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Kick ‘Em When They’re Down, Part 2

Little PeoplePeople have some strange mental pictures of “the homeless.” Want to see a homeless person? Take a look in the mirror. Tomorrow, you could be the homeless person.

Very few of us are guaranteed immunity from the disasters of life. For example, that financier, the alleged rapist of the vulnerable minority-group women. Bet he didn’t think he’d ever see the inside of a jail cell. Life is full of surprises. Just about any of us could be a soup kitchen client within 30 days. And as for “the homeless” in general, and our attitude toward them, nobody is qualified to judge unless they have been tested by the same situation.

Of course, there are homeless people who are violent, dishonest, and just plain not very nice. Why? Because every group has its share of violent, dishonest, and just plain not very nice people. Realizing this is a hallmark of maturity and a sign of being in touch with reality.

There are homeless people who are alcoholics or some other kind of addicts. It’s just amazing how a movie star who is “bravely battling addiction” receives support and encouragement and sympathy. But there’s a certain point of view that says, “What excuse have they got for being an addict?” If a rich, talented, and photogenic person is also messed up enough to fall into addiction, how in hell is a person who has lost everything supposed to stay straight? Bottom line, street addicts are equally as deserving of compassion and help as movie stars.

Speaking of movies, the American psyche is afflicted by a strange example of cognitive dissonance. In a movie, the character we love most is the drifter, the loner, the guy who’s always a stranger, just passing through town. In fiction, we love a hero who spits in the face of authority. But when it comes to street people, who may lack such conventional attachments as addresses and jobs, and who constantly live on the edge of the law — all of a sudden, the American public is not so enamored of those maverick traits. Don’t know what it means, but it sure is interesting.

So, we were looking at some examples of harassment and persecution that people experiencing homelessness may also experience as a side effect. It’s not only the shambling wrecks with bottles in paper bags who are having a hard time. A very large segment of the homeless population is made up of single mothers and their children.

Here’s a charming story from our nation’s capitol, entitled “D.C. Social Worker Offers Brutal Choice To Homeless Mother.” Jason Cherkis explains how Washington now has a strict new residency requirement for people who need shelter. When you stop and think about is, that’s kind of surreal. The whole point about being homeless is that you don’t have a residence. Anyway, the brutal choice was,

… the District’s Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) told a homeless mother that she either had to leave town or have her kids put in foster care… [The attorney] recalls the social worker explaining: ‘Because she is not being placed in a shelter, therefore she is unable to provide a safe place for her children to stay. If she does not agree to accept the arrangement that has been made for her [the bus out of town], we will be forced to take her children away from her.’

How insane can it get? When kids are taken away and put into foster care, somebody has to be paid for taking care of them. As long as the sum is going to be paid out anyway, wouldn’t it make sense to just pay that mother the same amount to take care of her own kids?

Apparently, there are two major injustices going on here. First, this woman is accused of being a neglectful mother because of not providing a home for her kids. Well, duh! Of course her kids don’t have a home. That’s why she spends every waking hour in the offices of the bureaucracy, begging for a place in a family shelter. Second, they refused her because of not being a D.C. resident, when all along she had as much documentation as anyone needs, proving her as much a D.C. resident as anybody is required to be.

In case you missed it, and if your disgust-with-the-system quota for the day hasn’t been filled yet, read about the mother in Connecticut who ran afoul of the law by enrolling her son in the “wrong” school. We also recommend finding out about the Universal Living Wage that can end homelessness for over 1,000,000 minimum-wage workers, and prevent economic homelessness for all 10.1 million minimum-wage workers.

Reactions?

Source: “D.C. Social Worker Offers Brutal Choice To Homeless Mother,” Washington City Paper, 02/19/11
Image by ElizalO, used under its Creative Commons license.

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The Many Sides of Waller Creek

Upper Waller CreekThese words sound wonderful. Urban greenbelt improvement, smart growth, vibrancy, enhancement, economic viability — what’s not to like? Who could be against any of that? And indeed it does sound pretty good in a lot of ways. This is the Waller Creek District Master Plan we’re talking about, in Austin, Texas.

The creek runs through a long stretch of downtown, and it has been neglected. It’s surrounded by entertainment venues and other businesses that bring in millions in tax revenue, and it’s going to be revamped in a project with several stages, over many years. The idea that Waller Creek will eventually resemble San Antonio’s River Walk is for some Austin residents a dream, and for others a nightmare.

This is not just cosmetic surgery. There is real need for protection against flooding, and that problem is being addressed by the first stage of the project, the Waller Creek tunnel, whose groundbreaking ceremony took place last month (and was described by Jude Galligan in his Downtown Austin Blog.) When the tunnel is complete, 28 acres of previously dicey and unreliable real estate will be available for development and, of course, taxation.

Once the threat of flood damage has been avoided, the creek itself will receive the attention of engineers and landscapers, especially to prop up its banks and put a stop to some serious erosion. So it’s not only good for business, but also good for the environment. And for people who own boats, for whom life will be nicer. (There are even folks who want to remodel the creek to accommodate competitive whitewater rafting.) Downtown property values will rise. All this opulence will attract more citizens to live downtown, which the city devoutly wants, but only if they pay mortgages or rent.

And guess who’s in the way, as usual? Those pesky homeless people, who are even called aggressive, and no doubt some individuals are — just like speculators, merchants, and smug housed people, who can be not only aggressive but hostile and ruthless at times. Some say the creek area is a blighted insult to Austin’s reputation for being “clean, green, and safe.” A local with a poetic streak described it as “sort of a backyard underworld/no man’s land.”

Journalist Wells Dunbar tells us that Waller Creek

[…] never blossomed into the tourist attraction and growth-driver the city hoped for; instead, its overgrown and hidden trails became a watering hole of sorts for Austin’s homeless, surrounded by odious, stagnant waters.

Yes, some creekside areas are inhabited by people experiencing homelessness. And does anyone actually believe that people would really prefer to live in an oversized drainage ditch?

One fear shared by the homeless and their compassionate friends and advocates is that, on some level, this whole project is just a fancy excuse to shove the homeless out of the area. An Austin acquaintance tells us that the wealthy want to keep the homeless away from the University of Texas campus and the nightlife hotspots of Red River. Another informant says “smart growth” seems to mean “bring as many hip young white people into downtown Austin as possible,” and adds,

There isn’t enough money to adequately maintain the parks that we DO have. The city pool closest to my home has been empty for two years now because the city claims there’s no money to fix it. I would imagine the developers in the Waller Creek area would love nothing more than to run off the transient population and continue the ‘gentrification’ of the whole east side downtown area.

Of course, a project of this magnitude has been discussed for a long time. Austin is, and always has been, renowned for its music scene. Several popular venues are within the project’s boundaries, and some of them will be unable to adapt, or so it is predicted. In October of 2009, there was a conversation online among people intensely concerned about the future and fate of that scene, as it will be impacted by the Waller Creek renovation.

Some people want the ARCH to move. That’s the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, which occupies the designated area, along with just about every other social service provider, agency, shelter, and bureaucracy there is. If people experiencing homelessness are to put their lives back together, the tools and assistance they need are downtown, and so is the public transportation to get to them.

Homeless people are downtown not only to sleep and eat, but for medical care, job counseling, legal help, and to get their papers in order. Downtown is where the resources are, and this is not going to change any time soon. Yet there is an arrogant assumption that established services that so many good people fought long and hard to create ought to be displaced so that monied interests can be served instead.

One writer characterizes the shelter as “inexplicably and inappropriately” located in a neighborhood where there are bars. Of course, this same person would probably complain if the facility were in a neighborhood with families. (Some people are never satisfied.) He worries about the “concomitant illegal activity” that accompanies the shelter, as if the tourists and locals who frequent the bars never do anything illegal. And an area resident commented,

I have seen more patrons of these fine establishments peeing outside than homeless.

No one worries that the homeless will actually drink in the pricey downtown bars, which they couldn’t afford anyway. It’s the customers they worry about. An inebriated club patron may be a genial, generous, easy touch to a panhandler, or a tempting victim to a mugger. Either way, the business owners don’t want their clientele hassled.

Another thing that offends housed people, is the sight of homeless people lined up outside the shelter, waiting for nonexistent beds. Every night, according to one critic, as many as a hundred luckless folks don’t get a bed, and then they hang around the area. The presence of the ARCH downtown is equated with the folly of building a nuclear plant on a seismic fault line.

There is a belief that the shelter devalues all the properties in the area, especially the vacant lot across the street, which one commentator is particularly concerned about for some reason. He suggests that selling the land could bring a tidy profit, enough to move somewhere else. Some say the shelter is only downtown because no other neighborhood wanted it. But still, it should be possible to find land outside the city and move the shelter there.

Of course, the voice of common sense replies that relocating the ARCH will not cause the homeless to leave the city, but only make additional trouble and expense for down-and-out people who have enough of those things already. Anyway, nobody seems to be seriously contemplating that move, according to Sheryl Cole, Austin City Council member and Waller Creek Conservancy stakeholder. Cole has also been quoted as saying that homelessness can’t be swept under the rug, and the people of Austin need to be brave enough to address it head on.

And one school of thought holds that anybody who would pay $7 for a beer deserves to be panhandled.

Reactions?

Source: “Waller Creek Groundbreaking Ceremony,” Downtown Austin Blog, 04/08/11
Source: “Money Flows to Waller Creek,” The Austin Chronicle, 02/25/11
Source: “Will the Waller Creek Development be the death of Red River music scene?,” Yelp.com, 10/24/09
Image by MicklPickl, used under its Creative Commons license.

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Homeless is Another Word for Nothing Left to Lose

Homeless HoarderIn Houston, Texas, a pair of documentarians roamed the streets to connect with people experiencing homelessness.
They had one specific purpose in mind: to learn what possessions people hold onto when everything else has to be jettisoned. The writer is John Nova Lomax, the photographer is Daniel Kramer, and their first discovery was old news:

It practically goes without saying, but the homeless are everywhere downtown — they throng San Jacinto Street pretty much from southern Midtown all the way to Buffalo Bayou and beyond, they are all around the vicinity of the downtown library, and many of them line the bayou’s banks at Allen’s Landing, and many others make their homes near the courthouse complex.

It comes as no surprise that photos are the most cherished of portable items, because they are certainly among the most portable of cherished items. One man kept a photo of his daughter in her official high school graduation robe, and he’s proud to relate that she went on to college. Another kept an Army beret to memorialize his veteran father. One depended on his laptop computer.

A very practical fellow named his bedroll as his favorite possession, and his second was a small pocketknife. He told the documentary team, “I ain’t had to cut nobody yet or nothin’ like that…” At the other end of the spectrum, some street people find comfort in a rosary or a New Testament. One person’s treasured item had been a Bible, but it went missing. Another had owned a John 3:16 medal, but it was gone. (The verse is, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”)

One man said his prized possession was his own heart, because it held his love of Jesus. Of course, the interviewees talked about other matters too, such as how they ended up on the streets. When a trained electrician with 18 years experience can’t find work, something is seriously awry with society. By the way, if it’s ever been in your mind to give one small, quick, no-strings-attached present to a homeless person, Lomax has a suggestion. Apparently, a cheap transistor radio with headphones and a lanyard for suspending it around a person’s neck can be bought for about $6. It’s a small thing, but the kind of gift that really does keep on giving.

Small things are really all you can have if you’re homeless. What does a person even do with a jacket on a warm day? Wear it or carry it. Because you’re going to need it at night. But what about high summer, when it’s hot as Hades all night long? You sure don’t want to keep a jacket with you all the time. What about when winter comes? A jacket will sure come in handy then. But what the hell are you supposed to do with it in the meantime?

Maybe you’re lucky enough to own a suitcase or duffel bag or even a nice big camping-style backpack. It’s a place to keep stuff, but then you need a place to keep it. Or lug it around everywhere — to the soup kitchen, to the free clinic. To the job counseling office, and if you’re lucky enough to get some kind of interview, then where do you leave your stuff? Carrying a duffel around says “homeless” to the world, it’s a much a sign of pariah status as the bells that lepers used to wear.

When a city has a No Camping ordinance — what city does not these days? — the law very likely forbids not only fire-making, cooking, setting up a tent, and sleeping, but “storing personal belongings.” That’s right, thou shalt not leave thy stuff anywhere.

At Change.org, SlumJack Homeless discusses his method of dealing with possessions, which is a bicycle with an attached trailer. It’s better than a shopping cart, but still precludes a lot of activities. The problem of material goods is one of the reasons why he prefers the streets to the shelters, because there is no provision for the safety of belongings.

Now, it’s easy to understand why a shelter doesn’t want all these various conglomerations of stuff on the premises. For one thing, bedbugs are a continuing and terrible problem. The more items that are allowed through the door, the more likelihood of infestation, which of course can only be bad for any shelter residents who aren’t yet carrying bedbugs around. SlumJack Homeless says,

This forces people to a ridiculous minimum of belongings… one of the factors that actually contributes to perpetuating a person’s homeless predicament. Also, you DON’T want other people at shelters to see what you DO own and have. There are many thieves that will then know what you’re carrying around with you, many of whom you WILL run across later… at night, alone, etc.

Let’s just short-circuit this problem by bringing into reality 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. Then people can keep their stuff in their own place, and close and lock the door. Sounds like a plan!

Reactions?

Source: “Prized Possessions — Homeless in Houston share their most important objects,” Houston Press, 01/20/11
Source: “Why I Choose Streets Over Shelter,” Change.org, 06/03/09
Image by Richard Masoner, used under its Creative Commons license.

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Shozna: One Homeless Person Redeemed, Several Million to Go

Shozna in gown by RaishmaIn Britain, the recent marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton was attended by a formerly homeless young woman who has one of the trademarks of celebrity: a single name, and it is Shozna.

Last fall, an organization called Centrepoint held a fundraiser where Shozna told her story and related how Centrepoint helped her to escape homelessness. Prince William calmed her nervousness before the speech, and blew everyone’s mind by hugging her after it. In the course of planning for the royal wedding, a hundred “Golden Ticket” invitations were extended, with William inviting representatives from all his favorite charities, while Kate invited folks from her parents’ village. Keri Sutherland of the Sunday Mirror reports,

Shozna’s struggle began when, while training in childcare, she had a stroke and needed a heart operation. Shortly afterwards she left home, staying with relatives and friends until her council referred her to homeless charity Centrepoint. Shozna, who asked us to withhold her last name, said: “I moved into Centrepoint housing in July. It was difficult, but luckily I’ve pulled through.”

Shozna was raised in East London, and Fay Schlesinger tells us how the enthusiastic student with career plans suffered a stroke at age 18 and became half-paralyzed. Months of medical treatment, surgery, and rehab followed. The reasons for Shozna’s subsequent break with her family are not told, but we do know she lived in a hostel and then a homeless shelter. Eventually, she moved to a council flat, which is what they call government-subsidized housing in Britain. (For an exercise in broadening the mental horizons, check out the comments of various British subjects at the blog London Muslim.) As far as Shozna’s future, the lingering effects of her heart problem and the stroke have eliminated some possibilities, but she now hopes to get into retail and work her way up to store manager.

For the great event, Shozna was accoutered by Warren Holmes (hair), Armand Beasley (makeup), Irresistible Headdresses (fascinator), Kyles Collection (jewelry), Jimmy Choo (shoes), and of course Raishma of London (dress.) Couturier Raishma describes the excitement from her perspective

I decided to go for a 50s style prom dress in a block colour scheme of papaya orange and red to give the look a modern take for 2011. I designed an embroidered border with delicate silk roses and hand beading to be positioned on her neckline… I then started worrying about the complete look… I styled Shozna from head to toe for the Big Day…

For the ceremony, the young woman’s escort was Centrepoint chief Seyi Obakin. The London Tonight crew filmed not just Shozna at the wedding, but the entire preparation procedure, one of the world’s most thorough and glittering makeovers. Question: At what point did the ITV network enter the picture? Because, surely, the royal couple did not expect Shozna to show up wearing something from the Oxfam charity shop.

On the one hand, thanks to this sequence of events, the word “homeless” has reached the ears of more people, and that’s a beautiful thing. On the other hand, it’s so easy to cheer for a lovely young woman, and to want to turn her into a fairy-tale princess. But one Cinderella is not enough. How nice it would be if we could see that all homeless women need the resources to take care of themselves and present their best faces to the world.

This includes the girls who become sloppy fat from soup-kitchen diets, which tend to be heavy on the starch; and the mothers whose hair has fallen out from anxiety as they experience homelessness with a passel of kids to worry about. It includes the women who have lost teeth through violence, poor nutrition, or lack of the most elementary facilities for self-care. Also, the abused, the tattooed, and yes, even the alcoholic and addicted.

In our own land of America, the Universal Living Wage can end homelessness for over 1,000,000 minimum-wage workers, and prevent economic homelessness for ten million minimum wage workers. Including a heck of a lot of women.

Reactions?

Source: “Royal wedding: Woman who was once homeless tells of joy at personal invite,” Sunday Mirror, 04/17/11
Source: “From homeless shelters to a front row seat,” Daily Mail, 04/17/11
Source: “Shozna the homeless Muslim Royal Wedding girl,” London Muslim, 04/18/11
Source: “Dressing Shozna from Centre Point Charity for the Royal Wedding,” Raishma.co, 05/03/11
Image of Shozna in gown by Raishma used under Fair Use: Reporting.

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Everybody’s Gotta Be Someplace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(To be continued…)

Reactions?

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

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A Certain Income Level

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reactions?

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

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Airwaves: The Universal Living Wage

Will work for food

The final month of 2010 was an action-packed one for Richard R. Troxell. Of course, every December, for the past decade or so, has been devoted to the Thermal Underwear Drive. In fact, that project moves to the front burner earlier in the year, in November, around the time of the annual memorial service, recalling those who have perished on the streets of Austin, and reminding us of one real, concrete way to help prevent the loss of more lives in the future. (It went great, by the way.)

In the midst of all this, Richard was a guest of Blog Talk Radio host Wayne Hurlbert, who was kind enough to make the recording of the Richard R. Troxell interview available to anyone at any time, through the magic of the World Wide Web.

One of the ideas Richard wants to get across is that people experiencing homelessness are not one big homogenous mass. They have different abilities and needs, just like anybody else. He has taken the trouble to conduct a number of very detailed surveys in Austin, Texas, and if activists in other cities followed this practice, it would probably be a big help in educating the housed public.

Among adults experiencing homelessness, there are three major groups. Many homeless substance abusers are currently in no shape to work, and maybe never could be returned to productivity. Others could be returned to the work force with intervention and treatment, over time.

About 40% of people experiencing homelessness have serious mental health concerns, and, of course, there is some overlap with the substance abuse group. They are disabled and can’t work, although this could change too. Many people who are seriously impaired in this way could become sufficiently rehabilitated to hold jobs. Warehousing them in institutions was not an acceptable answer, but turning them loose with the expectation that they could be depended on to take their medications was not a viable answer either. If psychotropic drugs work at all, it’s within a matrix of stability, good physical health, proper diet, and medical supervision to monitor and adjust the medications. There is hope in that area too.

But right now, we’re talking about the approximately 50% of adults experiencing homelessness who could perfectly well be working if there were jobs, or who are working, but still not making enough for the basic needs of shelter, food, and clothing. So about half of the current homeless adults are not able to work at the present time, and half are. The ones who could work, what they need is not support from tax dollars, but the opportunity to support themselves.

Another thing shown by surveys is that nationally, the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population are single mothers and their children. They fall into both categories, because for a mother who is physically and mentally able to work, taking a job means finding child care, which is another back-breaking expense. (Of course, child-care workers need to make a genuine living wage, too.)

Realizing the expense to the working poor who have children, various governments at various times have subsidized child care. Which leads to questions about the paradoxical weirdness of having people work to pay taxes, so part of their taxes can be used to pay somebody else to take care of their children. A lot of people ask, wouldn’t it be simpler to just pay them to take care of their own children? But that’s another topic.

The Universal Living Wage was designed to help the working poor who are doing their best, and still can’t make rent, and the unemployed but able people experiencing homelessness, who need an opportunity. Do yourself a favor and let Richard explain how the Universal Living Wage could get half the homeless people off the streets.

Wayne Hurlbert has obviously done this interview thing before. Unlike some media personalities, he takes the time to review the material beforehand. He asks relevant questions and then lets the guest talk — basic good manners and good journalism. All authors should be so lucky as to have such a platform to express our views, and to have such an enthusiastic supporter. Hurlbert also published a review of Looking Up at the Bottom Line, at Blog Business World, which concerns itself with business, marketing, public relations, and SEO for successful entrepreneurs.

Reactions?

Source: “Richard Troxell: Looking Up At The Bottom Line,” BlogTalkRadio.com, 12/07/10
Source: “HTH Health Survey Results 2010 for Austin, Texas,” HouseTheHomeless.org, 10/12/10
Image by twicepix, used under its Creative Commons license.

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Homeless Vets — The Good News

LEGO Mini Construction Site

Around the country, some hearty efforts are being made to make the phrase “Homeless Veterans” obsolete. In Jewett City, Connecticut, the American Legion Veterans Housing, Inc. recently held a groundbreaking ceremony. Legion Post 15 is renovating its old building, and putting up a new building which will contain 18 one-bedroom apartments, an uncredited article tells us. These units are of the “supportive housing” variety.

Supportive housing basically means that the inhabitants, who have special needs, are not just left on their own. They have caseworkers, aides, and various other people watching over them. Regarding the physical plant, the plans include an energy-efficient thermal heating system, conference rooms, counseling rooms, offices, and an exercise room. William Czmyr, the organization’s president, is quoted as saying:

Seven years ago, at one of our meetings, we discussed the military creed ‘that no comrade is left behind.’ Today, as the culmination of that discussion, we are excited to break ground and see our dream for these deserving veterans become a reality.

David Abel, staff writer for the Boston Globe, recently profiled Vietnam veteran Tom Clark. Yes, there are still plenty of them around. The number of homeless veterans is not constant, but of that number, about half are Vietnam-era vets. Clark was getting ready to move into the Gordon H. Mansfield Veterans Community in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

It’s apparently run like a condominium association, so the people who move in will build equity. There is a $2,500 deposit and the payments are as much as $740 per month. (Government words, the link is ours: “The amount of basic benefit paid ranges from $123 to over $3,100 per month, depending on your level of disability and number of dependents.” But financial help is available. And just across the parking lot, there are therapists and social workers. It’s not a just a building, it’s a community, with mental health and addiction services.

Soldier On was the group that set this in motion. This nonprofit organization has been providing shelter and services, and its president, Jack Downing, believes that the answer to homelessness is housing. Soldier On also plans to repurpose the state police training facility into another 120 housing units, and create even more housing in other locations.

Abel quotes a fellow from the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs, Peter Dougherty, who directs the homeless veterans’ programs. He says,

There’s nowhere else like this in the country. It offers a unique opportunity to take veterans that have been homeless and turn them into homeowners. It really is an opportunity that has not happened in other places yet. We’re really interested in seeing how well it works.

In the southwest part of the country, we learn from Sadie Jo Smokey of The Arizona Republic, a plan will be unfolding over the next year and a half. Many veterans have less than $15,000 a year coming in, an amount small enough to ensure economic homelessness, the condition of people who can’t afford housing even though they have income. But the Arizona Department of Housing has done something about housing tax credits that will help encourage builders to construct apartments that these veterans can afford.

A complex called Madison Point (60 units in two buildings) is planned near the Veterans Administration medical center. Another development is planned that will include 75 apartments. Additionally, Smokey’s account also tells of a home for women veterans called Mary Ellen’s Place:

Named in honor of the late Mary Ellen Piotrowski, former chairwoman of Unified Arizona Veterans, the Sunnyslope community calls for 16 apartments that would rent for $250 month.

These are a few of the encouraging signs that the nation is becoming more conscious of the need to house veterans. Of course, those who are able to work need to make a living wage, and we encourage the adoption of the Universal Living Wage, as outlined by Richard R. Troxell in Looking Up at the Bottom Line. The Universal Living Wage would end homelessness for more than a million minimum-wage workers, and prevent economic homelessness for more than 10 million minimum-wage workers.

Reactions?

Source: “Homeless veterans housing project gets under way in Griswold,” TheDay.com, 11/16/10
Source: “A haven for homeless veterans,” Soldier On, 11/08/10
Source: “Availability of affordable housing rentals to increase for veterans,” AZCEntral.com, 12/18/10
Image by Bucklava (Buck), used under its Creative Commons license.

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People Experiencing Homelessness Go Underground

Dark DaysWe just have to share this amazing photoessay, the pictures taken by Getty Images staff photographer Paula Bronstein (and erroneously credited here to Paul Bronstein.) In Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia, the winters are long and very, very cold, and many homeless people survive by living underground in tunnels that are not actually sewers, as the headline states, but channels for heating pipes.

Really, this is fascinating. Someone has taken the trouble to translate (from another website) nearly 100 comments from “Chinese netizens” as well as, apparently, European expats in China, and people from other countries too. Some cruelly anti-Mongolian sentiments are expressed. The country used to belong to China, then became a satellite of the USSR, but now Russia is kaput, so things don’t go well in Mongolia. But many points of view are represented. One person says,

Beijing isn’t lacking either — If you have the chance, go to the Beijing Film Academy campus gates and look under the manhole covers…

Another says,

There is in fact a tradition of cave dwellings in northern provinces such as Henan and Shaanxi. The soft loessial soils allow cave dwellings to be excavated, providing homes that are spared the worst of baking summers and freezing winters. Getting enough natural light into the cave dwellings however is one problem that is shared with living in a sewer. There is simply never enough sunlight or daylight.

In case you’re thinking, “This could only happen in Mongolia,” think again. Or rent Dark Days, a documentary directed, produced, and filmed by Marc Singer, and released in 2000. It’s all about homeless people living in an Amtrak tunnel under New York City, amid construction debris and terrible noise from the trains, with plenty of rats for company. They build shelters from scrap wood, cardboard, tarpaulins, and whatever else they can get hold of.

Many of the residents have managed to pull electricity into their subterranean shacks. Sometimes they go “up top” to find food and things to sell. Many have pets, for protection or companionship. The sanitary arrangements vary. One resident says that if you’re homeless, this is the best place in the city to be.

But it’s not safe down there. One guy demonstrates for the camera how he sets up a noise trap, so if anybody approaches his place while he’s sleeping, a bunch of frying pans will fall down and wake him. Another claims that 80% of the tunnel dwellers are crackheads. A woman named Dee tells how someone tried to burn her hut with her in it. Still, most of the tunnel dwellers look out for each other and engage in cooperative efforts, and some of them have been down there for 20 years. It is a weird but not totally dysfunctional family.

Then, along come the armed Amtrak police, telling everybody they have 30 days to get out. Not one person wants to go to a shelter, where everything you have including your clothes will be stolen. With the aid of the Coalition for the Homeless, they negotiate the Section 8 bureaucracy. With the promise of housing, they demolish the cozy shelters that were built with so much care. The film ends by showing the various formerly underground people in their new apartments, with real beds, and windows with trees outside.

Now, check out “Lost Vegas” by Pete Samson, who explored the unknown world underneath America’s capital of gambling and glitz. He says hundreds of homeless people live in parts of the 350-mile flood tunnels beneath Las Vegas:

Rather than working in the bars or kitchens they ‘credit hustle’, prowling the casinos searching the fruit machines for money or credits left by drunken gamblers.

But the competition is stiff. Sometimes there is day labor, and there are always dumpsters to recover food and useful items from. Sampson interviews several residents, including a woman named Amy, who says,

The main dangers are the floods and the Black Widow spiders. But it’s not a terrible place to be if you’re homeless… It’s much cooler than on the streets, we get a breeze coming through and the cops don’t really bother you. It’s quiet and everyone helps each other out down here.

Clearly, something is amiss, not only in the United States but throughout the world. Despite all the promises humankind has made to itself about a brighter future, conditions are getting worse and worse for more and more people. What can alleviate the situation? The Universal Living Wage might be a good place to start.

Reactions?

Source: “Mongolia’s Homeless Living Underground In Sewers,” ChinaSmack.com, 11/06/10
Source: “Dark Days (2000),” IMDb.com
Source: “Lost Vegas,” TheSun.co.uk, 09/24/09
Image of Dark Days, used under Fair Use: Reporting.

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People Experiencing Homelessness = Lab Rats

New York, New York

Studying up on homelessness in America, a person is constantly astonished by both the magnanimity of some of our fellow citizens and the cluelessness of others. Today’s excursion into the realm of the media turns up a story titled “To Test Housing Program, Some Are Denied Aid.” When it appeared on the front page of the print version of The New York Times, it was called “New York Study on Who May End Up Homeless Called Cruel.”

Put them together, and they sum up the gist of a rather bizarre story reported by Cara Buckley, who has written hundreds and hundreds of pieces for this most venerated newspaper. Buckley starts with a brief reminder for those of us who might have been sleeping in class one day:

It has long been the standard practice in medical testing: Give drug treatment to one group while another, the control group, goes without.

That method is infinitely adaptable and used in all the sciences, but anybody can do it. If you play classical music to half of your plants and no music to the other half, and then measure all the plants’ heights and compare the results, you have just done an experiment according to the scientific method of empirical testing.

Now, apparently, a New York bureaucracy known as the Department of Homeless Services is messing around with people’s lives and touting their actions as useful science. The first impression is that somebody is playing God in a particularly nasty way, with questionable ethics, treating desperate families like guinea pigs or lab rats. So let’s hit the high points of Buckley’s story and see if it gets any better.

The program is Homebase, which is supposedly preventative. Among other things, it supports people who are about to be evicted, so maybe they won’t end up joining the homeless population of the city, which is already quite substantial. The officials put on their “research” hats and implemented the experiment. Buckley writes,

Half of the test subjects… are being denied assistance from the program for two years, with researchers tracking them to see if they end up homeless.

The first thing that comes to mind is that the intolerable delays are already an integral feature of social welfare programs. We hear constantly about the waiting periods, roadblocks, the uncertainty of funding, and myriad other factors that make help so slow in coming for so many of the people who need it most. There is never enough help available, so it seems like there would be plenty of unserved people to study, in the natural course of events, without purposely creating a situation where available help is denied to some for capricious reasons.

Where this particular program was concerned, there did not seem to be any need for such evaluation because it had already been judged efficacious. As Buckley notes,

Advocates for the homeless said they were puzzled about why the trial was necessary, since the city proclaimed the Homebase program as ‘highly successful’ in the September 2010 Mayor’s Management Report, saying that over 90 percent of families that received help from Homebase did not end up in homeless shelters.

As the old saying goes, “If it works, don’t fix it.” And especially, don’t use it to hurt people who could be helped when there is so much other useful work that could be done instead. Plus, the study itself is costing nearly $600,000, for which a better use could have been found. Like paying rent for potential evictees.

Buckley quotes a University of Pennsylvania professor Dennis P. Culhane whose field is social welfare policy. He says there is widespread doubt over the effectiveness of eviction-prevention programs, and there is no evidence that people helped by the Homebase program would be homeless otherwise. Say what? I may be missing something here, but I suspect that a large proportion of the New York City’s homeless population just might be living in temporary shelters or on the streets because people couldn’t pay rent and got evicted.

The Coalition for the Homeless website states,

Surveys of homeless families have identified the following major immediate causes of episodes of homelessness: eviction; doubled-up or severely overcrowded housing; domestic violence; and hazardous housing conditions.

What part of “Immediate cause of homelessness = eviction” does the New York City bureaucracy not understand?

The Coalition for the Homeless also notes that in October 2010, 38,000 people were sleeping in New York City’s municipal shelter system each night. There are probably more by now. And how many are there on the streets? No way to know how many thousands, but the Coalition says that the official numbers are consistently underestimated. And the overall situation can only get worse with the lack of affordable housing even for those who are supposedly making a living wage, which becomes more of a joke every day.

As we suspected, the first impression doesn’t get any better. It gets worse. Buckley says,

New York City is among a number of governments, philanthropies and research groups turning to so-called randomized controlled trials to evaluate social welfare programs.

Reactions?

Source: “To Test Housing Program, Some Are Denied Aid,” NYTimes.com, 12/08/10
Source: “Basic Facts About Homelessness: New York City,” CoalitionfortheHomeless.org
Image by Dr. Savage, used under its Creative Commons license.