo Theater in New York and also from Nashville, Tennessee, and many other places. The event’s publicity literature says,

Celebrities, artists, and performers from across the country are contributing exclusive video content that will be streamed on the HomeAid.net website… Many artists plan to hold live ‘house parties’ right from their homes, streamed via webcam… Fans will have many ways to participate, from uploading their own videos to spreading the word on social media sites, and even downloading mobile applications for the iPhone or Android.

And house parties! The whole point here is to share the experience with friends. Participation guarantees a global audience for the performers and the video artists. Regular people can participate just as much by helping spread the word and encourage others to join in. And have a party! In terms of sheer unprecedented numbers, HomeAid will probably become known as the Woodstock of the Internet.

HomeAid is also a national nonprofit organization that has, over the last 20 years, helped 100,000 people get back on their feet. What they do is, build and maintain shelters where homeless families and individuals can regain their dignity and reconstruct their lives. Currently, there are 20 chapters in 14 states.

The most recent addition to the crew is Ken Kragen, who put together the immensely successful We Are the World, as well as Net Aid and Hands Across America. The CEO of HomeAid is Jeffrey Slavin, who is understandably jazzed about the prospect of this event, which is still in the planning stages, and still looking for sponsors and for suggestions on more ways to be even more spectacular. Slavin says,

Because the event takes place online, anyone can watch it from anywhere in the world, and anyone can donate to the cause.

Never has an event been so easy to get involved with, for either an organization or an individual. That’s why the graphic on this page is the first image from their Sponsor Deck, which is pretty much what you’d see if you were in a conference room for a presentation. If you would like a Sponsor Deck of your very own, please go to the Sponsor Page and fill out the form. After receiving the Sponsor Deck, you will be equipped with an immense amount of detail about every aspect of the project and exactly how to become involved.

Here are four more online ways to connect with HomeAid:

The Website

Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless has been (again) a guest on BlogTalkRadio, interviewed by Zane Safrit. He is the host of a long-running show on small-business success, business innovation, and the economy. Richard and Zane first met in February to discuss Richard’s new book, Looking Up at the Bottom Line: The Struggle for the Living Wage. Zane was so surprised at finding common ground with someone advocating a major increase in the entry-level wages that he has invited Richard back to further discuss the economics of the living wage.

After a brief update on House the Homeless‘ campaign against Austin’s “No Sit/No Lie” ordinance, Richard and Zane talk about the working homeless in the United States: those who hold minimum-wage jobs but can’t afford minimum housing. What would happen if these millions of workers got a raise? A massive economic boom, as the least among us are able to buy the products generated by a consumer society.

For information on how to prevent homelessness before it even happens, please learn more about the Universal Living Wage, the plan that can end homelessness for over 1,000,000 minimum-wage workers and prevent economic homelessness for all of 10.1 million minimum-wage workers.


Source: “HomeAid: A Virtual Event to Benefit America’s Homeless,” HomeAid.net, 01/11/11
Source: “Richard Troxell: Author Looking Up at the Bottomline, Part 2,” BlogTalkRadio.com, 05/04/11
Image from HomeAid, used under Fair Use: Reporting.


The Crime of Breathing While Homeless

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Brianna Karp — One Woman’s Homeless Story

Homeless ShelterA lot of people have been writing about homelessness lately, and they fall into categories. In one group are the people who are chronically or temporarily homeless, telling their own stories from first-hand experience. We have talked about Becky Blanton, who spoke at the prestigious TEDGlobal conference in 2009 on the topic, “The year I was homeless.”

Because people experiencing homelessness form friendships and relationships just like anybody else, the writer might also tell stories of street comrades. For instance, Ace Backwords has been for many years the chronicler of the lives of Berkeley’s legendary street characters, like Blue, Talon, and Hate Man, “your typical, dress-wearing, former New York Times-reporting, hatred-spewing, homeless freak,” who is actually one of the nicest people you’d ever want to know.

Then, there are the objective reportorial types, journalists, bloggers, and allies who gather and then disseminate the stories of others. We have mentioned B. N. Duncan, longtime recorder of homeless lives in both words and photographs. Then there are the subjective reporters, who are not actually homeless themselves but who enter that world in order to bring back stories and publicize them, in hopes of raising public awareness. We’ll have more to say about them another time.

Today’s spotlight focuses on Brianna Karp, a native Southern Californian who started working at age ten, apparently because nobody else in her family was able to. All she ever wanted was to grow up to be a solid citizen, employed and home-owning. But it didn’t turn out the way she had planned — at least, not for long..

Karp had what anybody would call a good job, not that it mattered once she had been laid off. Only executives get those multi-million-dollar golden parachutes. The average employed person is just “let go” like a like an enemy spy shoved out of a helicopter over the ocean — bound, blindfolded, and with no parachute of any hue. Karp was luckier than many, and acknowledges it:

The company that I worked for was enormously kind and fair to each and every one of us, and compensated us well with a severance package, so I was OK for a while.

Thanks to that lucky break, and by scrambling for every possible opportunity to make a few bucks, Karp remarkably managed to delay her transition from housed to homeless for an entire half-year. But, inevitably, harsh exigency caught up. Because of another tragedy — the suicide of its owner — a travel trailer came into her possession and she set up a tenuous base from which to try and rebuild her life. Introducing her book, The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness, Karp says,

I am an educated woman with stable employment and residence history. I have never done drugs. I am not mentally ill. I am a career executive assistant –- coherent, opinionated, poised, and capable. If you saw me walking down the street, you wouldn’t have assumed that I lived in a parking lot. In short, I was just like you — except without the convenience of a permanent address.

Reviewed in Publisher’s Weekly and featured by TV shows, The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness was also written about by prominent author Augusten Burroughs in these words,

Brianna Karp is the perfect example of how a person can triumph not in spite of adversity but as a direct result of it. This smart, pragmatic young woman takes us inside the new face of homelessness in America and her dramatic memoir guides us through our assumptions, fears and judgment into a place of understanding, compassion and respect. Truly essential reading.

Once reestablished in the world of the housed and employed, Karp has not forgotten her desperate days, but wishes to help others cope, and to extend hope to people experiencing homelessness.

Here’s an idea that could change the landscape: the Universal Living Wage, which can end homelessness for over 1,000,000 minimum-wage workers, and prevent economic homelessness for all 10.1 million minimum wage workers. Please learn more about the Universal Living Wage and how to make it a reality.


Source: The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness by Brianna Karp
Source: “Where It All Began,” GirlsGuidetoHomelessness.com
Source: “Reviews,” GirlsGuidetoHomelessness.com
Image by PJFurlong06 (Patrick Furlong), used under its Creative Commons license.


Homes Needed to End Homelessness

Seven Deadly SinsFollowing the success of our guide on “How to Become Homeless,” here are a few more suggestions. We spoke of earthquake, fire, foreclosure, and domestic disharmony as popular methods of achieving homelessness. Another strong force has been the change in entire societal institutions. In Looking Up at the Bottom Line: The Struggle For the Living Wage, Richard R. Troxell describes some of the ways in which large demographic segments have been rendered homeless, especially young men and single older men. He writes,

Adding to the complexity of homelessness was the loss of several million SROs (single room occupancy units) when motels and cheap apartments were torn down and replaced with condominiums or made into parking lots. Another dynamic affecting our nation’s poor was the decision by the YMCA, the Young Men’s Christian Association, to leave the SRO field of housing.

Back in the day, and we mean way back, even a family of lower economic status could conceivably be living in a large, rambling house. Almost any house could be made into a boarding house. Rooms could be rented to traveling salesmen, or teachers (who were not allowed to be married), or even actors.

More recently, the trend in houses became smaller, yet more open. It’s much more difficult to carve out a space for an extra person or family. Now, cities and neighborhoods and housing developments all have rules about how many unrelated people can cohabit, how many cars per household, how many toilets, and so on. Nobody’s home is their castle, not if they want to rent out a room. This is bad both for homeowners who need some extra cash, and for people who need cheap temporary digs.

If rental housing is available, the prospective renter is faced with numerous hoops through which to jump. High move-in costs, don’t get us started. First, they charge you to even look at the place. Yes, there is a fee to even apply. And if the manager is crooked, you may expect more special fees to be extracted, down the line. To move in requires a lump sum of first and last month’s rent plus security deposit, with of course more deposits for special circumstances like pets.

Not to say this is necessarily wrong. It costs a lot to refurbish a trashed apartment, and people can be pigs. The self-justification is, “So what? It’s the landlord’s money.” Maybe so, but he’s gonna get it back from all the other tenants. For that kind of vindictiveness, everybody pays. It may be necessary, out of fairness to landlords, to pay the equivalent of three months’ rent up front. But it’s not easy. Here’s the situation, as described in Looking Up at the Bottom Line:

More than the minimum wage is required in every state to be able to afford a one bedroom apartment at Fair Market Rent, as set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

This is why America is seeing a lot of economic homelessness, which is what happens when even those who are working full-time can’t afford a place to live. You are invited to learn more about the Universal Living Wage, which is expected to end homelessness for over 1,000,000 minimum-wage workers and prevent economic homelessness for all 10.1 million minimum-wage workers.

We have talked about Jimmy McMillan, who got a lot of attention in last year’s New York State gubernatorial race. His platform, “The Rent Is Too Damn High,” inspired AnnaMaria Andriotis to explore the question in The Wall Street Journal.

She relates how, in the midst of a phone conversation with another reporter, McMillan stopped a passerby on the street to ask if his rent was too high. And one of the examples she gives of impossible rent comes from Austin, Texas, coincidentally the city where Richard R. Troxell lives and works with House the Homeless. Andriotis writes,

In Austin, Texas, a new two-bedroom two-bath condo runs around $1,800, but cost $1,200 before the downturn, says Jack McCabe, CEO of McCabe Research & Consulting, which tracks the housing industry. In Austin, income fell 4.9% to $35,522, making that 35% of income threshold a meager $1,036 rent payment.

Andriotis also mentions the mysterious formula that addresses the question, “How much rent should a renter pay, if a renter could pay rent?” She writes,

Many personal finance experts say you should spend no more than 35% of your take-home gross income on rent (not including renter’s insurance) whether you live in a high- or low-cost area.

Wait a minute! Just a little while ago, the experts were telling us not to spend more than 30% of our income on rent. Now it’s more. As responsible citizens today, we are supposed to feel as wise and mature about paying 35% as we felt a few years ago when the experts advised us to put a lid on at 30%. And it’s not as if we have a choice about it. Even 30% and 35% are not the worst. Apparently, some people spend more than 40% of their income on rent. That is one of the criteria for eligibility when Habitat for Humanity helps a family build a house.

You know what? It used to be 25%. That’s what the financial advisors used to say. Within living memory, it was taught in home economics class. You were a prudent money manager and a good citizen if you followed the rule of not paying out more than a quarter of your income for rent. It’s insidious percentage creep, meant to fool us into thinking we are doing the grown-up thing by handing over such a large proportion of our income for rent. They keep raising the bar, and pretending that nothing is amiss. They’re messing with our heads, and it’s positively Orwellian.


Source: Looking Up at the Bottom Line: The Struggle For the Living Wage by Richard R. Troxell
Source: “Is Your Rent Too Damn High?,” The Wall Street Journal, 10/19/10
Image by Rex Dingler/dingler1109, used under its Creative Commons license.


2011 Tax Day Action: An Appeal from Richard R. Troxell

You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land. You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and sets his life on it; else he will cry to God against you and you will incur guilt.

Deuteronomy 24:14-15

Tax Day Protest for the Universal Living Wage


Mark your calendars and contact your Board of Directors! Friday, April 15th, is our 11th annual Universal Living Wage Tax Day Event! From 7:30-9:00 am and 4:30-6:00 pm, we will go to our nation’s post offices and call for a Universal Living Wage. Once again, 3.5 million minimum-wage workers are expected to experience homelessness this year. Using existing government guidelines, we have devised a single national formula that ensures that anyone working 40 hours a week will be able to afford basic food, clothing, shelter (utilities included), and have access to health care.

We have found that American businesses have grown to rely on government subsidies to pick up that portion of the basic wage that they have failed to provide. Workers have been forced in ever increasing numbers to depend on food stamps, general assistance, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Congress intended these to be emergency, stop-gap measures. Instead, many businesses use government support to save on basic payroll. A national shift is occurring from the businesses’ responsibility of paying a “fair wage for a fair day’s work” to creating an ever increasing burden on the taxpayer.

We know that if businesses paid their employees a fair living wage, we could dramatically reduce the burden to taxpayers.

We will provide you a 4-foot by 10-foot banner, free, that says:

Reduce Your Taxes!
… with a

People will be drawn to the ULW website, which will display your contact information. We encourage you to use this opportunity to tout your own local living wage campaign. We can provide the banner, push cards (clearly explaining the formula), and a flyer explaining the issue.

Save us work, please email us your desire to participate. Some of you do not have email, so, for you, this will be our only opportunity to communicate. Call us at (512) 796-4366 or toll free at (888) 484-8591 if you wish to be a lead organization and receive a banner or just join in at a post office action lead by another organization.

Select the post office in your city where the media shows up every year to report on the last-minute tax return filers. Then call or email us with that address at rrtroxell@aol.com. Be sure to put “Tax Day” in the subject line.

Don’t delay, act now, April 15th is almost here!

Go to www.UniversalLivingWage.org to see photos of our past Tax Day and “Bridge the Economic Gap Day” held on September 6th. We are creating a national ground swell of support which will carry us to the “tipping point” when we will fix the Federal Minimum Wage and create a Universal Living Wage!

In Unity There Is Strength,
Richard R. Troxell

P.S. Hunger Action Network NY won our digital camera for best action. Is it your turn?


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


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.


How to Become Homeless

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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.