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Posts Tagged ‘homelessness’

Community residents should keep a sharp eye on what their elected officials are doing. The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty recently published a study entitled; “No Safe Place”. They collected data from 187 different cities in the U.S. and found that many of these cities had passed laws that prohibit:

  1. Camping in public (64 cities)
  2. Sitting or lying down in certain public places (99 cities)
  3. Sleeping in a car (81 cities)
  4. Sharing food with homeless people (17 cities)
  5. Begging in public (142 cities)
  6. Loitering, loafing and vagrancy (67 cities)

Those arrested and convicted of violating these laws accumulate a criminal record that makes their life even more difficult. Of course many law-enforcement officers are, understandably, reluctant to enforce these laws. That can translate to sporadic and/or discriminatory enforcement.

In Portland, Maine it is illegal to stand on a median strip. The law was justified as a solution to a public safety threat for people asking for alms and, according to a city council member, for motorists as well. A federal judge has declared the law unconstitutional but the city is appealing. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could solve the problems associated with homelessness by passing laws?

However there is some good news. The Houston Police Department has a homeless outreach program. Sgt. Steve Wick who heads the program says: “You can’t tell a person that’s been living on the street for a long time ‘You need to do this, this, this and this in order to get off the street—because that can’t do it…If you don’t kind of help them through the whole process, they’re just kind of stuck.’ “ Officers and a caseworker guide Houston’s homeless through the confusing bureaucracy helping them secure the services they need. Many of these homeless folks have mental health and/or substance abuse problems and are incapable of dealing effectively with the bureaucracy. Studies have shown that programs of this nature are cost-effective since fewer resources are required than for incarceration, emergency health services, or hospitalization for long neglected health issues.

The great Jewish philosopher and jurist Maimonides had an interesting take on charity: “He who gives alms to a poor man with a hostile countenance and with his face averted to the ground, loses his merit and forfeits it…He should rather give with a friendly countenance and joyfully. He should commiserate with the recipient in his distress…” Maimonides further taught that the alms giver must identify with the alms seeker’s plight and psychological state including his or her desperate and humiliating situation.

Are we working to address the homeless problem or are we just averting our eyes?

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Charlize decided I need to get mad and motivated about something then work to change it.

FACT: A recent study published in the medical journal Pediatrics reported that 27.9% of homeless children suffered from asthma. That is three times the national average! The rate of general illness in homeless families is also significantly higher than the national average. When these folks are able to secure health care, usually in emergency rooms, the cost to society is staggering.

FACT: Homeless children are constantly on the move often having to change schools. Statistics show that each time a student changes school they lose 4-6 months of learning progress. There has been a 96% increase in student homelessness in Washington State since the Great Recession started. In the 2011-2012 school year, the last full year of data thus far compiled, the Washington State Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction reported 27,320 homeless students. Since this horrific number represents only those students who admit to being homeless we know the actual numbers are higher. I presume the statistics in other states are equally sad.

FACT: The Washington State Housing Trust Fund (HTF) invests in building affordable housing for low-income families. The HTF is only one of many funding sources both governmental and private and it works hard to leverage these other resources to build, renovate and maintain affordable housing. Statistics show that every 1,000 housing units developed with HTF funding creates 1,220 jobs and generates $79 million in local income. Since 2007 HTF funding has decreased from about $200 million a year to about $150 million a year while the numbers of homeless families increased. Snohomish County recently abandoned its list of homeless people needing and wanting housing because there were so many folks on the list (over 6,000) there was no hope of finding homes for all of them and no way to prioritize need. How sad is that? Check on the situation in your state, please!

FACT: My State has something called the Housing and Essential Needs (HEN) program that helps people with temporary mental or physical disabilities facing extreme economic hardship. The Aged, Blind and Disabled (ABD) program provides low-income adults with permanent mental illness of permanent disabilities with a rousing $197 per month while they try to gain access to the Federal Supplemental Security Income program.

FACT: In the State of Washington the average renter pays for three or more “tenant screening” reports when trying to find new housing. The working poor and homeless, because of their situation, usually have to pay for several more of these reports before they find a willing landlord, if they are successful. These fees range from about $35-$75 for each application. How would you like to deal with that while working for minimal wage and trying to support your family?

FACT: The State of Washington collects a nominal recording fee on some real estate related documents. These fees provide a significant funding source used by the state to address homelessness projects. In fact this source provides almost half of all the state funds available for these purposes. The legislation creating this funding source includes a “sunset clause” that will reduce the fee by $10 in July of 2015 and by another $20 in July of 2017.

This past January 28th was an eye-opening day for me. Charlize did her job by staying home to guard the house while I travelled with a group to Olympia to participate in the Housing and Homelessness Advocacy Day sponsored by the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance. The bus we hired to take us from Everett to Olympia made the journey through rush hour Seattle traffic. The trip was painless actually it was enjoyable because of all the like-minded progressives on the bus, albeit our disparate backgrounds.

A large group gathered at the United Churches building in Olympia, across the street from the Capital campus. Along with many others we checked in, received our registration packets then listened to a rousing call to action delivered by people long dedicated to finding solutions to the myriad of problems associated with homelessness. Next we were able to choose from a list of instructive seminars.

I listened to a forty minute presentation entitled Advocacy 101 then another forty minutes to a panel of religious leaders discussing the role of faith-based organizations who wanted to advocate for affordable housing and working to help solve the homeless problem.

Starting at 11:30 in the morning and going to 3:30 in the afternoon the organizers had arranged for us to meet with the two Representatives and one Senator representing each of our legislative districts. That was another new experience for me, lobbying politicians. In my next column I will tell you about how we were received by our District 21 Representatives, Mary Helen Roberts and Lillian Ortiz-Self and our Senator Marko Liias.

The problems of individual homelessness can, in large part, be traced to drugs, alcoholism, and a wide variety of mental disorders and/or combinations thereof. This is a complex problem requiring very special and expensive programs to address and cure.

The problem of family homelessness is less complicated but just as sad. In almost all cases the family is homeless as a result of the bad economy or illness or injury or abandonment by the major the breadwinner. Most egregiously some families are homeless as a result of predatory lending practices. What is the justification for allowing that to happen? The children in these situations are completely innocent and suffer hugely. The solution to family homelessness is to provide affordable housing, job skills training, transitional support, counseling and other such services, all best, more fair and most efficiently provided by government working in conjunction with private charitable organizations and faith-based organization. The latter cannot hope to raise a fraction of the resources needed, resources that can only be provided by a program of taxation requiring that all contribute. Surely the richest country in the world can figure this out.

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We left Monterey, Frog nursing her broken fender, and before long were immersed in the beauty of the California Pacific Coast and eventually Big Sur. About eleven in the morning I decided it was time for a two Splenda latte and before long found a roadside restaurant that advertised Espresso. I pulled into a large area for parking, separated from a front patio area by a low rock wall. The same wide spot in the road housed a grocery store with identical architecture as the restaurant. I didn’t bother to inquire if the whole was the same operation, didn’t really care.

As I went into the restaurant for my latte I noticed a man sitting in the sun at one of a number of outdoor tables, avoiding the shade of the table’s umbrellas. He was eating what appeared to be a breakfast burrito. Our eyes met and he nodded and I returned the nod.  When I came out, coffee in hand, our eyes met again. I walked toward him and he motioned for me to sit down. He commented on Old Blue’s Washington license plates and the unusual nature of Frog. Before long we were trading our life histories and thus passed a very pleasant and illuminating hour and a half.

Jerry, that is his name, another graybeard like myself, lives in his truck, moving from one campground to another as the time limit for occupancy expires. It was a routine broken only by an occasional trip to Monterey to visit his daughter and to pickup his social security check. He is an artist, one of too many to count with talent but no luck and no sponsor. Actually he never said he was an artist, only that he drew pictures, but the life history I extracted from him included an unfinished engineering degree, time spent as a draftsman, until CAD (computer assisted drafting) made that profession obsolete. He had held various positions in the corporate world but nothing that held his interest for long. He then became a set designer and painter, and described a litany of jobs and experiences including more than one wife, several girl friends and at least the one daughter he spoke to me about.

At one point I went to Old Blue to let Charlize out to do her business and give her the opportunity to meet Jerry. Charlize came directly to him and made friends. Most dogs are good judges of character and I’m beginning to trust Charlize’s judgment in this regard.

Jerry was a little deficient in hygiene. I was careful to stay upwind. Most would probably classify him as a bum, at the least homeless, which technically he was, discounting the truck that I never saw. But he was easy to talk to, a terrific listener who quickly found out why I was on the road, how I came to be at that place at that time and what Charlize’s role was in our odyssey. His story was as interesting to me as, to all appearances, mine was to him We were two strangers who sat comfortably in the sun and talked of life and philosophy and politics, both corporate and academic. We solved no problems, came to no decisions, found no solutions, nor even consensus about those problems that we discussed. We parted as friends, only knowing first names, probably to never meet again, but satisfied with the hour and a half we spent together in gainful conversation. At least Charlize and I were.

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