Archive for the ‘Homelessness’ Category

Don’t Try This At – um

A recycling container makes a poor substitute for a roof; sometimes it can be deadly.

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Thomas Jansen and his wife Susan were killed when the container they were sleeping in was dumped and compacted.

What officials figured was the start of a mystery in Arizona turned out instead to be the end of a mystery in Missouri.

A man found dead among recycled paper in Snowflake, Ariz., last week was identified late Monday as Thomas Jansen, who had been missing since his wife was found dead May 24 in a recycling center in St. Louis.

Police said they are surer than ever the two were asleep in a recycling collection bin outside a south St. Louis County church earlier that day when a truck emptied and compacted the contents.

The homeless couple’s injuries were consistent with that explanation, and there was no sign of foul play, county police said.

Susan Jansen had visited the church, St. Johns Evangelical United Church of Christ at Lindbergh Boulevard and Interstate 55, several times asking for money for a motel, but the church only offers food vouchers. “I did feel bad,” said Pat Bock, the church office manager.

Just a comment on my last post. These people were recently homeless – they would not have qualified for any help from a chronically homeless project.

It also shows the difficultes with purely faith-based social nets. Sometimes the fish don’t get caught.

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Controlling the Count

In addition to his Global War on Terror, George W. Bush also started an initiative to end homelessness. According to his own 2004 “Record of Achievement” (after that they apparently stopped recording and perhaps started shredding):

  • In 2003, the Bush Administration announced the largest amount of homeless assistance in history, $1.27 billion to fund 3,700 local housing and service programs around the country.
  • President Bush has proposed the Samaritan Initiative, a new $70 million program to provide supportive services and housing for chronically homeless individuals.
  • The Interagency Council on Homelessness has been revitalized, bringing together 20 Federal agencies to coordinate efforts to end chronic homelessness in 10 years.

Now, this is all fine and good. I am a big supporter of Housing First initiatives (placing the “chronically homeless” in permanent housing) because I really think they help the overall homeless situation. But, there are a couple problems with these kinds of large, centralized programs. The first is that the larger number of “temporary homeless” seem to be lost in the rush to fund housing first projects and second, the number of homeless becomes an important political signpost showing how well a local government is doing.

I don’t have much to say about the first point. I would prefer to point to the excellent article by Violet Law (what a great name!) at the National Housing Institute. Her piece looks at the trade offs between focusing primarily on housing first and taking a slightly more balanced approach.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), a “chronically homeless person” is an individual who has been without a home for at least one year and is diagnosed with mental illness or drug or alcohol addiction. Housing First focuses on serving this segment of the homeless population.

While the cities that have adopted Housing First have reported a reduction in their chronic homeless population by the hundreds or even thousands in the last decade, homeless advocates are increasingly alarmed that this solution, executed with little increase in federal funding, is threatening to short-change other homeless populations, such as families with children and teenagers who have aged out of foster care, in favor of one narrowly defined group. “We wish [the Bush administration] had picked up the whole agenda of ending homelessness for all,” says Nan Roman, president and chief executive officer of the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH).
[…]
While the benefits of permanent housing programs are manifest, some advocates for the homeless are increasingly speaking out against the Bush administration’s position that Housing First is the panacea for ending homelessness-especially now that ICH and the administration are seeking to reauthorize the McKinney-Vento Act, which was, in 1986, the first piece of federal legislation to address homelessness. The administration’s draft version of the reauthorized legislation calls for making permanent the Samaritan bonus-the current incentive to provide permanent housing for the chronically homeless. Those who oppose this incentive charge that the singular focus on the chronically homeless population is at best a misguided effort to solve the complexities of homelessness by defining it too narrowly and simplistically. Some opponents of the administration’s proposed reauthorization bill, mostly from the National Coalition to End Homelessness, support competing legislation introduced in Congress in February, the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing (HEARTH) Act, which they say would allocate homeless assistance funding in a more balanced manner.

Now. I am not exactly a homelessness activist, I do try to keep my self informed. I am also a self-admitted statistics geek. Therefore imagine my surprise when Carl Bialik, the WSJ’s Numbers Guy, combined both in a post discussing the brouhaha in New York City over this years homelessness count. NYC pegged the number of homeless at 3,755 dropping from 3,843 in 2006 and 4,395 in 2005. So, things appear to be looking up.

Not so fast Bat Man! Apparently one of the researchers involved in the count resigned because he felt they were undercounting.

Once each winter, the New York City government sends thousands of volunteers into the streets and subways to count the number of people who are homeless. The goal is to get a sense of how well the city is doing at alleviating the most severe kind of homelessness, which could be deadly on a frigid night.

This year, the January count produced an estimate of 3,755 unsheltered homeless people. (The city’s Department of Homeless Services trumpeted the findings in a press release, reporting the count was down 15% from two years earlier.)

But Julien Teitler, an associate professor of social work and sociology at Columbia University who was hired by the city to assist in its count, disputed the city’s total. Prof. Teitler recently told the New York Times that city officials were “arbitrarily adjusting” figures in a way that would produce a lower count.

Bialik based his report partially on the information from a New York Times article highlighting the problems with the study. The dispute is over the method involving decoys to test whether volunteers are correctly counting; a quality control check if you will.

Under Dr. Hopper’s direction, Columbia recruited dozens of “decoys” to go to the same areas and stations as the volunteers. The decoys posed as homeless people.

The volunteers were instructed to ask people who were lingering on the street, in parks or in the subways or if they had a place to spend the night — unless the people were asleep, in which case they were not to be disturbed.

Decoys, if questioned by the volunteers, were instructed to identify themselves and to give the volunteers stickers to record their locations. Otherwise, the decoys were instructed merely to keep track of whether they saw the volunteers pass by.

By keeping track of the number of decoys in a given area and comparing that to the number of decoys actually found, one can estimate how many homeless were missed in a given area. The problem stems from how one actually counts the decoys.

Unless some stupid statistics professor shows up and claims that you need to adjust the numbers up. Dr. Teitler has discontinued his involvement over the process because he feels the decoys aren’t being used correctly. His method would increase the current value to 4,039 homeless.

So this is just about 250 people right? Not exactly.

For me the real meat of the NYT article wasn’t about the statistics, but the politics.

New York City is three years into a five-year “action plan” announced by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg to end chronic homelessness and reduce the street population by two-thirds, all by April 2009. The results so far are mixed. The number of homeless adults in city shelters has fallen noticeably since 2004, but the number of homeless families is at a record high.

So it came as welcome news on May 2 when the city announced that the third annual Homeless Outreach Population Estimate had shown a slight decrease in unsheltered homeless people.
[…]
The city’s Department of Homeless Services said the estimate “shows the city is on track” to meeting the goal of reducing unsheltered homelessness by two-thirds.

Oh! So if you are on track and you are managing the Department of Homeless Services you are doing a good job. You might even get a promotion some day. No reason to want lower number right?So there is no reason to worry. The government has everything under control.

Well. Everything but the numbers.

The Path Leading to a Laneway

Anya Peters is both a very strong person and a someone who has a very long journey both behind and ahead of her.

She first came to my attention through her blog, WanderingScribe about her life, living alone, in her car on at the end of a lane somewhere in England. It was well written, moving and extremely powerful. I have written about her before.

abandoned-anya-peters1.jpgHer book, Abandoned, the Story about a Little Girl Who Didn’t Belong, finally came out at the beginning of the month and I was literally unable to put it down. What I expected was a little background about how she had ended up at the end of her rope and more about what her writing had given her. What I got was an amazingly powerfully written book about how she came to believe that there was no help; there was no one to turn to; no one she could trust. Worse she felt she didn’t deserve any help. It is a story of child abuse, mental, physical and sexual, of abandonment, and eventually betrayal. It is the story of one child’s torturous journey to adulthood.

There were times when the book was amazingly difficult to read, Peters does not hide what goes on behind a smokescreen of innuendo. She clearly and bluntly tells the reader what it is like to be sexually abused before she even understands what is happening. When the abuse is finally exposed, her worst nightmares come to pass, she is separated from the woman she feels is her mother. It is heartbreaking – you will cry.

The tale of abuse explains how she ends up living in her car and to how she came to write a blog. In contrast to the first part of the book, this part is told almost breathlessly, as if it were only half remembered. The tale of her childhood is etched upon her very being. But the struggle to exist once she became homeless – the stress, the cold, the worry, the shame – all conspired to force her to live day to day and to concentrate not on self-reflection, but on survival.

For those interested in the day to day story of how she survived, those tales can be found not in the book but in the blog. It is a tale everyone should also read.

On a personal note, reading this book reminded me of something I have heard Richard Dawkins say repeatedly; that religious education is a form of child abuse. It would be nice if someone would send this book to him. I understand his rhetoric, he wants to shock. But in doing so he merely harms his own cause by belittling the real damage, the absolute hate, that occurs during child abuse. It is one of the reasons I find Dawkins so objectionable. Anyone who reads this book will realise the rage I feel when I hear Richard Dawkins relate religion with child abuse – it is not.

I urge everyone to order this book. Peters has a long journey ahead of her. She must readjust not only to day to day living, the commonplace ecstasy felt simply when standing barefoot on a carpeted floor holding a warm cup of tea, not only the struggle to find a job and healthy companionship. She must learn to trust herself; not to look into her own soul to try to determine what she did wrong, but to accept that others have harmed her.

To get a taste of her writing, you should read her reaction to seeing her book for the first time in a shop. It is very indicative of how she writes,

It was the weirdest thing. I think my heart stopped at least two beats.

I’ve had a copy of that cover pinned to the noticeboard in my room for months now, and it’s here on the blog as well, so the image on the front of the book is very familiar to me by now. But in the shop today, seeing it there for the first time — and a day too soon! — for a moment I was completely disorientated and just stared up at it frowning, thinking ‘what’s that doing there?’ I recognised it as my book, but, for a split second that’s all I did, just recognised it as mine — a possession, something belonging to me. It was almost as if I had left my own copy — which just happened to be in my bag at the time — there on the shelf by mistake. ‘How did that get there?’ my head was trying to say, as my hand almost got ready to grab it off the shelf and put it back into my bag. As soon as my head caught up and I realised why it was there I turned and left the shop without even taking it down to look at it. Very, very odd reaction.

But it’s there, my life in a book on a bookshelf somewhere, and it’s bizarre seeing it, but I was right: it doesn’t belong to me anymore, it’s somebody else’s book now. My life is just a story now, out there with all the other stories. And hopefully now, at long, long last, I can finally be free of it and move on.

I hope she can move on and I wish her the very best of luck.

She is an excellent author and sounds like a wonderful person.

Signs for the Times

Mark Daye, a 4th year graphic design student at OCAD in Toronto, decided to integrate learning, design and social activism. The results are wonderful.

Instead of rebranding a product, or service for my 4th year thesis project I chose to represent a local population that usually gets overlooked. I re-coded official signage and affixed 30 of them to poles in the downtown core with messages pertaining to an obvious but ignored urban sub culture. The goal was not only to catch people off guard by creating signs that acknowledge the homeless population on a seemingly official level, but to get people to think about codes of behaviour, conformity, acceptance and to maybe spare some consideration for the homeless who live mostly ignored in the city, blending into the background just like the signs.

Pictures here and more information here and here.

Quantifying Suffering

It was a warm, summer evening in August 2006 as authorities in Denver attempted to finally get a grasp on a problem that is almost impossible to measure – homelessness.

One of the biggest problems, both in helping the homeless and in combating the effects of homelessness (the militancy of language often determined by the effect of homelessness on personal economic security or worldview of the author) is in determining whether any measure actually helps or hurts in the long run.

Any ‘project’ to help the homeless usually has at least one of three objectives. The first aim is purely individual, an attempt to get that person or family off the streets and ideally into a situation where they will neither be homeless nor threatened by it. The second goal is at a community level. Not even the most dedicated social worker can truthfully deny the negative effects that homelessness has on the areas where it is concentrated. Finally the economic consequences, not only the direct impact on city budgets, but the indirect effects on health care systems, law enforcement efforts and tax bases, are usually targeted for improvement.

But one of the biggest problems with homelessness is merely getting a handle on the numbers. In order to know whether any project has been successful, there needs to be a metric to measure that success. While it might be easy to determine the current city budget for dealing with homeless issues, other factors are far more difficult to quantify.

By definition, it is impossible to find the homeless at any given address because they move from shelter to shelter; find and lose housing; migrate from place to place. The yearly cost to hospitals and health care clinics, the reduction in property values, the necessary personal needed in ambulance and security services to handle the load are almost impossible to determine.

An additional issue is that homelessness, while extremely personal at one level, is not merely a local issue. Rousting the homeless from the local park does not automatically place those individuals in housing and gainful employment; they have simply moved to the next city or county where the current measures are less restrictive.

It was against this background that the Colorado Interagency Council on Homelessness (CICH) decided to try a more comprehensive approach at finding out how many homeless there are, who these people are and how they might be helped. In order to avoid inaccuracies involved in earlier studies, this survey was carried out state wide with the support of numerous agencies and volunteers. Surveys have a tendency to undercount the homeless because many people without a permanent place of residence are either staying with relatives or “couch-surfing” with friends. But in order to reduce double counting and increase accuracy, the Colorado survey was carried out in a single 24-hour period.

The results were revealing.

On August 28, 2006 an estimated 16,203 people were homeless in the state of Colorado; this against an estimated 2005 population of over 4.6 million. The number of homeless includes families, women in domestic violence shelters and estimates of unsheltered homeless. A disproportionally high percentage of these people were minorities.

Children and teens make up approximately one-third of Colorado homeless with six in ten homeless a member of a family with children. In addition, one quarter of the unsheltered homeless are families with children and most newly homeless are women with children.

Half of the all respondents to the survey had one or more of the following disabilities: serious mental illness, serious medical or physical condition, alcohol or drug abuse, developmental disability, or HIV/AIDS. Nevertheless of the reasons given for homelessness, housing related costs, loss of job and at least one serious disabling condition were mentioned.

Almost two-thirds of the homeless mentioned that either they or another family member needed a service they could not obtain – it is perhaps obvious that the most commonly mentioned was permanent housing.

Of the over sixteen thousand homeless, one in ten were chronically homeless with the majority being male. Men and households without children were more likely to have experienced several episodes of homelessness in the last three years.

This type of survey is only one step towards rationally approaching a solution to homelessness. As opposed to “solving the problem” by legislating the homeless to hunger like the Las Vegas mayor attempted or a radical cleansing of Skid Row like Los Angeles is staging, knowing where the problems are and finding long term appropriate solutions, while not fast and perhaps not achievable during a four year political term, is the only way to reduce suffering at the lowest level of our society.

Colorado has taken a first step in trying to fix the problem. One can only hope that the current efforts are not undercut when the problem becomes less visible and thus funding to support systems slashed from the budget.

It would be interesting to compare these numbers with a survey taken in January, a month without jobs in construction and farming. A month forcing people out of cars and vans and into shelters. But maybe next time.

But solving these problems is an important way to ease suffering in America today. And at less then one-half of a percent of the total population of Colorado is it too much to ask that this suffering be relieved.

A level of suffering that until recently, wasn’t even appropriately counted.

Apple pie and power-law policies

It has often been said that one bad apple spoils the bunch.

In 2004, when the scandal surrounding the Abu Ghiraib prison scandal broke, the idea that the problem was not endemic, but merely a few soldiers who got out of control in an unfortunately understaffed and poorly supervised environment was not difficult for the public to believe.

During the 2006 elections, the implosion of Mark Foley’s career for inappropriate behaviour with congressional pages, was declaimed to be, not an official Republican party position, but rather a unfortunate exception; a case that had fallen through the cracks. Nevertheless, not even the bluest Democrat, while simultaneously sickened by the facts and amused by late night pundits, really thought that the entire Republican party had collapsed into a den of pederasts.

In both of these cases, the broader American public had no problem accepting the fact that not all American soldiers were abusing Iraqi prisoners and not all Republican congressmen were making passes at pages. But the public did demand a change in the system to avoid these kinds of cases in the future. Unfortunately in both these cases, the changes, while they might add a couple of jobs in an office of oversite or a new level of bureaucracy, it is doubtful that abuses will be permanently avoided.

But these two cases do have something in common. Both are examples, not of a global average behaviour, but of something completely off the scale. Humans usually think in terms of averages and bell curves, most people lie somewhere in the middle between two extremes. But in some cases, it is obvious that the curve doesn’t work that way.

These cases sometimes follow what is called a power law rule. Most of the data is absolutely normal. Only a few very few cases are exceptional. Sometimes, the fact that the curve isn’t bell shaped is far from obvious.

In an excellent article for the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell describes one case where this problem is highlighted, homelessness. He describes the homeless problem based on research done by a graduate student in the 1990’s. His research changed the way people started to approach the issue of homeless.

In the nineteen-eighties, when homelessness first surfaced as a national issue, the assumption was that the problem fit a normal distribution: that the vast majority of the homeless were in the same state of semi-permanent distress. It was an assumption that bred despair: if there were so many homeless, with so many problems, what could be done to help them? Then, fifteen years ago, a young Boston College graduate student named Dennis Culhane lived in a shelter in Philadelphia for seven weeks as part of the research for his dissertation. A few months later he went back, and was surprised to discover that he couldn’t find any of the people he had recently spent so much time with. “It made me realize that most of these people were getting on with their own lives,” he said.

Culhane then put together a database—the first of its kind—to track who was coming in and out of the shelter system. What he discovered profoundly changed the way homelessness is understood. Homelessness doesn’t have a normal distribution, it turned out. It has a power-law distribution. “We found that eighty per cent of the homeless were in and out really quickly,” he said. “In Philadelphia, the most common length of time that someone is homeless is one day. And the second most common length is two days. And they never come back. Anyone who ever has to stay in a shelter involuntarily knows that all you think about is how to make sure you never come back.”

The next ten per cent were what Culhane calls episodic users. They would come for three weeks at a time, and return periodically, particularly in the winter. They were quite young, and they were often heavy drug users. It was the last ten per cent—the group at the farthest edge of the curve—that interested Culhane the most. They were the chronically homeless, who lived in the shelters, sometimes for years at a time. They were older. Many were mentally ill or physically disabled, and when we think about homelessness as a social problem—the people sleeping on the sidewalk, aggressively panhandling, lying drunk in doorways, huddled on subway grates and under bridges—it’s this group that we have in mind.

The article goes on to describe a project in Denver targeting not the general homeless population but the perceived problem of homelessness. This program targets what can be considered the classic ‘bum,’ the chronically homeless. But the idea is so strange, so anti-intuitive, that one could only imagine it coming from the pen of a radical socialist. But oddly one of the programs biggest proponents, not just in Denver, but nation wide, is George W. Bush.

The idea for solving the ‘problem’ of homelessness is simple. Give the homeless homes – for free, no strings attached. Apartments paid for by the government and supervised by a legion of social workers. Indeed, if chronically homeless drift off due to alcohol or drug excesses or they lose the apartment for some other reason; you give them another one, and another one. The Denver program is part of the nationwide effort, spearheaded by the administration, called the “Interagency Council on Homelessness

And at first blush, the idea sounds economically foolish. But here the data differs from the perception. The problem is that the chronically homeless, often mentally ill or physically disabled, create a disproportionate load on public support services, police, ambulance services or hospitals. The costs of incarceration, detoxification or medical care can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. Increasingly, social workers, activists and politicians have targeted these individuals to achieve visible results in the ‘war against homelessness.’ As a matter of fact, in a recent report summing up the results of Denver’s “Housing first collaborative” show exactly how much money can be saved.

This program doesn’t apply to all homeless; it is focused only on the chronically homeless and the lists are long for people to enter the program.

And of course in a meritocracy, the idea that one gives the most care to those who are the worst and don’t seem capable of self improvement seems odd. Until now most programs had required that the person become clean or dry or even get a job as a prerequisite for help with housing. While well meaning, many of these programs failed simply because the barrier was too high.

But back to the idea of refusing help to those who cannot help themselves. Societies have given up the idea of killing deformed babies, literally throwing them to the wolves; we care and nurture these children and adults even if it is obvious that they will never develop into productive individuals. But it is an anathema that an otherwise undamaged individual might not be able to survive the complexities of modern society; perhaps more than willing to work hard but unable to accept success; an individual fleeing as much from self hate as from society and reality. But these people need to learn to heal themselves, to bootstrap themselves into a community that arguably usually would never accept who they are.

Finally there is another hidden threat in this kind of program. The goal of the program is twofold, reduce spending on homeless programs and reduce the amount of ‘visible’ homelessness.

While both of these goals are laudable, one of the largest segments in the homeless population are not the truly homeless, but what I call the ‘roofless,’ those persons without a roof over their heads for a day, or a week or a month. The cause for this kind of situation is simple – money. One only needs to read Barbara Ehrenbach’s book Nickel and Dimed to understand how close many people are to just losing their grip on what is considered one of the basest rights, a roof over their heads.

It would be nice to imagine a country that would channel any money saved on caring for the chronically homeless into projects protecting and preventing ‘rooflessness.’ Unfortunately, the hospitals will no longer need to book the losses and will improve profit margins; cities will be able to point to improved innercity living areas and mayors will be able to reduce or eliminate spending in sectors where the money is still necessary, especially if the problem becomes less visible.

And even effective programs like “Housing First”, such as the one in Denver, are being threatened by a loss of funding in several years. From the Denver Housing First Collalition report

The DHFC was initially funded through a unique collaboration of federal funding partners. These agencies committed three years of funding for services and five years funding for housing. However, the expectation was that continuation funding would be obtained at the local or state level. The project has had numerous discussions with potential funders. However, as of this date, full continuation funding has not been secured. It is critical that such funding be found in order to continue the important work of the collaborative and to help meet Denver’s goal of ending homelessness in ten years.

Thus, the idea that good ideas survive funding issues and political infighting is just pie in the sky.

But nevertheless, it would just be nice if, in the interests of patriotism, in the interests of Americans helping Americans, indeed, increasingly, in the interests of Americans helping Veterans, that the pie in the sky is made of apples.

No Time For Adventures

Imagine the President talking about Homelessness on New Years. Not George – Jacques – Jacques Chirac. This from the International Herald Tribune,

Dozens of otherwise well-housed, middle-class French people have been spending nights in tents along the canal in solidarity with the country’s growing number of “sans domicile fixe,” the French euphemism for people living on the street.

The bleak yet determinedly cheerful sleep-in is meant to embarrass the French government into doing something about the problem.

“Each person should have the minimum dignity in a country as rich as this,” said Bleunwenn Manrot, a 28-year-old woman with a newsboy cap on her head and a toothbrush in her hand. Manrot drove more than six hours with friends from her home in Carhaix, Brittany, to spend New Year’s Eve along the canal.

The demonstration has drawn enough media attention over the holidays for President Jacques Chirac to acknowledge it Sunday during his traditional New Year’s address to the nation. He asked the government to work in the coming weeks to “put in place a truly enforceable right to housing” that would give the homeless the legal means to demand a place to live.

Interesting are the statistics. The article goes on to mention the factoid that in France there were a total of about 86,000 “people living without a fixed address” in all of France. This is approximately equal to the total number of homeless in Los Angeles. I call this a factoid because it really doesn’t relay any information. We have to look at the total population in LA or better LA county (approx. 11 million, US Census) and the total French population (approx 61 million, CIA factbook). Thus the homeless rate in France might be around 18% of US levels. But remember, Unlike LA, Paris has almost 20 percent of the French population and probably the highest per capita homelessness in France. If one assumes a population of around 11 million in and around the Ile de France (Institute for Urban Planning and Development of the Paris Ile-De-France Region) than the numbers slide a little closer to the LA score.

Nevertheless, homelessness in America is far worse than in the much more socialist European countries. Both the social pressure and the political response show a far different reaction to homelessness than currently being presented in America.

Kevin Barbieux, the Homeless Guy has an excellent description of what homelessness is like in America right now He has a long post about the Room In The Inn (RITI) shelter program where churches try to make sleeping room available during the winter months.

Last night was Tuesday night, and that always means Cathedral of the Incarnation for Room In The Inn. There just happens to be an article able Cathedral and their RITI program in today’s Tennessean Cathedral is one of the shining jewels of the Room In The Inn (RITI) shelter program. There are some 150 churches providing shelter for the homeless through RITI, each with it’s own gifts and resources. Some are very big churches with thousands of members, and others are very small, with less than 100 churches. So, the experiences at the different churches can vary widely. Sometimes it seems like you’ve entered inauguration ball for the president of the united states, and other times you’ve entered a quiet family dinner. And depending on what kind of person you are, you may have a preference between one or the other. As the bible says, when you do for the poor, you are actually doing for Jesus. So some churches treat you like royalty – yet other churches, not so much. Sometimes the homeless kid around about creating a 5 Star rating system, like triple A has for hotels. The thing that seems to stick out to most homeless people, about what rates a church high on their preferences, is the personal contact they have with the volunteer church members. When the volunteers reach out and treat the homeless like real friends and family, treat them with love and respect, those churches rate higher, regardless of other aspects. A church may serve mediocre food, it may not have shower or laundry facilities, it may not even keep the heat on in the building over night, but with church people surrounding you with love, you can’t go wrong. “How ya feelin’?” “Hows your week been?” “Read any good books lately?” Nothing’s better than being treated like a normal person by people who genuinely care.

He goes on to discuss how the system works from the homeless perspective. Not a terribly appealing prospect. It also details exactly why the homeless always seem to have that annoying cough that some find so disturbing in busses or parks.

For the past several years, support groups have collected and given tents to the homeless in France. (Of course the weather in Europe isn’t even close to most of the winters in the US. Snow has become a rarity and this year in Dortmund there have only been a handful of frost mornings. Yes. It’s that warm.)

Naturally the RITI program is better than nothing. And it is far better than just wishing that the the problem would go away. But even the IDEA of a ‘right to a roof’ would be a neo-con nightmare. Can you picture Bush suggesting something like this? Can you even picture Nancy Pelosi arguing that this might be a good idea?

But Jacques Chirac, the French president did exactly that during his New Years speech. The law is already on the books, but he wants action. He raised homelessness to one of the major campaign issues spurred on by people like this.

No wonder the French didn’t have time for Iraqi adventures. They were too busy trying to solve domestic problems. The Americans found time to invade and rename Freedom Fries. Makes you think doesn’t it.

Light At The End Of The Tunnel

The major newspapers always need a bit of file fluff to fill up the holiday editions. The New York Times chose to run a story about Johnny Five by Manny Fernandez on Christmas Eve.

In a city of lights, Johnny Five lives in the dark. He calls his home a cave, but it is really a kind of dungeon, deep in the crevices below an abandoned train station in the Bronx.
[…]
He has been bitten by bedbugs. A mysterious gray goo clings to the walls. His air shafts are holes the size of a fist. It is stiflingly hot in summer and so cold in winter that a quart of milk freezes in 15 minutes.

He loves it here.

He hates it here.

According to the story John Carbone, called Johnny Five after the robot in the 1986 movie Short Circuit, is in the traditional sense homeless. He doesn’t have a heated apartment, a house or a room. But he does have a place he considers home, an urban cave under a train station.

The accompanying video, obviously filmed during the summer, is well worth spending the 6 minutes watching. It shows the juxtaposition between addiction, homelessness and honesty. It describes Johnny’s place in society. It shows him straddling two worlds. The literally dark, dank world of the homeless and the world of understanding and help. Perhaps his last major human contact is Sister Lauria Fitzgerald, a Catholic nun who has spent twenty years working in the Bronx helping the homeless. She uses Johnny to run errands, help distribute sleeping bags and food to others; she also would like to get him out of his cave.

But I think the demons chasing Johnny will not allow him to accept ‘help’ in the traditional sense. That’s what makes policies attempting to outlaw helping the homeless outside of ‘official’ channels, policies like those in Las Vegas and Orlando, worse than useless. Even though the Las Vegas law was ruled unconstitutional, bans on inofficial are spreading.

But as opposed to the neo-con, Social Darwinist theories, forcing people to ‘buck up’ and ‘fly right’ just isn’t going to solve the issue. As I see it the problem is the people. People who don’t fit. Who hide from life, both hating themselves and the people around them. They do run from their problems, fleeing into the brief comfort provided by substances or faith. Unfortunately, these people, many with limited education and spotty employment records, are no longer acceptable for the kinds of jobs that would have been available even twenty years ago. The number of low income jobs is slowly being eliminated. As the gap between the rich/upper middle class and the lower income brackets widens, only a spotless record will give someone a stable job.

But even that analysis assumes that the person is stable enough to hold the job; stable enough to take medication to treat schizophrenia or borderline disorders; stable enough to overcome the addictions that have taken hold in their lives. It also assumes that the job would pay enough to keep the person clothed, fed and housed and perhaps on the medication necessary to achieve medication. A problem increasingly difficult in today’s society.

But there is hope. Johnny Five is homeless, he smokes crack and is self admittedly schizophrenic. He hears voices, both real and ‘imagined’ but he also raps the Lords prayer. Sister Lauria understands his faith. She also trusts Johnny. But despite years of pleading, she was never able to convince him. Until recently.

Several months ago, Johnny told Sister Lauria he wanted out of the cave. He wanted her to help him find housing. She said it was the first time in the eight years she has known him that he expressed any interest in leaving the cave for good. Before, she said, he would never consider it, despite her begging.

Johnny said he was simply tired. “Old age caught me like a thief in the night,” he said. “My body is not the same.”

Maybe Johnny’s body will finally bring him in from the cold. Maybe he will be able accept and afford the help he needs. Maybe he will have spent his last Christmas in a cave.

I hope for his sake there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Settled Scribe

The WanderingScribe (aka Anya Peters) has finally finished her book.

WanderingScribe is a woman who, after a number of setbacks in her life, ended up living in her car at the end of a forest lane in England. Her position looked fairly hopeless until she started blogging – to have a verbal outlet, to document the process she was going through and to find the company she so desperately needed but was unable to accept in person.

One thing led to another and she was featured on the BBC (with a follow-up), Le Monde and in a New York Times audio feature. This lead to her to getting a book deal with Harper Collins and finally gave her the path out of her lane and back into an apartment and back into society. The BBC article describes the blog and its following very succinctly.

It’s often powerfully written, giving a human face to anonymous suffering, talking about her childhood, her sense of rejection and her struggle to regain her confidence and self-respect.

There is also a close-up view of the daily struggle of homelessness – the fears of sleeping in her car, her small victories in keeping warm, how she cleans her hair in hospital showers and gets discount food in staff canteens.

This blog has produced its own regular readership – people who e-mail when its author doesn’t post the next instalment. And she says that the blog has become an attempt to “keep me sane, and in a way to start to reach out”.

I am sure, were her writings confused or had contained even half the grammatical errors I tend to make, she might never have gotten anywhere. But WanderingScribe is an obviously intelligent, well educated individual who spent several months last year – months that now must seem like a nightmare – living in a car somewhere in England. Not because she wasn’t good enough for anything else, not because she wasn’t smart enough, or because she wasn’t educated enough, but because her inner demons chose not to let her live anywhere else. She is an example of the illusion of a meritocracy so wonderfully taught and nurtured in western societies.

I hope working through this book has helped her dispel some of the monsters in her soul. Perhaps if the book is (at least partially) successful, she can finally lay them permanently to rest. I would recommend reading her blog and I know that I, for one, will definitely be reading the book. You can sign up for advance information about the book here.

Congratulations WanderingSettledScribe. May all your future lanes lead not to forests but to happiness.

Don’t Feed The Homeless In Las Vegas…

…because they might save a life.

The mayor of Las Vegas has a campaign going to try to get the homeless off the streets of Las Vegas. He is trying to change an immutable fact of nature that some people can’t handle the pressures of everyday life. They may not react correctly to everyday situations. But sometimes they react to the extraordinary ones in a manner no one could have predicted.

The AP story via the The Napa Valley Register

[Stan Washburn] saw the 9-year-old girl, who had been waiting across the street with an older woman, suddenly run into the street, straight into the path of a late model Cadillac, Washburn said Monday.

Brakes screamed. So did the older woman. Washburn is sure he could hear the girl, who was being dragged under the car, yelling “No.”

By 2:31 p.m., he and a few inebriated, frail friends picked up the massive car that had trapped the girl under its carriage.

The local station KLAS-TV continues

Half a dozen men lifted the car off of her and set it over to the side. The little girl’s still body came to life. “Yeah, she started crying, like I guess she couldn’t breathe that well and she started crying when they lifted up the car,” said Nicholas Blevins.

Corbin says it took about a minute, but it wasn’t easy, “we didn’t think about that at all, we just grabbed and he put his hand and we just picked it up and thank God whoever was under it is still living.” Corbin says he is unemployed and penniless, but knowing he may have saved a life is all the pay off he needs. “When the ambulance got here, she was still living and that is my money right there.”

Without their help, paramedics would have had to wait precious moments for firefighters to extract the girl before getting her to the hospital. “I am really proud of everyone who stopped. North Las Vegas gets kind of a bad rap sometimes, but everybody stops and helps,” says Ramirez.

Remember, the Las Vegas mayor wants to make it illegal to help the homeless outside of shelters. He would like to get them off the streets. His motives are understandable.

In this case his policies might have resulted in the death of a nine year old child.

(Hat Tip:Kevin Barbieux/TheHomelessGuy)

Might I Recommend A Roadshow?

The LA Times headlines today with a story about the plethora of Thanksgiving dinners being served in and around Los Angeles this week.

Free Thanksgiving dinners for the needy have been an annual event in Los Angeles since 1891, when the Union Rescue Mission began serving them. For nearly a century, though, the holiday meal was dished up on Thanksgiving day itself.

That began changing two decades ago when skid row’s population of both the homeless and homeless service providers began to swell. At about the same time the simple Thanksgiving meal began to outgrow Thanksgiving.

It became a celebrity-drenched event that drew paparazzi, politicians and jazz musicians, who provided entertainment and even foot massages to those who lined up to eat.

After my post from yesterday, I guess this should give me cause for joy. But it doesn’t. I compare that to the news coming out of Las Vegas via MSNBC

Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman is losing the fight over his no feeding the homeless policy. A federal judge struck down the ordinance Monday after complaints from the ACLU. Now, the city has to find another way to deal with the problem.

Mayor Goodman is already vowing to pass yet another law, one that won’t be ruled unconstitutional. But the charity workers who have been feeding the homeless say this is a fight the Mayor will not win.
Circle Park on Maryland Parkway is a haven for the homeless, and Lyla Bartholomae is getting her kitchen ready for action. She says now that the ban on feeding the homeless has been blocked, she’ll be headed back to the parks, offering food to anyone who needs it.

The federal court ruling is a major blow to Mayor Goodman’s get-tough approach to the city’s homeless crisis. He believes handouts are not the answer, and from the beginning, he’s been ready to do battle with the ACLU.

So one city, named for angels, is praised for helping and feeding the poor, the other city, an oasis of empty wishes, attempts to implement a policy of forcing people to look the other way.

The thing that really turns my stomach oddly isn’t the Las Vegas policy but rather the ‘show’ involved in the demonstrations in LA. Much like the nip and tuck and botox injections required in Hollywood, I get the feeling you aren’t anyone until you’ve fed the poor in LA.  Mark Wahlberg, Walt Disney Co., Kirk Douglas, Minnie Driver, the list goes on.

“The notion of giving thanks should be something done on a daily basis,” said Driver, who planned to observe Thanksgiving with friends today in Malibu. “If this dinner was to have been held tomorrow I’d have come here tomorrow to help.”

I’m sure many do want to help. But why all at once? Reading the article one gets the feeling that once a year the rich and famous, the politicians and the philanthropists remember the poor. There are famous people who work tirelessly throughout the year to help, to feed, cloth and house those less fortunate. Those mentioned above likely fit those categories. But, in the face of overwhelming plenty in one week, wouldn’t spreading the help across several months make more sense? If advertising agencies, of which I am sure Hollywood has no dearth, can come up with slogans like ‘Christmas in July,’ can’t the actors and stars and starlets try ‘Thanksgiving in June?’

The attempts of the Las Vegas mayor are despicable; he doesn’t understand the problem and thinks that stamping out one symptom will cure the disease. He is deluded but not dishonest. He just doesn’t want to see the problem anymore.

But the ‘chic’ of feeding festivals a la Hollywood just ruins my appetite. And if the table is full in LA, why not go to San Diego, San Francisco or – just a  thought – Las Vegas?

(Hat Tip: Kevin Barbieux/Homeless Guy for the Las Vegas info)

Holidays for the Homeless

This is Thanksgiving week in America with most people either looking forward to spending time with their families or dreading the same. Travellers are fighting new Homeland Security regulations in airports and thoughts abound of recipes , food and a few days away from the stress of work.

There is another class of people dreading not just Thursday but the entire holiday season. That class is the homeless. Not only do these people inhabit empty city streets during what is usually a cold and rainy time, they are often estranged from their families and have few friends. Thus this is a particularly unhappy time, cause for reflection and often recrimination. These feelings are often drowned in alcohol or obliterated by other substances. They are just too difficult to add to the daily problems of finding food and shelter.

Kevin Barbieux, the The Homeless Guy, a long time blogger has an eloquent post describing this time of year. I reproduce his post in full.

The Holidays arrive and the giant social/economic machine that otherwise dominates all of life is shut down, and everyone goes home to party. And the city is left desolate, save for the dark figures of humans bundled in stained and torn winter clothes seeking shelter from the cold in the concrete and steel bulwarks of empty banks, government offices and other business buildings. Every door is closed, and locked, while the good citizens are away. Time moves at it’s slowest pace. Conversation falls dry and flat, like that of an old married couple too familiar with each other. Mostly, there is silence between them. Standing still. Knowing that there is nothing to look forward to is depressing. Exerting energy to walk some place with no purpose in the destination is even more depressing. Waiting for the Holidays to be over is the chore of homeless people. They endure it with the patience of a preoccupied parent waiting for a child to be done with a playground – sitting and waiting and hoping it will be over soon.

Kevin is an individual who demonstrates that being homeless is not a descent into barbarity and barbiturates but something that can happen to caring, thinking individuals who just can’t manage the complexities, social and otherwise, of the world they are forced to inhabit. He often gives insight where others only produce platitudes.

This Thanksgiving don’t just be thankful for what you have. Try to physically help those who have less for whatever reason. Find out the address of your local shelter and try to arrange a donation of food for tomorrow or for Christmas. Check out Kevin’s idea of gift-bags with those simple amenities like socks and mittens, toothpaste and a toothbrush or maybe just a cheap mp3 player. Mention the idea to your family as you dine on the bounty so taken for granted in most households. Talk about those who have neither household nor family.

Thanksgiving isn’t celebrated in Germany so this isn’t a shorter week and having no family, this time holds absolutely no meaning for me. But if you enjoy Thanksgiving, spend a little time thinking of those who don’t.

Think about holidays for the homeless.

Update: If you are unsure where to start looking to help, you might try here at Second Harvest or to find somewhere to just generally help you can go to Don’t Almost Give which is a service by the American AdCouncil bringing together all kinds of volunteer organisations.

God and Sports

Teresa, of  Anomalous Data fame, has a post up about her take on being raised a Christian. She also points to a rather disturbed (um – disturbing?) article comparing faith and sports. Something along the lines that Satan is the Pittsburgh Steelers (reading this made me wonder if this person a Broncos fan), we are on a small local team and Satan will win because he’s better. Wait no. Um… The whole thing was viserally upsetting.

Trees sums up her response on this idea with,

You don’t need God sitting on your shoulder with a harp every minute, day in and day out to be a good person.  The ability is within you.  In you mind and your heart.  Just do it.  Quit blaming your human nature, as if it only had one side, the bad one with the base urges.  Quit blaming your connection to God, as if somehow your God Pipeline got clogged that day.

It’s in you.  Everything that you are capable of is in you.  What you do is your decision.

I happen to believe that God gave us everything we need.  But you don’t have to believe that to use it.  However you got it, you have it.  You have love, power, reason, discernment, judgment, ability, drive, and resiliency.   Use it.

Her post is excellent and I strongly recommend reading it.

But on the other hand, some people are losers, others are made into losers. Not by a God, but by the very system put into place to help. The LA Times is reporting about poor people being ‘dumped’ on skid row after being released from the hospital.

The LAPD says it has opened its first criminal investigation into the dumping of homeless people on skid row after documenting five cases in which ambulances dropped off patients there Sunday. Police said the patients, who had been discharged from a Los Angeles hospital, told them they did not want to be taken downtown.

Los Angeles Police Department officials, who photographed and videotaped the five alleged dumping cases, called it a major break in their yearlong effort to reduce the number of people left on skid row by hospitals, police departments and other institutions.

Though police have documented other cases of hospitals dropping off recently discharged patients in the district, “this is the most blatant effort yet by a hospital to dump their patients on skid row against their will,” LAPD Capt. Andrew Smith said.

The article continues by pointing out that these people weren’t necessary indigent. Some not only had somewhere to go but asked to be taken there.

One patient the LAPD interviewed on videotape, 62-year-old Marcus Joe Licon, told officers that he “never wanted to go” to skid row and asked that he be dropped off at his son’s house. According to LAPD records, Licon said he was at the hospital because of problems with his knee and was released after they gave him “some painkillers and some medication.”

The real losers here aren’t the patients being dumped on skid row. They are victims – not losers. The real losers are the people doing the dumping. Those people who think that life is something that can be tossed aside, like a soda can out of a moving car. Just like the can, these people should be someone else’s problem, something for someone else to pick up. The real losers here are the hospital administrators who would define each of those dumped as ‘losers.’

So, maybe, just maybe, some people do need a God to become better. Not Trees. And probably not Brad Locke our misguided God/Sports fan. And God knows, Marcus Joe Licon probably isn’t a natural born loser.

But those motherfucking hospital administrators are losers. And I very and truly doubt that they have any love, power, reason, discernment, judgment, ability, drive, or resiliency – they are simply scum. Natural born scum.

And maybe a dose of God would do those administrators some good. Maybe a baseball bat would be better. And maybe, I can make God/Sports comparisons too.

Realities of Homelessness

There is a case study in the New York Times today with a doctor outlining one man’s decent into homelessness – an injury followed by the loss of his job, his apartment, his friendships and relationships, the move to a shelter and the treatment for depression (who wouldn’t be).

He was inconvenienced, but not bested. Homelessness, as he saw it, was a temporary state. Sleeping in an assigned bed would do while he waited for public housing. Because of his years of work, he qualified for Social Security disability payments, and he had no reason to believe that the monthly stipend would not cover an apartment. He got himself on a list.

The list was long. After a year or so, he found himself drinking. It was a comfort he could not resist. Six months later, he got into a fight at the shelter — not his fault, he argues — and lost his permanent bed. He was barred from the shelter, and descended into the rougher layer of shelters, where drinking and drugs are commonplace, there is no daily shower and residents have to stand in line for a different bed each night.

He began to look blunted, blank. This is what two years without a key will do to a man. The medication was no help. You can’t live in an antidepressant bottle.

Now he talks of railroad tracks and the uselessness of human existence. Is a human life without hope, without social contact, still liveable? Perhaps the sadder question is whether this man’s passing would even be noticed.

It’s turning cold and Christmas is coming. Stop by The Homeless Guy‘s blog and find out what you can do to help, gift bags or backpacks.

Sigh.

Reviewing Homelessness

Over at her blog, Reading, Writing, and… What Else is There?, Kathleen Popa has a quick review of Squat by Taylor Field, a faith-based book about homelessness.

She finds the book to be convincing without being overbearing. But instead of trusting her instincts she asked Kevin Barbieux, The Homeless Guy how he felt about the book. His opinions were less kind:

Would you recommend this book to volunteers seeking to help the homeless?
     Nope.
Would you recommend this book to someone looking for a good read?
     Nope.

     The best “faith-based” read on homelessness that I’ve
     encountered so far is Under the Overpass which I still
     recommend to people who ask.
     The best book of any kind, including so-called secular
     books, is this one.  In my opinion, this book best relays
     the realities of homelessness.

Well, that answers that.

On the other hand, I’m still trying to get my brain around RWaWEIT. A blog about books. *heavy sign* Got some reading to do.

The Homeless Guy

UPDATE: If you got here doing a search for don’talmostgive.org (and believe me, you are not alone 😉 the link you are really looking for is  www.DontAlmostGive.org . But stick around a while read my stuff, maybe you’ll like it. Otherwise, have a really nice day. Thanks for caring.

 One of the issues I feel very strongly about is homelessness. I have been reading The Homeless Guy for several months and he has posted a current exchange from someone who criticises him.

I’d like to weigh in on the issue here.

One of the criticisms deals with his technological status. As society becomes more and more high tech, it should surprise no one but the sheltered rich that technology is available to lower and lower income brackets. Reading Kevin I find his explanation as to the origins of his ‘hardware’ to be perfectly realistic. Even if he didn’t have direct access to his own laptop, he would be able blog using publicly available internet connections. He did just that in the early days of the blog.

Does he help put homeless issues in front of people who are otherwise not exposed to them? Yes. Is he indicative of the average homeless guy? Probably not. Kevin is both intelligent and dedicated. This is not true of all homeless individuals. If I were to guess, Kevin has spent more time running from success then trying to achieve it. I suspect that is part of his make-up, not all people have the ability and drive to succeed. Kevin’s ability pushes up, his ‘issues’ push down. The result can be followed on his blog.

I, for one, will continue to follow his writings and hope to post more on this issue in future blogs.