Tag Archive for City Council

Occupy Madison Fights Homelessness with Little Houses


DDG_0575 (Photo credit: ArtistJ)

In Madison, WI, where 3,000 people a year experience homelessness, Occupy Madison, aided by many groups and businesses, is building tiny, 98-square-foot homes with beds, microwaves, refrigerators, compost toilets, paintings and heating.

For the time being, the homes are being built on wheels, because the city’s current parking regulations forbid trailers from staying at the same location for more than 48 hours, so the houses will be moved every two days until the law is changed. Local churches are offering their parking lots for the new mini-residences, once zoning laws are amended. City Councilwoman Marsha Rummel plans to introduce legislation allowing houses of worship and non-profits to accommodate the homes on their property.

Occupy Madison plans eight more small homes in the next year, and—like other Occupy groups around the country—it wants to create a community for formerly homeless people.

The first home will go to Betty Ybarra and Chris Derrick, who have been homeless and living in a tent for 15 months. They are helping volunteers build the house.

Madison city housing is very expensive, so homeless people are forced into shelters, but once a person’s time runs out at a shelter they return to the streets, where they are subject to police fines.

Project organizer Bruce Wallbaum says:

We are providing a small but a very adequate home. People are fearful of homeless people living in tents, and I think that a house sort of takes away that fear. We anticipate we may have to move two or three homes before either land or the church option becomes available.

“In order to live in one of the new little homes, a homeless person goes through an application process, has to start working in the Occupy Madison Build [OM Build] shop, where they are required to help build the home, and they eventually reach a point where they’re in line to get a tiny home.

Occupy Madison plans to ultimately create an eco-community, with homes in a variety of sizes, including one-bedroom. The first homes weigh about 500 pounds each and cost about $4,000 to make. Donations made to Occupy Madison and Occupy Madison Build will cover rent, utilities and the supplies needed to construct the homes.

While most of the funding for the homes has come from philanthropic donations, the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s engineering department donated a solar electric system for each home, the local fire department gave smoke alarms and a local artist has offered to create unique pieces of art for each home. Donations of scrap wood were so plentiful that the group had to discourage them. It hosted a Pallet Palooza, where volunteers broke down the shipping platforms that are the preferred source of wood siding for the houses.

Word of the tiny homes is spreading fast. After news of homeless people working on the first 98-square-foot house broke in early July, the initiative got its share of attention from local media, WMTV-15, Al Jazeera America and Minneapolis’s MintPress News, which sent the story viral. Several Occupy groups from around the U.S. have contacted Wallbaum to learn how his group runs the program.

About 150 people showed up at a July 30 fundraiser where OM Build raised $17,600. About 15 people have attended each of two workshops to learn a few basic skills needed to construct the houses in the step-by-step system developed at the group’s rented workshop. Already, OM Build fundraising has provided the seed money needed to operate the plan for six months and test its viability.

The concept was a huge hit with 30 leaders of local faith communities who visited the OM Build workshop. Barbara McKinney, associate director of Madison-area Urban Ministry, said:

We walked away feeling that this is a way to move toward addressing homelessness in our community. It’s a proactive, workable solution. The next step is for leaders of individual congregations to bring information about OM Build to their members, with an eye to some eventually hosting a house, if laws are changed to make that possible.

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Columbia, Raleigh, Tampa, Portland and Six Other Cities Have Declared War on the Homeless


Homeless (Photo credit: fotografar)

Recently 10 U.S. cities have passed laws banning the homeless from the city center, forcing them into a punitive suburban shelter or jail or threatening jail to those who feed the homeless. More business-controlled, heartless and backward-thinking municipalities are likely to follow.

The list of homeless-hating cities: Columbia SC, Raleigh NC, Portland OR, Philadelphia PA, Kalamazoo MI, Nevada City, CA and Tampa, Orlando and St. Petersburg FL, while Miami is working on a law to criminalize the homeless.

During the 1990s, New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani planned to remove homeless people from shelters if they refused to work. New York City police also started handing out $76 citations to the homeless who “camped in public.”

Los Angeles city officials appropriated homeless people’s property and destroyed it, with no due process, until the courts smacked them silly with a couple of little-known laws called the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.

On Aug. 13, the Columbia SC City Council approved a plan

that effectively makes homelessness illegal in parts of the city. It forces those who sleep outdoors downtown to be sent to a small, prison-like shelter on the outskirts of town. Those people who fail to comply are to be rounded up and forced to leave town or sent to the slammer on a range of public nuisance laws.

Jake Maguire, spokesman for Community Solutions’ “100,000 Homes Campaign” said:

It’s basically a choice between two kinds of incarceration. There’s jail and then there’s the shelter. Once you get to the shelter, 15 miles from downtown, you can’t come and go. You are basically brought to a place where you are expected to stay. If you want to go back downtown, you have to get approval for them to shuttle you back.

To make sure the homeless don’t return, a police officer will be stationed on the road leading to the downtown district to keep them away. The plan has major support from Columbia’s business leaders.

In addition to its cruelty, Columbia’s plan is flawed, because it does not address the causes of homelessness, tackle permanent solutions or accurately weigh the economic impacts of shuttling the homeless to shelters, instead of securing permanent housing. On average, permanent supportive housing―which includes an apartment and services like rehabilitation―costs about $16,000-$18,000 a year, whereas keeping a person at a shelter for a year costs $22,000.

Another flaw in Columbia’s plan is its assumption that all unhoused people have the capacity to make rational choices, even if both alternatives stink. For the one-third of homeless people who have untreated mental illnesses, however, there will be no choice—just the nightmare of arrest and jail without understanding why or how to help themselves.

The homeless can avoid arrest only by either fleeing the area (which is exactly what Columbia would like) or by surrendering themselves to an overcrowded shelter guarded by police who ensure they don’t escape on foot. Columbia has 1,518 homeless, and the distant approved shelter only has 240 beds. Once in the shelter, the only way to leave is by scheduling a ride on a shuttle van to a specific appointment. The only way to stay is by complying with all prescribed services, like mental health treatment. Otherwise, it’s off to the pokey.

Cops will now be assigned to patrol the city center and keep homeless people out. They will be instructed to strictly enforce the city’s “quality of life” laws, including bans on loitering, public urination and other violations. And just to ensure that no one slips through the cracks, the city will set up a hotline so local businesses and residents can report the presence of a homeless person to police.

Think Progress senior reporter Scott Keyes wrote:

The Columbia City Council wants police to arrest every homeless person and encourages residents to report each other just for looking homeless, to ensure the removal of all undesirables from the downtown area.

Fortunately, Columbia Interim Police Chief Ruben Santiago doesn’t believe homelessness is a crime and refuses to round up these unfortunate people.

Wake County NC (which includes Raleigh) currently has 1,150 homeless people, including 176 mentally ill,91 veterans, 68 domestic violence victims, five people with AIDS, three unaccompanied children and 494 unfortunates with substance abuse disorder. Raleigh police have threatened to arrest people who distribute food to the homeless near Moore Square Park (which they have done for the past six years).

In addition to these atrocities, Philadelphia has banned feeding homeless people outdoors to “prevent food-borne illness.” Orlando, FL, went the extra mile, not caring who got caught in its dragnet, by outlawing the providing of food to all groups of people, homeless or not. California’s Nevada City prohibits sleeping anywhere but in a proper building. Kalamazoo MI made sleeping on park benches a criminal offense that goes on the vagrant’s permanent record. St. Petersburg FL rules that people who sleep outside must, when caught, either go to any shelter—and there are lots of good reasons to avoid shelters—or go to jail.
Miami is looking to get on the criminalization bandwagon too. It is working towards a law that would make “homeless people who sat down, made themselves a meal or relieved themselves” criminals.

This summer Portland OR and Tampa FL also initiated steps to boot out their homeless. Portland prohibits “camping” on public property, and quite recently five homeless residents were rounded up and arrested, and the mayor’s office says that’s just the beginning. The Tampa City Council passed a new ordinance in July that would allow police officers to arrest anyone they see sleeping in public or “storing personal property in public.”

Despite the Recession, the U.S. homeless population declined 17% from 2005 to 2012. Both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations conducted major anti-homelessness initiatives, including a $1.5-billion program which President Obama launched with stimulus funds in 2009. But the Sequester could reverse that. Tragically, the Department of Housing and Urban Development says mandated budget cuts from housing and shelter programs could expel 100,000 people this year—nearly one-sixth of the homeless population.


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New London, CT’s “Rapid Re-housing” Program Shortens Shelter Stays and Saves Money

Map of Connecticut highlighting New London County

Map of Connecticut highlighting New London County (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On July 1, 2013, New London County, Connecticut’s homeless picture should change substantially as regional homeless services shift to the goal of “Rapid Re-housing.” This strategy will actually put the county ahead of new HUD goals that call for limiting the stay in a homeless shelter to no more than 30 days and reducing the number of people entering the shelter for the first time.

The New London Homeless Hospitality Center declares that its Help Center will aid homeless people working on housing plans, find jobs and assist them in applying for Social Security and other benefits. The Norwich Community Care Team, which has closed its annual winter overnight shelter, just received City Council permission to convert its annual $30,000 federal community development block grant from shelter operation to rapid re-housing.

Many county homeless have some income but cannot afford pricey local rents and security deposits. The Hospitality Center is seeking funding to provide help ranging from bus fare to job interviews or a Social Security hearing to “topping off” someone’s monthly rent. Also, the area has a lot of derelict houses that could be fixed up for needed low-income housing, thereby also providing new jobs.

Homeless advocates and service providers agree that finding housing, whether it be supportive housing, shared apartments, transitional housing or even substance abuse treatment centers, is better than a lingering shelter stay.

Lee Ann Gomes, Norwich Human Services social work supervisor and a member of the Norwich Community Care Team said, rapid re-housing is much less expensive than running a shelter:

I estimate that the cost per person per year to house someone in a shelter is $990, while the rapid re-housing cost would be $363 on average, with some needing very little assistance and others needing more funding.

“The Community Care Team might provide small rental subsidies to people at risk of becoming homeless to keep them in their current housing. Or the fund could help pay a security deposit or first month rent to a working homeless person needing an apartment.

Gomes said in one recent case a person had family in Massachusetts willing to provide housing and needed only the bus fare to get there. Another family was staying at a relative’s house but literally had no beds to sleep on, so the fund could pay for beds to keep the family intact. Instead of sending people to shelter this coming winter, a caseworker will work with the homeless person to find housing as rapidly as possible.

Facilities and organizations in New London, Norwich and other county towns are now thinking regionally to solve homeless problems.

Lisa Tepper Bates, executive director of the Mystic Area Shelter and Hospitality Inc. and coordinator of the family services portion of the New London County fund, said her group argued successfully before the legislature this spring for renewed funding of up to $250,000 per year for two years in the new biennial state budget.

According to statistics provided to the legislature, 65 individuals in the region were re-housed in less than six months, and the average nightly shelter census dropped more than 30 percent from 2011 to 2012.The percentage of long-term stays also dropped, with about 62 percent of shelter residents staying for 30 or fewer days and 20 percent staying for more than 60 days, a drop of about 10 percent.

Tepper Bates said:

A shelter is still homelessness. Staying in a shelter is a stressful time for adulthood, and doubly or more so for children. The faster we can help a family stay housed, the better we are as a community. The more families we can return to housing, the more we have done for those children. It’s profoundly important. There are very serious and potentially lifelong issues here.


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