Tag Archive for housing

Many Cities Criminalize Homelessness While Others Provide Free Housing and Other Valuable Assistance

dtusaNot too long ago, Tampa, FL—which had the most homeless people for a mid-sized city—passed an ordinance allowing police officers to arrest anyone they saw sleeping or storing personal property in public, and it followed that up with a ban on panhandling downtown and in other locations around the city.

Philadelphia banned feeding homeless people on city parkland. Columbia, SC ordered the homeless the choice to either relocate or get arrested. Los Angeles spent $6 million in a year for 50 extra police to make 201 arrests of Skid Row homeless people for “crimes” like jaywalking and loitering. That money could have housed 225 people.

St. Petersburg, FL outlawed downtown panhandling, sleeping in numerous outdoor locations and storing personal belongings on public property. Orlando prohibited groups from sharing food with 25 or more people in downtown parks, and although the law was found unconstitutional, Orlando appealed the decision.

A 2009 study, Homes Not Handcuffs: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities, conducted by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty and the National Coalition for the Homeless, found that of 235 cities: 33% prohibit “camping” in particular public places and 17% have citywide prohibitions on “camping”; 30% prohibit sitting/lying in certain public places; 47% prohibit loitering in particular public areas and 19% prohibit loitering citywide; 47% prohibit begging in particular public places; and 23% have citywide prohibitions on begging.

The trend of criminalizing homelessness continues to grow. In the 224 cities included in the study’s prohibited-conduct charts there was a 7% increase in laws prohibiting “camping” in particular public places, an 11% increase in laws prohibiting loitering in particular public places and a 6% increase in laws prohibiting begging in particular public places.

In 2009, the U.S. Congress passed and President Obama signed The Helping Families Save Their Homes Act, which requires the federal Interagency Council on Homelessness to devise constructive alternatives to criminalization measures that can be used by cities around the country.

Homeless criminalization measures can be counterproductive in many ways. Police sweeps of city areas to drive homeless people from their living areas frequently result in the destruction of individuals’ personal property, such as important documents and medication, and they frequently move people away from services. When homeless persons are arrested and charged under cruel ordinances, they may develop a criminal record, making it more difficult to obtain the employment and/or housing that could help them become self-sufficient.

Courts have found certain criminalization measures to be unconstitutional. For example, when a city passes a law that places too many restrictions on begging, such restrictions may raise free speech concerns, as courts have found begging to be protected speech under the First Amendment. When a city destroys homeless persons’ belongings, such actions may violate the Fourth Amendment right to freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures.

When a city enforces a law that imposes criminal penalties on a homeless person for engaging in necessary life activities, such as sleeping in public, such a law may violate that person’s Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, if the person has nowhere else to perform the activity.

When a city passes a law that does not give people sufficient notice of what types of conduct it prohibits, or allows for arbitrary enforcement by police, such a law can be determined to be overly vague in violation of the Constitution. Courts have found certain loitering and vagrancy laws to be unconstitutionally vague. In addition to violating domestic law, criminalization measures can also violate international human rights law.

Instead of criminalizing homelessness, local governments, business groups and law enforcement officials should work with homeless people, providers and advocates for solutions to prevent and end homelessness. Cities should dedicate more resources to creating more affordable housing, permanent supportive housing, emergency shelters and homeless services in general. To address street homelessness, cities should adopt or dedicate more resources to outreach programs, emergency shelters and permanent supportive housing.

Instead of advocating for criminalization measures, business groups can put resources into solutions to homelessness. When cities work with homeless persons and advocate for solutions to homelessness, instead of punishing those who are homeless or poor, everyone benefits.

Some cities and states do offer constructive alternatives to criminalization. Since 2005, Utah has been saving jail and other costs by giving homeless people flats with zero strings attached, along with social workers to help them secure employment and job skills, so that they can eventually become self-sufficient. If the newly housed people don’t become independent right away, they still keep the rent-free apartment.

As a result of this approach, Utah dropped its homelessness rate by 78%, got 2,000 people off the streets and should have a roof over everyone’s head by next year. Since Casper, WY saw its homeless population increase twofold in three years, it is now looking to start a program based on Utah’s.
Nation of Change points out:

Republicans in Congress would probably have required the homeless to take a drug test before getting an apartment, denied apartments to homeless people with criminal records and evicted those who failed to become self-sufficient after five years or so, but Utah’s results show that even conservative states can solve problems like homelessness with decidedly progressive solutions.

Other constructive approaches:

  1. In order to reduce the need for panhandling, a coalition of service providers, business groups and the City of Daytona Beach, FL began The Downtown Team program that provides homeless participants with jobs and housing. While in the program, participants are hired to clean up downtown Daytona Beach and are provided initially with shelter and subsequently with transitional housing. A number of participants have moved on from the program to other full-time jobs and housing.
  2. Cleveland, OH. Instead of passing a law to restrict groups that share food with homeless persons, Cleveland has contracted with the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless to coordinate outreach agencies and food sharing groups to prevent duplication of food provision, to create a more orderly food-sharing system and to provide an indoor food-sharing site to groups that wish to use it.
  3. Portland, OR. As part of its 10-year plan, Portland began “A Key Not a Card,” where outreach workers from five different service providers are able to immediately offer people living on the street permanent housing rather than just a business card. From the program’s inception in 2005 through Spring 2009, 936 individuals in 451 households have been housed through the program, including216 households placed directly from the street.


D.C.Proposed Bill Would Help Pay Rent for Low-income and Very-low-income Seniors

Washington D.C. council member Tommy Wells has introduced legislation to help pay rent for “low-income and very-low income seniors.”  The Housing Assistance Program for Unsubsidized Seniors Act of 2013 would provide assistance to D.C. residents over the age of 65 whose rental payments exceed 35 percent of their income.

Wells said:

Because of the rising costs of living and the rising costs of health care, District seniors are more and more frequently confronted by homelessness. It is unacceptable that they are being forced to choose between paying for medicine and food or paying their rent.

Too many longtime District residents have been forced to move away from the city they’ve helped build or worse fallen into homelessness. It is time for the District to step up and provide the preventative assistance necessary to ensure our seniors do not end up homeless.

Recently, the National Health Care for the Homeless Council (NHCHC) reported that “strong demographic trends, economic insecurity and lack of affordable senior living have contributed to increased housing instability among seniors.
A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 26 percent of the senior citizens who live in the nation’s capital, about 25,000 men and women, live at or below the poverty level.

A 2011 study by the Homeless Research Institute of the National Alliance to End Homelessness estimated that the number of homeless senior citizens will increase by 33 percent in 2020 (44,172 in 2010 to 58,772 in 2020) and will double from the current number by the year 2050, with 95,000 older people expected to be living without stable housing.

According to AARP:

A great contributor to this phenomenon is the fact that the baby boomer generation is now hitting 65. Already, about 45 million Americans are considered senior citizens and according to U.S. Census projections, that number is expected to grow to 60 million, topping off at 90 million by the year 2050. These numbers mean that added services such as housing, health care and nutrition will greatly be needed.

The NHCHC reports that the age composition of the homeless population has shifted significantly over the past two decades, with the median age of single adults increasing from 35 years in 1990 to 50 years in 2010. Still, the majority of unstably housed adults over 50 are between 50 and 64 years old, with only 5 percent age 65 and over.

While a number of safety net programs exist for the elderly, those between ages 50 and 64 often fall through the cracks, despite having similar physical health to those much older, due to daily stress, poor nutrition and poor living conditions.

The D.C. council members who proposed and have expressed support for the rent-assistance measure believe the number of homeless senior citizens can be reduced if they are given assistance through this program and another proposed effort proposed to exempt senior citizens who are long-time residents of the District and earn less than $60,000 from paying property taxes.


New Homeless Census in Downtown San Diego

HomelessEarly morning last Monday had seen faces that you wouldn’t normally see at that hour fan out through downtown San Diego, as the volunteers had attempted to take a census of the society’s disenfranchised. The effort is part of a national initiative to get better data about the homeless population so that help can be given to those most in need. The goal is to reduce the number of homeless on the streets by 100,000 between now and the middle of 2013.

Steve Schmidt brings us a moment from that morning in his latest post on Sign On San Diego:

Many of the homeless didn’t mind being awakened for the questionnaire, which ranged from their level of education to whether they have a prison record.

‘I think more people like to be heard, and (the homeless) don’t get a lot of opportunities to be heard,’ said Mitchell Clark, a clinician and case worker with Heritage Clinic in San Diego.

That makes perfect sense. When was the last time that you’ve engaged a homeless person in conversation? The social urge is a vital one for people, especially when it is frustrated by the barriers of perception. Schmidt writes,

A few people found the questions overly intrusive. One man crawled out of his tent, pointed to an ailing woman he was with and yelled, ‘This survey you’re taking, what good is it going to do her?’

Long-range gains are often outside of the expectations of the homeless. The immediacy of life on the streets takes precedence. Fortunately, the census takers had this in mind and showed up prepared:

Others became more willing to talk when they learned they would each get a $5 gift certificate for Jack in the Box if they participated.

[Robin] Munro [an attorney and one of the organizers of the census] said the predawn hours are considered the best time to get an accurate read of a transient population. She and the project’s other coordinators plan to compile their registry by the end of the week.

As with all issues, accurate information is key to finding a solution. Campaigns like this one have already occurred in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, and New York. Of course, information is only worthwhile if you act upon it. Experts, including the National Alliance to End Homelessness and the federal Interagency on Homelessness, point this out as well. Several studies put forth by these groups show that registries are effective when they work together with the programs that dispense housing, substance abuse treatment, mental health services, and other programs designed to help these people effect a return to society.

Source: “Volunteers start count of city’s homeless,” Sign On San Diego, 09/20/10
Image copyright Susan Madden Lankford, from the book “downTown USA: A Personal Journey with the Homeless.” Used with permission.

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Invisible Families: Increase in Homelessness Among Families

Homeless motherThe Seattle Times recently did a multi-part series on the issue of homelessness in the area. One of the things that came to light in this series was that the fastest growing demographic entering the homeless life is that of parents with children. In addition to the obvious issues — lack of a roof and safety on the streets, having to care for multiple people, etc. — there are further downsides presented by the way that the homeless aid is structured.

This excerpt from an anonymous editorial in the The Seattle Times series sums it up:

But homeless families face unique challenges. They’re often invisible to social-service agencies because they prefer to double up on a friend’s couch than to sleep on the street. Shelters are often already full, space taken by those on the long wait list for public housing and subsidized Section 8 housing.

Do a little Googling around, and you will find that this is true in many other places in the U.S. For instance, Florida and Pennsylvania are the two states that come up on top in search results.

It’s an unusual situation. Services are not optimized for family assistance. Sometimes the families still have vehicles or belongings they have managed to preserve. Addiction issues are nowhere near as prevalent. The list goes on.

As with the other homeless across the U.S., homeless families are in danger of simply being statistics to most people. This is why it is important to put faces on these dry facts, and allow the actual people in this state share their own narratives. Like with any social ill, it is important that we never forget the human faces and stories behind the facts and the figures.

This is why we publish works like downtTown USA: A Personal Journey with The Homeless and Maggots in my Sweet Potatoes: Women Doing Time. It is also why we were thrilled to see a lot of video material included in The Seattle Times series. Here are two clips, below. The first is about Cherie Moore and her 17-year-old son, Cody Barnes, who have been calling their Ford Ranger home.

Then there is Kim Ahern and her nine-year-old son Jack. After losing their home, they lived at Nickelsville, the only tent city in Washington’s King County that allows children to stay for more than the short term.

So, what are your thoughts on this disturbing trend? Do you know any families that have lost their homes? Do you have a story to share yourself, perhaps? We would love to hear what you are thinking, please leave a comment!

Source: “Shining a compassionate light on ‘Invisible Families’,” The Seattle Times, 09/12/10
Source: “The fastest-growing group among local homeless: families,” The Seattle Times, 08/28/10
Image by mcaretaker, used under its Creative Commons license.

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Common Ground: Housing the Most Vulnerable

downTown U.S.A.: A Personal Journey with the Homeless

So, what is Common Ground doing? How is it providing a roof to some of the most vulnerable homeless on the streets?

Kara A. Mergl, Director of Research and Evaluation at Common Ground, writes the following on the 100,000 Homes blog:

I guess you can say it all began back in 2003 when Common Ground began piloting its Street-to-Home method. West Midtown Manhattan and the Times Square area of NYC certainly did not look the same back then as they do now.  The program’s major strides were made between 2005, when Becky Kanis made her first NPR appearance, and 2007, when the number of homeless in Times Square decreased by 87%; from 55 street homeless down to just 7. Today, there is only one remaining homeless individual still sleeping on the streets. New York City’s Department of Homeless Services recognized the success of this method and in 2007 deployed it across all five boroughs. The question remained, however, if this method would succeed outside of New York City.

The ability to replicate results is important. Common Ground’s expanded efforts yeilded tangible and positive results in a variety of urban areas, including Los Angeles County:

Other communities, such as Denver, Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., began to take notice. One of the first partnerships around this method was with Los Angeles County and Project 50. Project 50, championed by supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, brought together 24 public and private agencies with the shared goal of identifying and housing the 50 most vulnerable homeless individuals living on the streets of Skid Row. At the one-year anniversary of the initial registry, by all measures, Project 50 was a success; 49 individuals housed and an 88% retention rate.

The LA effort proceeded one person at a time. Maurice Lewis was the first people to be handed a key through the program. Aged 54, Lewis had been living on the streets for about a year when he was approached. He said he had spent years “drinkin’ and druggin’,” and also he had heard voices periodically.

The LA Times reporter Christopher Goffard did a great four-part series on these efforts, from which we glean the rundown — in plain English — on how the program works from the standpoint of someone being aided by it:

The terms of Project 50 were explained to him: We have a room for you, your very own. You don’t have to see a shrink. You don’t have to attend substance abuse counseling. All that’s required is that 30% of your income — in Lewis’ case, a $221 monthly general relief check from the county — go toward rent.

The effort is far from over. As the next stage begins, teams of volunteer with be registering the homeless in San Diego. Applying the Plan to End Chronic Homelessness, prepared by the United Way in 2006, is the next step. Training sessions will be held for almost 150 members of the community and civic leaders during the week of September 19.

This training will prepare them for the three consecutive days of pre-dawn excursions onto the streets, during which they will survey and talk with the homeless. The data collected will be used to ID the most vulnerable of that population and get them into housing over the weeks or months following the survey.

If you are interested in more information or in volunteering to assist with the survey, you can check out the San Diego Clean and Safe website.

Source: “Project 50: Four walls and a bed,” LA Times, 08/01-07/10
Image copyright Susan Madden Lankford, from the book “downTown USA: A Personal Journey with the Homeless.” Used with permission.

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The LA Homeless Shelters Now Must Accept Service Animals

Guard Dog

Joel John Roberts is the CEO of PATH Partners (an alliance of agencies that deal with homelessness), as well as the author of the book titled How To Increase Homelessness. He is also the publisher of Poverty Insights, a national online journal on homelessness, housing, and poverty, and he covers the “LA Homelessness” beat for Examiner.com.

Roberts brings us news of the results of a lawsuit that’s been filed in mid-July of 2009. The suit was brought by the Housing Rights Center (HRC), and presented under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and the  Fair Housing Act.

The issue? The ability of the disabled homeless to bring their service animals into shelters.

Roberts reports on Examiner.com:

‘It’s a serious and systemic problem,’ commented Michelle Uzeta, Director of Litigation for HRC. ‘These shelters put people with disabilities in the impossible position of having to choose between the service animals that provide them with needed disability-related assistance and the ability to access emergency shelter services.’

Recently, a settlement occurred with the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), the joint city and county authority on homelessness that directs all LAHSA-funded agencies to provide reasonable modifications to their policies and facilities for homeless people with service animals.

While the critics cite a variety of objections to this mandate — including disruption of the shelter environment — from a legal standpoint, is seems that the issue is settled. There is a disproportionate percentage of the homeless that are physically or mentally disadvantaged, and a number of them rely on service animals to function on a daily basis.

What do you think? Seeing-eye dogs are allowed on public transportation, so should they be allowed into homeless shelters? Should other service animals have a place in these environments?

Source: “Los Angeles homeless agencies mandated to take in service animals,” Examiner.com, 07/30/10
Image by libookperson, used under its Creative Commons license.

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HUD Funds Five Homeless Shelters for Veterans

Humane Exposures: HUD Funds Five Homeless Shelters for Veterans
Many do not realize it, but a disproportionate number of the homeless faces one sees on American streets are military service veterans. After serving their term, many former members of the military find themselves amongst the dispossessed of our nation, lost in the very society they had defended.

In an attempt to take care of these homeless soldiers, Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has announced $15 million in grants for five cities, including San Diego. The money is earmarked for development of permanent housing for homeless veterans. Camp Pendleton in San Diego is one of the five. The others are: MacDill Air Force Base (Tampa, Florida), Fort Hood (Killeen, Texas), Fort Drum (Watertown, New York), and Joint Base Lewis-McChord (Tacoma, Washington).

HUD states that veteran homelessness has been on the rise due to the escalation of conflicts in the Middle East. Kimberly Dvorak, who covers San Diego County Political Buzz for Examiner.com, notes that each of these communities will receive two million to combat veteran homelessness.  She then goes on to tell us a bit more more about the program:

HUD also announced that the VA medical centers will also receive $1 million in grant money for other veteran needs. The Veterans Homelessness Prevention Demonstration (VHPD) program, through HUD, can provide a ‘continuums of care’ for needy veterans who might be living on the streets or in homeless shelters.

‘The men and women who serve our nation deserve better than a life on the streets when they return home,’  said HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan. ‘These grants represent a first step toward designing the best interventions possible so that we can prevent homelessness for those heroes who sacrificed so much for us.’

The effort will focus on a triad of homeless issues: housing, health care, and employment services. The last of these are handled through the U.S. Department of Labor. HUD estimates it will take approximately 90 days to identify which veterans and their families are in need, and to render assistance.

More housing seems a great idea, doesn’t it? Still, HUMANE EXPOSURES has discovered that many of the homeless refuse to live inside shelters. Many are addicted to controlled substances and need treatment before they can be accepted into shelters. Others need mental health treatment, including medications, before they would feel comfortable in a shelter environment. Others prefer life on the street.

To quote from interviews conducted by Susan Madden Lankford for the book, downTown U.S.A.: A Personal Journey with the Homeless: “I can’t live with 400 people around me,” “I can’t follow the rules and regulations required inside shelters,” “Something is wrong with me, I do better on the street that I do inside,” “I want to sleep on the pavement.”

Shelters are part of a solution; treatment is a more holistic approach: providing homeless veterans the support to come off the streets if they choose, including proper intake, case analysis, and referrals. There is only one continuum of care; the fact that HUD sees multiple “continuums of care” means it still isn’t treating the whole problem.

Source: “Homeless veterans in 5 cities will get relief housing,” Examiner.com, 07/28/10
Source: Downtown USA: A Personal Journey with the Homeless.
Image by Humane Exposures Publishing, copyright retained; used with permission.

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