Posted on May 12, 2011 by Pat Hartman
In 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!
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.
Posted on May 10, 2011 by Pat Hartman
In 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.
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.
Posted on May 3, 2011 by Pat Hartman
Posted on April 28, 2011 by Pat Hartman
In the United States over the past three decades, we have seen the invention of many new crimes (Driving While Hispanic, Voting While Black, Flying While Muslim, etc.) that are not officially on the books. But they are all too real for the people caught up in them. One of the new crimes is, apparently, Breathing While Homeless.
Check out this Executive Summary from the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH). Its full title is “A Dream Denied: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities.” The numbers it utilized are a few years old, but if anyone imagines that things have improved since then, we have a nice bridge to sell them. (The bridge comes ready-equipped with a used tarpaulin, several sheets of prime cardboard, and… well, that’s all, actually.)
Depending on location, the statistics on people experiencing homelessness, and on available shelter space, may fluctuate. But the tendency to make homelessness a law enforcement problem continues to change for the worse. The authors of this report studied laws and practices in 224 cities and concluded,
This trend includes measures that target homeless persons by making it illegal to perform life-sustaining activities in public.
It mentions activities we have discussed on this blog, such as sitting, sleeping, camping, cooking, eating, or begging in public places. Of course, most cities figure out quickly that a two-pronged approach works best. Go after the people experiencing homelessness, AND go after the people who try to help, such as organizations that provide food. Here are some of the measures that have been taken by municipalities in the Orwellian name of “Quality of Life,” according to the NCH report:
* Legislation that makes it illegal to sleep, sit, or store personal belongings in public spaces in cities where people are forced to live in public spaces;
* Selective enforcement of more neutral laws, such as loitering or open container laws, against homeless persons;
* Sweeps of city areas where homeless persons are living to drive them out of the area, frequently resulting in the destruction of those persons’ personal property, including important personal documents and medication; and
* Laws that punish people for begging or panhandling to move poor or homeless persons out of a city or downtown area.
There are of course numerous civil rights issues. Laws against vagrancy and loitering have always been constitutionally shaky, especially when the exact same behavior is accepted if the miscreant has a home where the police can tell them to go. (At Venice Beach, California, there used to be a street guy with a great line. If some tourist or local resident offended him, he would yell like a scolding parent, “Go to your room!”)
When a homeless person’s belongings are searched, or seized and arbitrarily destroyed, that’s Fourth Amendment territory. Begging for spare change just might be protected under the First Amendment. Then you’ve got the Eight Amendment, the one concerning cruel and unusual punishment, which applies when a person is accused of the heinous crime of sleeping.
So, what is accomplished by anti-homeless laws? They move people away from the centers, usually located in the inner city, where services such as food and job counseling are available. They make getting to these places even more difficult for people who must depend on buses (if they are lucky) or their own power of walking, to get around. Restrictive ordinances award thousands of homeless people with criminal records, as if they needed any more strikes against them in their efforts to emerge from the bottom layer of society. And the price of incarceration — don’t get us started. Jail is two or three times as expensive as supportive housing.
And then, there’s the little matter of international law. Our nation has signed on to global human rights agreements, prescribing humane treatment of people experiencing homelessness, which is fine for other countries but which we ourselves apparently don’t feel compelled to honor.
The report also offers some rays of light in a section called “Constructive Alternatives to Criminalization,” which is full of good ideas that have been either tried or contemplated by various localities. It offers helpful recommendations for the benefit of city governments, business groups, and the legal system, in dealing with these issues. Answers are proposed for both the chronic homeless, and the working poor or “economic homeless,” those who are unable to afford basic housing even though they have jobs.
However, House the Homeless has one big idea that would pretty much cover everything, and take away the need for each city to figure it out for themselves. It’s called the Universal Living Wage, and it will end homelessness for over 1,000,000 minimum-wage workers, and prevent economic homelessness for all 10.1 million minimum wage workers. You can also find out all about it in Richard R. Troxell’s book, Looking Up at the Bottom Line.
Source: “A Dream Denied: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities,” NationalHomeless.org
Image by quinn.anya (Quinn Dombrowski), used under its Creative Commons license.
Posted on April 21, 2011 by Pat Hartman
In 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.
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.
Posted on April 19, 2011 by Pat Hartman
A lot of people have been writing about homelessness lately, and they fall into categories. In one group are the people who are chronically or temporarily homeless, telling their own stories from first-hand experience. We have talked about Becky Blanton, who spoke at the prestigious TEDGlobal conference in 2009 on the topic, “The year I was homeless.”
Because people experiencing homelessness form friendships and relationships just like anybody else, the writer might also tell stories of street comrades. For instance, Ace Backwords has been for many years the chronicler of the lives of Berkeley’s legendary street characters, like Blue, Talon, and Hate Man, “your typical, dress-wearing, former New York Times-reporting, hatred-spewing, homeless freak,” who is actually one of the nicest people you’d ever want to know.
Then, there are the objective reportorial types, journalists, bloggers, and allies who gather and then disseminate the stories of others. We have mentioned B. N. Duncan, longtime recorder of homeless lives in both words and photographs. Then there are the subjective reporters, who are not actually homeless themselves but who enter that world in order to bring back stories and publicize them, in hopes of raising public awareness. We’ll have more to say about them another time.
Today’s spotlight focuses on Brianna Karp, a native Southern Californian who started working at age ten, apparently because nobody else in her family was able to. All she ever wanted was to grow up to be a solid citizen, employed and home-owning. But it didn’t turn out the way she had planned — at least, not for long..
Karp had what anybody would call a good job, not that it mattered once she had been laid off. Only executives get those multi-million-dollar golden parachutes. The average employed person is just “let go” like a like an enemy spy shoved out of a helicopter over the ocean — bound, blindfolded, and with no parachute of any hue. Karp was luckier than many, and acknowledges it:
The company that I worked for was enormously kind and fair to each and every one of us, and compensated us well with a severance package, so I was OK for a while.
Thanks to that lucky break, and by scrambling for every possible opportunity to make a few bucks, Karp remarkably managed to delay her transition from housed to homeless for an entire half-year. But, inevitably, harsh exigency caught up. Because of another tragedy — the suicide of its owner — a travel trailer came into her possession and she set up a tenuous base from which to try and rebuild her life. Introducing her book, The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness, Karp says,
I am an educated woman with stable employment and residence history. I have never done drugs. I am not mentally ill. I am a career executive assistant –- coherent, opinionated, poised, and capable. If you saw me walking down the street, you wouldn’t have assumed that I lived in a parking lot. In short, I was just like you — except without the convenience of a permanent address.
Reviewed in Publisher’s Weekly and featured by TV shows, The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness was also written about by prominent author Augusten Burroughs in these words,
Brianna Karp is the perfect example of how a person can triumph not in spite of adversity but as a direct result of it. This smart, pragmatic young woman takes us inside the new face of homelessness in America and her dramatic memoir guides us through our assumptions, fears and judgment into a place of understanding, compassion and respect. Truly essential reading.
Once reestablished in the world of the housed and employed, Karp has not forgotten her desperate days, but wishes to help others cope, and to extend hope to people experiencing homelessness.
Here’s an idea that could change the landscape: the Universal Living Wage, which can end homelessness for over 1,000,000 minimum-wage workers, and prevent economic homelessness for all 10.1 million minimum wage workers. Please learn more about the Universal Living Wage and how to make it a reality.
Source: The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness by Brianna Karp
Source: “Where It All Began,” GirlsGuidetoHomelessness.com
Source: “Reviews,” GirlsGuidetoHomelessness.com
Image by PJFurlong06 (Patrick Furlong), used under its Creative Commons license.