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Homelessness and Mental Illness

Pedestrian Scramble Across SoCoLast week in Austin, Texas, a man punched a woman, breaking three of her facial bones and injuring and swelling her eye. He didn’t know her. He asked her for money, and she didn’t give him any. The Fox Network reported that Michael Adams previously served a two-year term for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, and is homeless.

Newsperson Lauren Petrowski, who interviewed the woman, says,

She doesn’t place blame on the man, but hopes he can get the help he  needs.

The victim, who is scheduled for surgery, seems very mellow in both her thoughts and their expression. Some shoppers will respond to an aggressive panhandler in a way that could, in the mind of an unstable person, be seen as a provocation, and as a rationale for violence. But it’s unlikely in this case.

From her brief appearance in the news clip, it would be difficult to imagine this woman saying or doing anything rude. And, of course, even if a woman did reply rudely in that situation, the man would not be justified in punching her. She was walking on a downtown street, talking on a cell phone, and probably did not do a single thing that even the most paranoid mind could interpret as “asking for it.” It would be hard to picture a less blame-able victim.

After the blow that knocked her to the ground, she says,

The guy was just standing by a tree, staring at me. He didn’t run…

Apparently, he didn’t try to rob her, either, or do much of anything, except stick around and wait to be arrested. Is any of this what a sane person does? Are these the actions of a person who is not mentally ill?

Word on the street is, after being released from prison in October, Adams was relatively stable for a while, before his behavior began to deteriorate. So it could be a medication issue, though this is not known. At any rate, violent behavior got him barred from the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, the shelter of last resort. As one local said, “If ARCH won’t take you, nobody will.”

But whether or not this particular homeless man has ever been officially diagnosed, he obviously should not be at large. No question about that. If he’s just plain violent, he needs to be locked up, like any other violent man, whether homeless or housed. If he’s mentally ill, he needs to be confined someplace more therapeutic than prison, and treated.

While it’s true that many of the mentally ill are substance abusers, we need to remember that addiction is also a disease. Movie star junkies get all kinds of sympathy and support as they “courageously battle” their habits. When homeless people become addicts, they’re supposed to have been able to prevent it from happening, and magically cure themselves.

And many, many Americans have been irrevocably damaged through absolutely no fault of their own. How many thousands of lost souls wander the streets, whose lives were blighted by fetal alcohol syndrome or shaken baby syndrome? Their heads will never be right. How many homeless veterans suffer from either organic brain damage or PTSD, or both?

David Evans of Austin Travis County Integral Care says that the frequency of violence among the mentally ill is no higher than among the average population. But violence engendered by mental illness can’t help but be more noticeable, because so many of the mentally ill are roaming around in the open, rather than being cared for. Austin American-Statesman columnist Andrea Ball reminds us,

Advocates say to remember that most homeless people aren’t violent. The jails are full of people who never lived on the streets.

Of the people experiencing both homelessness and mental illness, a very small percentage are violent and predatory. A much, much greater percentage are confused, beleaguered by their symptoms, and unable to manage their medication if they even have it. A great many of the mentally ill homeless are elderly, sick, weak, vulnerable, and practically helpless.

And when you think about the small percentage of homeless who are violent, whether through mental illness or sheer meanness, think about this. Homeless women and children have to deal with these dangerous individuals on a daily basis, through no fault of their own, and certainly not because they wish to keep this kind of company. Non-violent men don’t particularly enjoy hanging around with these guys, either. They don’t like it any more than you or I would. The difference is, we have doors that we can close.

Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless is calling for the creation of 1,000 permanent supportive housing units for the mentally ill. He says the 350 that have been funded, after a decade of hard work by activists, can’t be built because of Austin’s NIMBY (“Not In My Back Yard”) attitude.

The Fox TV news, by the way, quoted Richard:

The problem is, there is not an adequate response to people with mental health issues in the state, and more needs to be done for them.

One thing is certain. Criminalizing homelessness will not eradicate violence.

Reactions?

Source: “Woman Punched by Homeless Man Downtown,” Fox 7, 07/07/11
Source: “Empathy for the homeless not always easy,” Austin American-Statesman, 07/08/11
Image by rutlo (Matthew Rutledge), used under its Creative Commons license.

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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.

Reactions?

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

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The Unavoidable Problem of Human Waste

Public ToiletWe have talked about the inordinate amount of time, energy, and financial resources that are spent on preventing benches from being slept on, or even sat on by people experiencing homelessness. The same brand of madness goes on over public bathrooms. The object is to make the homeless disappear by not providing any public toilets. Now, nobody can find a place to take a leak, and don’t even think about the other thing.

Someone with money can spend a few bucks in a store or restaurant, thus earning the right to perform natural functions in their facilities. Someone without money can hold it till they get home. Someone without a home can pee in an alley. What a brilliant solution — not! This is a lose-lose-lose outcome for everybody except business owners, who pick up some extra revenue by capitalizing on an unavoidable human need.

There is a terrific organization called STREATS — that stands for “Homeless Individuals Striving To Reach Educate And Transform Society’s Views on Homelessness.” Its media division has produced a video called “Gotta Go.” About half-an-hour long, it contains lively commentary with some humor from some very articulate people on the subject of going to the bathroom.

We have talked about the ongoing conflict between housed residents and “rubber tramps” in Venice, California. Last fall, for instance, two people were arrested for dumping human waste from a camper toilet into the street. The prosecution wanted to put them in jail for 90 days, but the judge has ordered a 36-months probation, to pay restitution, and to get the heck out of Venice.

There is reportedly a legal RV waste disposal facility 7.7 miles away from the area where the Venetian vehicle dwellers tend to cluster, and it costs $10, which sounds reasonable. But there might be many reasons why people living in a parked RV could not or would not vacate the space they had claimed. It’s a tough problem.

In a newsletter, a local citizen gloated over the fate of another pair of miscreants, a couple with a nine-year-old child. They too were charged with dumping waste in the street, and their RV was seized as evidence and towed to an impound yard many miles away in the San Fernando Valley to await a release from the police. The citizen says, “Beautiful evening for a walk to the SFV.”

This is from Dana Goodyear’s “Street Scene” column in The New Yorker, a while back, reporting on the Skid Row area of Los Angeles:

Plastic outhouses were removed because people were using them for sex and drugs and deals, and now there are several self-cleaning, European-style public toilets whose doors automatically open after an interval.

This controversy carried quite a history, as shown by a piece written by Penelope McMillan 20 years earlier, about a particular settlement known as the “Love Camp,” with a distinctly different reputation than those of other Skid Row encampments of the time. The journalist wrote,

Its residents, numbering around 50, rotate cooking, cleaning and security duties and share the $70-a-month rental cost of the portable toilets.

What portable toilets? The ones that were a symbol to the camp’s inhabitants that they would not sink beyond a certain level, and would indeed rise again to take their places in society. The portable toilets that were snatched, one day at dawn, by a city work crew. On the same day, the camp’s leadership kept an appointment with city officials to supposedly arrange a “model cleanup,” to be used as a prototype for future sweeps meant to clear out the homeless population. Strange that the city’s idea of a “cleanup” should begin with stealing the toilets.

Just last week, Kathleen Edgecomb reported from New London, Connecticut, about the shutting off of a new fountain on a downtown plaza because people experiencing homelessness used it to clean themselves. Actually, the last straw was when a passing cop discovered an intoxicated man washing solid matter out of his pants. The homeless were accused of using the whole area as an outdoor toilet. The reporter quotes Cathy Zall, director of a 50-bed shelter, who reminds us that being homeless is not a crime, and that the majority of the problems are caused by a very small minority.

In Eugene, Oregon, there are a few areas where a tiny fraction of the people who live in vehicles can safely park, and the city provides portable toilets and garbage collection. Apparently, some cities did get a clue, to some extent. It’s not rocket science. In fact, humankind has figured out how astronauts can go to the bathroom in zero gravity, for Pete’s sake. Surely we can think of ways for people to go to the bathroom in a modern city.

In Austin, Texas, an online commentator complains that the hundred or so people who are turned away from the ARCH shelter every night tend to hang around the neighborhood and relieve themselves in streets and alleys, and that Waller Creek is called a “giant alky toilet.”

It’s a strange situation. The city apparently paid a design firm a million and a half dollars to create a plan for renovating the creek and the downtown area surrounding it. Then it ditched the plan and is currently looking for another.

Here’s a thought. Whatever money there is for the new plan, take half of that and hire a student instead. (That’s what homeless people do to get their teeth fixed — let students practice on them.) Then take the other half and build some freakin’ restrooms. There you go — problem solved.

Reactions?

Source: “Venice RV Dumpers Sentenced,” 100kissfm.com, 10/13/10
Source: “Street Scene ,” The New Yorker, 05/05/08
Source: “Skid Row Camp’s Portable Toilets Swept Away,” LA Times, 03/11/87
Source: “Fountain incident puts spotlight on homeless issue,” The Day, 06/08/11
Source: “Will the Waller Creek Development be the death of Red River music scene?,” Yelp, 10/24/09
Source: “Private conservancy outlines plan to rescue, revive Waller Creek,” Statesman.com, 04/27/11
Screen capture of Public Toilet in Skid Row, Los Angeles, California, used under Fair Use: Reporting.

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The Waller Creek Challenge in Austin, Texas

Tunnel Conceptual ProfileLast time, we outlined some of the issues surrounding the revitalization project planned for the Waller Creek corridor in downtown Austin, Texas. The first stage, the tunnel that will divert floodwaters, has begun. Businesses logically fear ruination by water damage, so once the threat of flooding is removed, this will encourage the growth of new businesses and, of course, increase the downtown property values and thus the tax base.

You’d think it would be possible to get even that far without objections, but you’d be mistaken. Even though the property owners in the immediate area, comprising Tax Increment Financing Reinvestment Zone No. 17, will be paying for a lot of the upfront costs, the city will be responsible for all the upkeep of the tunnel after 20 years (and, in this context, 20 years tends to slide by quickly). The city and county are paying now, but here’s an interesting footnote, courtesy of Wells Dunbar of The Austin Chronicle:

But the council also agreed to help fund the project via a small ‘drainage’ increase on Austin Water utility bills, an approximate 40-cent increase expected to ultimately collect more than $50 million.

That news prompted Brian Rodgers, co-founder of ChangeAustin.org, to ask the reporter a rhetorical question:

Why should all utility customers be required to subsidize Waller Creek landowners with $55 million from a regressive new drainage rate hike?

The opinion is shared by others, such as an online commentator called “Beano,” who writes,

This is about private gain from public investment. The property owners along this creek bought knowing they were in a flood zone. If they want something nicer and less flood prone, the rest of Austin should not be asked to pay for it.

Another citizen, known as “Big Texan,” adds,

It would be nice if the City Council would put limits on any commitments associated with this ‘project’. The idea of another unfunded and open-ended obligation is reckless.

But what’s done is done. The TIF zone is set up, ground has been broken for the tunnel, and the whole project is underway. Once the tunnel is finished, then the real work begins — the renovation of the above-ground area within the zone: Waller Creek and its surroundings.

The trouble is, from a certain perspective, this whole project looks like one big plot to rid Austin of its people experiencing homelessness — and not by housing them, but by shoving them out of the landscape. Ejecting the homeless is always a hoped-for side benefit when any city undertakes major public works or, for instance, prepares to host the Olympics or a political convention.

Civic leaders and politicians are usually too PR-savvy to come right out and say it, but locals who offer their opinions to the editorial pages and online comment threads can be quite unapologetically frank about the importance of street-people removal on their list of priorities.

Controversy has swirled around the massive and many-faceted Waller Creek master plan since it was conceived, making Austin an ideal case study for what happens when settled, monied interests clash with the needs of the ever-increasing number of the urban homeless. Many different populations will be affected in many different ways.

This is reflected by the composition of the Waller Creek Citizen Advisory Committee. And it is not the only one with an interest in the project. For instance, let’s take the homeless, and ask a question that, one hopes, has been asked by at least somebody on the Citizen Advisory Committee. With a big honkin’ civic project like this going on, what efforts are being made to hire the homeless?

As another Austin Chronicle reporter, Marc Savlov, pointed out, the majority of Austin’s homeless are people who are “struggling to regain a functioning, solid foothold into society-at-large.” Many of them are the working homeless, whom Richard R. Troxell calls the “economic homeless.” Yes, many homeless people do work, and more would work if they could get jobs, and many who are already working would welcome the chance to get better jobs. Savlov says,

For sleeping arrangements, a few pitch their tents as far south as Stassney Lane or West Gate Boulevard, coming into the Downtown area to work at steady employment ranging from roofing companies to construction to maintenance gigs. But none of their day jobs straight-pay enough of a living wage to secure and maintain what you and I would call a home: four walls, a roof, first and last months’ deposit, plus real-world essentials such as utilities and a phone.

Although some of the downtown businesses make some kind of effort to alleviate the symptoms of homelessness, not a lot is being done to solve the underlying problems. The journalist quoted Richard, and we can’t do better here than to quote him again:

Livable incomes breaks down into two factions, those who can work and those who can’t work. For those who can work, we’re promoting the Universal Living Wage, which goes to fix the federal minimum wage, $7.25 an hour, which is currently insufficient to get by on. Our goal is to take it from a federal minimum wage to a universal living wage. Even the U.S. Conference of Mayors, year after year, when asked what the single greatest contributor to homelessness is, says it’s the fact that you can work a full-time, minimum-wage job and not be able to afford basic food, clothing, shelter.

It seems like this should be fairly self-evident, but apparently it’s not quite clear to many solid citizens who have the good fortune to be employed and housed. If people have jobs, they buy stuff. They are magically transformed into customers.

Why can’t merchants and housed citizens learn to see homeless people as potential customers? After all, America did something that would not have been imaginable in the 1960s. We managed the mind-bending feat of learning how to see the Red Chinese as potential customers. (Unfortunately, the noble experiment of normalizing relations with China turned out somewhat differently than envisioned. We buy a bunch of crap from them.) But the point is, compared to that great leap of imagination, picturing homeless Americans as people who might actually go into stores and spend money ought to be easy.

So, Austin, what are you doing about hiring the homeless for this ambitious, multi-staged, multi-million-dollar project? And then, there’s this. Check out the contractor’s name on the Conceptual Profile of the tunnel: Kellogg Brown & Root. Yes, KBR of Iraq war, military-contractor fame. Considering the outrageous pile of money the company has made from that adventure, how about a little reciprocation, on this tunnel project?

I challenge the contractors involved in the Waller Creek Project to use Veterans, Homeless Veterans and Formerly Homeless Veterans to make up 51% of the employed people involved in the construction of this project.
Richard R.Troxell
Viet Nam Veteran- Marines

Reactions?

Source: “Private conservancy outlines plan to rescue, revive Waller Creek,” The Statesman, 04/27/11
Source: “Money Flows to Waller Creek,” The Austin Chronicle, 02/25/11
Source: “DAA Proposes New Anti-Solicitation Ordinance,” The Austin Chronicle, 10/09/09
Image of Conceptual Tunnel Profile, used under Fair Use: Reporting.

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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.

1

Homeless Women Especially Vulnerable to Violence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reactions?

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

1

Austin Fire Creates Homelessness

fireIn Austin, Texas, Michael Weathers has been charged with arson (another report says felony reckless endangerment) for a fire that burned up 100 acres, causing severe damage to 10 houses and minor damage to six more. Dwellings have been destroyed, and people have been rendered… homeless.

This is a tragedy. Fire is one of the cruelest things that can happen in a person’s life, and its repercussions can last for years, forever. Weathers turned himself in, which is more than a lot of white-collar criminals have ever had the guts to do. How many homeless families are created by one corrupt mortgage company? How many bankers go to prison?

Weathers left the hot coals of a dying campfire unattended and went to buy beer. In a story already causing a great outcry, that’s the perfect detail to tip public sentiment over into virulence. Now it seems as if the reaction to one man’s dreadful mistake threatens to develop into something like a pogrom. That’s a strong word, but it does imply the organized persecution of a group of people, and in that sense it fits. As Andrea Ball, a philanthropy blogger for the Austin American-Statesman, expresses it,

The debate about Austin’s homeless is about to get very ugly.

Yes, the fire was intentionally set, and that is an element of the crime of arson, despite the fact that there was no intention to destroy anything. Yes, the man who did it should be held accountable. But when you’ve got local citizens who think it’s appropriate to talk about using the homeless “for target practice,” as one online commentator recommended, you’ve got a problem. The reporter says,

Austin’s homeless population already causes plenty of outrage amongst neighbors frustrated with the noise, garbage and disruptive behavior stemming from homeless camps in the greenbelt and other wooded areas. Advocates say the problem stems from a lack of affordable housing and other services to help the homeless.

Well, duh! Homelessness results from a lack of housing, that seems pretty obvious. Also, from expecting people who don’t even have facilities to wash themselves or their clothes, to get out there and function like high-powered yuppies. And from about a hundred other factors, none of which are helped by generating an atmosphere of fear and rejection. But even so, the issue has more sides than a pomegranate has seeds. This point was brought up by Statesman reader Mary Ellen King:

Even if affordable housing is an option as suggested in the article, many of them suffer from mental illness and will rarely sleep in shelters when afforded the opportunity.

So housing isn’t the only answer. To go along with walls and roofs, what we need is a society that cares for its members. For the mentally ill, there has to be some happy medium between the old way (incarceration in grim state institutions) and the new way (life on the streets.) Isn’t there a country somewhere on earth where this situation is handled? And if so, why aren’t we learning from that country and following its example?

Ball passed along one report of a large bonfire being irresponsibly built in the recent past, and she has learned that hundreds of people camp in the county’s wooded areas. Maybe a small percentage prefer the al fresco life. Probably, most would prefer not to be there. But what else can they to do? The Salvation Army shelter has space for 259 bodies. At the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, there are only 100 beds. These have to be won by nightly lottery. The rest of the “beds” are 3 inch thick mats that one has to vie for in a second lottery.

ARCH is said to turn away as many as 50 people on a bad night. Lottery losers are turned out into the cold where they face “Quality of Life” ordinances such as no sitting, no sleeping and no camping. And now, because of the drought, the authorities have understandably announced a zero-tolerance policy toward open flames. Violation of the burn ban carries a $500 fine, and good luck on collecting it from a homeless person.

Police officers have begun visiting local homeless camps, urging them not to have campfires or open flames of any kind. In the department’s south district, officers were talking to people in the 35 to 40 known homeless camps and those panhandling at busy intersections.

As President of House the Homeless, Richard R. Troxell sent an email to colleagues that said,

Perhaps it was carelessness or perhaps it was a gust of wind that blew up from a dead still as it did in my presence just 5 minutes ago. The state of Texas is in a high fire condition. One and one half million acres have burned this year already… We all need to help one another and everyone is innocent until proven guilty either of arson or even carelessness.

Debbie Russell contributed this to the discussion:

So far I’ve not seen our community leaders lash out; but plenty of haters are doing so on online forums. I hope our leaders resist catering to the call for homeless-blood. One person is accused here; not a whole community. This is an isolated accident, not indicative of a practice of a group… To embark on a large-scale “sweep” campaign (as we have done already, in different areas of town like Waller Creek and on the camps) in an attempt to “solve” the “problem” would be wholly irresponsible of us… I’m REALLY hoping we can contain the knee-jerk urge to vilify all homeless people because of the act of one careless individual… Attacking the homeless is not the way to solve public safety issues. EVER.

Mellower Austinites suggest that this is a good opportunity to increase general awareness of homelessness, because it would be helpful to understand how people get in this position. Well, one of the ways they become homeless is when their house burns down because a fire was started in a nearby homeless camp. In other words, homelessness is a societal force that tends to grow exponentially. It’s like a snowball rollin’ down the side of a snow-covered hill.

One person’s story is that she let a homeless relative move in, which was against the terms of her government-sponsored housing lease, so she got evicted, and now she too is homeless. A young person’s story is that his homeless uncle moved into the family’s garage, and kept cornering him with sinister intent when nobody else was around. So he hit the road, and now there’s one more teenage runaway with an alley for a rec room. Homelessness begets homelessness.

So, yeah, understanding is good. Doing something is better. Now more than ever, Richard R. Troxell and House the Homeless urge the adoption of the Universal Living Wage. Richard says,

If we work together and house the homeless, then we dissolve the scenario. If local businesses paid fair living wages then 1/2 of the folks experiencing homelessness can work themselves off our streets and out of our woods. It’s not just up to the taxpayers to solve homelessness. We all share in the outcome. We’re all members of this community.

Reactions?

Source: “Oak Hill fire, arson and the homeless,” Charity Chat (Austin American-Statesman), 04/18/11
Source: “Police spread word of outdoor fire ban to homeless,” Austin American-Statesman, 04/18/11
Image by Jelle S. (Jelle), used under its Creative Commons license.

3

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.

0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reactions?

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