Thursday, April 18, 2019

Does White Privilege Include Homelessness? #whiteprivilege

I was at a dinner party the other night and one of the people there and her friends asked me if I acknowledged my privilege. I was awkwardly silent because I knew I was about to get verbally jumped. I replied, "everybody has privilege in some way." This was not well received, but I ended up fighting them off by reminding them that I work on homeless issues.

I said, "The reason I work on homelessness is that poverty is a great equalizer. If you show me a gay black man with cancer, I'll show you a homeless gay black man with cancer. If you show me a disabled Native American veteran, I'll show you a homeless disabled Native American veteran." My point was that having a stable place to live and a support system is a privilege in and of itself.

I don't deny that there are a lot of people who don't understand adversity. My mother said she never went without and she was always protected by her family. Personally, both of my parents were stable and I grew up in the same house from the age of two to the age of twenty-four - plus my parents paid for my undergraduate education. That was a great advantage. However, I will also then say that my mother did always work hard to maintain her life and I have carried on that tradition. Adding to that, I have also struggled. I had to re-learn how to walk after a motorcycle accident, I lost my house in 2012, and it is rough building a new business.

But, who cares? I don't want to focus on that. In fact, I don't know why anyone focuses on their troubles (except to entertain and to inspire). The homeless people I met who were able to pull themselves out of homelessness singularly focused on their success strategy out. Hanging on to their hardship has only kept the homeless that I've met in that hardship.

Acknowledging your privilege (I guess) makes you kinder to others. It's like repenting. But, repenting does no good if you don't focus on a clearly defined event (I hit my brother,  I drank the sacramental wine, etc.). If people who don't know you accuse you of being evil, it only builds animosity (see The Spanish Inquisition, The Salem Witch Trials, or any territorial dispute).

Because I focus on the judgment housed people lay on the homeless and the ways to navigate through that judgment in order to get people off of the streets, I simply see 'privilege' as just another distraction people concern themselves with so they don't actually have to DO something to help people. To me, it's an academic exercise.

Do my black friends go through extra hardships? I'll let them tell me. Do other minorities go through troubles in public that I don't? I'll let them tell me. But, if you have a stable place to live, please don't tell the homeless white guy in the wheelchair to confess his privilege. It's just mean.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Being Just A Number - Counting The Homeless

Back in 2010, I had a police officer tell me that a shopping cart equaled one homeless person and a tent equaled two. Since that day, I have been very suspect of the accuracy of homeless statistics. This week, I participated in the Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count because I wanted to understand their particular methodology. We did count tents, but not shopping carts. The tents also seem to remain tents in the final numbers - instead of equating them to a number of people.

The people running the count were very kind, but there was this air of protecting the volunteers from the homeless that was floating about. The training video explicitly stated that the homeless were people too, but went on to tell us to not talk to them "in order to keep their privacy". I kept imagining some guy coming up to me on the street, not saying anything, writing a tally mark down on a clipboard, and just walking away. I would be so sad. People talk to people. People count items. Homeless people are not items. Can you imagine how our national census would go if census takers just counted houses?

We also counted from 8pm to midnight - and in groups. At 11pm, the organizer called me to tell me I could stop if I felt unsafe. If my safety was a concern, why did we count at night? Is it so we don't have to talk to sleeping homeless people? Is it because they're easier to count when they're not moving? Is it because volunteers can't make it out during the day? I had just walked by a sleeping woman and I felt that SHE was unsafe... because she was asleep outside.

It was not explicitly stated, but I felt that for the sake of the volunteers, The Count was also buying into this idea that homeless people are "the other" - that they are not one of US. The ironic thing is that as long as we have this view of separation, homelessness will not get solved.

Some homeless people can be dangerous, but it's not a rule. A more accurate rule might be that homeless people are sad, depressed, and/or lonely. And treating them as a potential danger and a number to count just makes them sadder, lonelier, and more depressed.

Can we start bridging the gap between "us" and "them" by calling the act of counting the homeless a census? I get that the word change is just a token, but maybe some volunteers might feel safer with that word.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

'Click Bait' Homelessness - The Difficulties in Marketing Poverty

I just watched an interview clip where Conor Skehan (an Irish housing official) talked about the pitfalls of pulling on people's heartstrings. His point was that people are pulled into action when humans say they have no shelter - and this could be used as manipulation. The headline for the article I read about the interview focused on Mr. Skehan calling homelessness 'normal'. Because he called it normal, the publication that wrote about the interview is banking on its readers to think that that is a polarizing thing to say - it's their click bait.

In the eleven years that I have been documenting homelessness in the US, I would agree that homelessness is normal. No person in any city I have visited  has ever said to me, "We don't have any homeless here."

The interviewer asks Conor Skehan if it being normal makes it right. It seems as if the interview's subtext is this:

Skehan:
People need to calm down and not react to people crying 'homeless' because you could be getting scammed.

Interviewer:
We need to hype the heck out of this any way we can to get the public to support getting people off of the streets.

Here is the crux of the dilemma. People are talking about the same thing with different life values attached to it. Homelessness is not like cancer where people have pretty clear views on the subject.

The views on cancer tend to be:

1. Cancer is bad.
2. Getting cancer is bad.
3. A cure for cancer would be good.
4. Other than with lung and skin cancer, cancer just happens. It's not 'your fault'.

Arguments against curing cancer tend to be:
1. We can't cure cancer.
2. We should put money into preventing cancer instead.
3. Curing cancer is too expensive.
4 The money is in treating cancer, not curing it (no one is [publicly] a  proponent of this argument).

If we try to do the same thing with homelessness, it gets ugly pretty quickly.

The views on homelessness tend to be:

1. Homelessness is bad - but some people want to be homeless.
2. Homeless people are - well I won't publicly say that they are bad, and I'm sure some are fine people but drugs and mental illness and scammers and lazy people.
3. A cure for homeless would be good, but I don't see why do I have to put effort into someone else's life. I've got my own problems.
4. I would never be homeless. They did something to get themselves into that situation.
5. Poor bastards. I feel sorry for some of them.

Arguments against solving homelessness tend to be:

1. I will never say we can't solve homelessness because that's bad PR and I am a giving person but I will never back a futile endeavor. Our society fights wars to win and not to perpetually lose battles. Why can't they just solve their own problems?
2. Families need to take care of their own - or people should have enough money to support themselves.
3. I don't want to pay for their mistakes.
4. (Privately) There's no money to be made in solving homelessness. It's a sink-hole.
5. It's not my problem to solve, it's homeless people's or The City's problem.

The above list can grow and grow and people will continually argue about the points and how to approach them. We get caught up in the judgment of being homeless and it clouds any directive we start with. It also makes it hard to 'market'. Talking about homelessness in a directed soundbyte or headline can be difficult because people come to those words and concepts with different attachments.

So what do we do? I focus on getting specific people off of the street and back to being self-sustained. This way, I keep the dialogue contained to that person's situation and needs. Homelessness is not cancer. A homeless person is not a group of mutating cells that can be treated in a single systematic way. People are far more complex than cancer cells and we don't even fully understand cancer cells. How can we expect to understand and support a whole disparate population of people loosely tied together by the fact that they don't have stable roofs over their heads?

Homelessness is normal. But, I don't think we should accept it. We should work to get people stable - because we enjoy living in a stable society. And, we should look past the click bait and into each specific situation.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Homeless Scams! How Can We Ever Give Again?!

Recently, a homeless man (Johnny Bobbitt) got tied up in a GoFundMe scam to bring in cash for himself and his (what I call) housed pimps. What was the scam? He said he rescued his female pimp from having to get out and walk to fill her own gas can while she was stranded on the side of the road. He was legitimately homeless. That wasn't a lie. But, in today's world, it's not enough to just be homeless or to just be a homeless veteran (which he was). Homeless people have to do something super in order for us to care about them. These pimps knew this.

All three used the power of marketing and publicity to get the public really excited about The Beast rescuing The Damselle in Distress - just like in a fairy tale. And man, did it work. This one homeless guy got $400,000 in donations from frenzied people who thought they could really make a difference with the simple click of their donation buttons.

See, we all want a good story, we are all followers, and we are all too busy with our own lives to actually put work into our communities. We are also so desperate to be good people that if someone tells us that they have a good cause, without any due diligence,  we let ourselves get scammed.

Really, what do we think one homeless guy is going to do with $400,000? Apparently, he only got $70,000 (because pimps take a deep cut), but still, what do we think one homeless guy is going to do with a lump sum of a decent middle-class yearly income? GoFundMe gave the guy a lottery ticket - and we know the history of how that goes.

His pimps (Kate McClure and Mark D'Amico) turned out to be financial disaster stories as well - blowing their cash on cars, vacations, and gambling. And now, we want to prosecute all three of them for being dishonest. I kind of have a problem with this. Johnny was legitimately homeless. We got the opportunity to help a homeless guy. His pimps knew that if they didn't sell a super story, we wouldn't care about him, so in my eyes, they get marketing points. Sure, they are deceptive messes as people, but how many times does a person get prosecuted for that?

How many times have we purchased something that wasn't as amazing as the advertisement?

I'd chalk this up to a lesson, Help the people in front of you. Do research. Do the work. Talk to homeless people and don't just give the internet $400,000.

Friday, November 16, 2018

It's Not Enough To Be Homeless For Us To Care

I've been telling stories about the homeless since 2010. I am always intrigued by the irony of who we as the public think homeless people are versus the reality of homeless people's daily ingenuity, coping powers, and life skills.

At the same time, I want to let homeless people know that they are people worth my attention because if you value a person, they are likely to value themselves. And obviously, the opposite is also true.

I've been hoping that these stories will resonate with the public - that the public will see that the homeless person is just like them and that that realization will inspire people to do something to get their neighbor off of the street.

Instead, the public pays little attention until something about the homeless makes them angry (like poop in the streets), sad (like homeless people getting killed by sociopaths), or impressed (like a homeless kid getting into Harvard).

My publicist says people work on emotion and judgment. She wants me to put words like "useless" and "fight" into my publicity copy. I know she is right, but that's not the product I'm selling. Unfortunately for me, the stories I present focus on regular people and possible solutions - and solutions aren't sexy.

I joke that I need to start telling stories about homeless pornography (which I don't know to exist) in order to inspire focused effort and resources that will get people into stable housing.

The problem is, homeless porn might get the porn stars housing, but that won't help the thousands of other homeless who didn't attract the attention. I wish all homeless had a golden voice or saved a school bus full of children - but they don't and they didn't. They are just people trying to live their lives with what they have and I want to help them - because I was taught that this country does not accept failure.

So I guess, here's my emotional plea - "No excuses, let's fix this!"

Monday, October 29, 2018

Building Legitimacy and Community Without An Address

One thing that prevents the homeless from moving out of homelessness is the weight with which the government and certain businesses place on a permanent address to define legitimacy. I understand the historic position of a person's address denoting their findability and therefore trustworthiness in society, but in today's age of everyone carrying trackable GPS telephones on them, I wonder if those policies can be relaxed to provide a pathway back into society.

The government won't send mail to a PO Box. This means a person cannot get a new license if they don't have a home. If a person doesn't have a valid driver's license, often times businesses won't hire them. Other places (such as gyms) won't let a person use their facilities if they don't have a valid address.

Can we develop an official communication channel for homeless people? Could we have a federal e-mail address? Also, can people have options apart from a permanent address that could build trust with a community?

A car rental business explained to me that the reason their customers had to pay them with a credit card was that the company was then assured to have multiple options to find customers and to charge them in case the car was damaged or disappeared. Having cash or a debit card was a dead end to them.

People don't trust the homeless. Church programs and religious communities often provide a network of trust to homeless people. This is often a route for success for a homeless person and it works if that homeless person believes in the same God. Could we build something like this in the secular sector?

I think if a person wants to get out of their unstable situation and become trustworthy, they shouldn't have to ascribe to a religion to do it. This country has been putting a lot of its ills on the backs of religion and I think it's time for other communities and organizations (to include government entities) to step up and offer solutions. The churches seem overworked.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Manifesto on Homelessness

Proposed Basic Truths
Homeless people don’t have family or personal network support. 

Homelessness is about movement and instability.

Proposed Basic Solution
a) The best option is the most direct option: People in communities around the homeless need to support them.

b) Instead of supporting them with standard charity, in order to make their efforts sustainable, the community should support them with actions that directly benefit all involved. Each community needs to develop their unique strategy.

c) ‘Move along’ policies should be ended.


Abstract
The only way to solve homelessness is community, capitalism and direct action.

1.Community:
As a volunteer, work with local homeless in your local area neighborhood, on your street in front of the stores you shop at, (and not miles away in some other community) but in your own backyard. Become the community for the homeless person. Become their support system. Become the person they can count on to care about them even though they are homeless.

Strategies:

a) Direct the existing centralized homeless community (AKA village) out of bad habits and into good behaviors that are not only good for the homeless village but also good for the overall community around the homeless village.

b) Create a community of volunteers (AKA a neighborhood help) with a single focus goal, safety protections, psychology-trained counselors, list of outside service providers in order to help the individual homeless and the homeless village.
c) Sponsor homeless people by providing them with phone minutes, bus passes, laundry cards, and other tools to help them fold back into society.

d) Businesses, non-profits, and churches should coordinate their efforts with the community to assist the community.


2 Capitalism
We view charity as a one-sided interaction. We get tired of doing it; run out of money, compassion, and commitment.  The result is our giving becomes conditional and evaluated by how much good we feel our charity achieves. We begin to evaluate the money we give to big-name charities and question where the money we give is going. And, because we don’t get anything back from that gift, we can only sustain that for so long. We don’t see the direct results of the improvements that we hope our compassion is buying.

In the business world, we find a direct value for our investment in order to make the business sustainable.

With homeless work, the public has to find incentives to continue putting effort into an often frustratingly lackluster cause and population. These incentives can be monetary, social, governmental, or something in-between.

An extension of this is that we help homeless people to remember, relearn, find, and or develop a skill that they can monetize not only as a way to make money for them to try to support themselves beyond just panhandling and recycling but also as a way to build pride in their own abilities, to rebuild the oftentimes shattered ego, and reach the first rung of the ladder up and out of homelessness.

Strategies:

a) Support non-profit businesses by buying goods from their for-profit businesses.

b) Support non-profits businesses by offering your business talents that will make their for-profit businesses sustainable.

c) Find a return on your direct investment to a homeless person in your community. Maybe that is a store rebate for helping a local panhandler in a retail parking lot. Maybe that is a community perk from your neighborhood association for helping homeless in the park.

d) Encourage businesses to sponsor homeless actions in return for advertisement, tax incentives, or the ability to apply for lucrative contracts.

3. Direct Action
 Whether a person has a permanent roof over their head or is homeless, everyone needs to take direct responsibility for their own community.

Instead of relying on outside authorities, government institutions, big-name charities, or local police to move people out of a community, reach out to one another and interact directly to see why “bumdiminiums” are in your neighborhood and see what you can do to help the people.


Logistics

The goal is to stabilize and clean a community. Encourage direct donation to a service for that service in order to transparently communicate a return on the investment.

Politicians, Lawyers, Community Leaders, Business Owners, and The Public need to work together to find these solutions.

Subsistence 

  1. Encampments

Use “Safeground” (a Sacramento encampment) as a model - for its use of elders, no drinking, and no drugs.

Charities should realign themselves to administrate the work at encampments.

‘Pride in the community starts with a clean environment.’ Make existing encampments clean through:

Porta Potty Service
Trash Pickup
Street Cleaning

Work with the homeless to clean their environment. Provide them cleaning supplies.
Do not accept a dirty environment.

Encourage personal cleanliness through personal hygiene services such as:

a) Towelettes provided by hospitals, manufacturers, or drug stores.
b) Showers provided by missions, churches, and gyms.
c) Portable showers provided by cities.
d) Laundromat cards provided by direct community sponsors.

Communities can directly sponsor homeless people with laundromat cards.

Encourage an organized lifestyle through providing storage.

The camps could partner with safe storage companies to provide limited storage on and/or off-site. This is potentially problematic, however successful and working people have a safe place for clothes and tools. Homeless people need this as well in order to get out of homelessness. Storage counseling should come with the service.

It’s not unreasonable that the homeless person needs constant access to their items and will likely push for more and more direct access.

Make existing encampments stable through:

a) Triaging camps for personal safety by separating camps into pet-friendly camps, family friendly camps, camps for women under duress, etc.
b) Securing camps by providing security, a law enforcement presence, and a ‘membership’ only entrance policy.

Encourage personal responsibility from the homeless and community:

In cases of centralized encampments, a leader within the homeless village, makes and keeps commitments to the local businesses for access to that business’s bathroom. The bathroom would be kept clean, kept to a limited in time, not used to bath, and not be intrusive to that business’s customers as much as possible. In addition, the leader would guarantee the upkeep of a no panhandling, no loitering, and no drugs policy,

Ultimately, move to reduce and end the encampments. Camps should run like acute rehabilitation facilities.

The camps provide access to the following:
Referrals to mental issue assistance
Job applications and bulletin board
Job application counseling
Life skills
Childcare
Medical needs, medication storage

In an ideal world every homeless encampment it’s like a triage center.


2. De-Centralized Homeless

Couch surfing is the last stop before the street. Offer support to people before they hit the street.

Create safe overnight parking locations with restroom support. Designate zones/areas with the least amount of obstruction or visibility to surrounding homes and businesses.

Offer car cleaning vouchers.

Create destination homeless parks with full day services for those that cannot enter a camp.

Shelters and missions should separate applying for a bed vs. for basic services such as food or showers.

Childcare
Beginning childcare workers could donate their time or intern -  later working as employees at subsidized childcare services while creating a network of private, public and secular sector childcare startups.

School
How many people have children who are not going to school because of the transitory nature of homelessness? Schools need to have less stringent policies in regard to fixed addresses and student residences. 


3. Personal Community Strategies-

Adopt or sponsor a local homeless person.

Ways a volunteer can sponsor a homeless person:

Monthly Bus Pass 
Cell Phone with Data plan
Laundry card

Being able to get to job interviews, places to shower, and to wash clothes keeps a person active in society. Without mobility, people cannot succeed.

Having a cell phone with just a ringing number can be a lifeline. With either existing cell phones or a prepaid cell, buying minutes can often be enough to get job interviews and be able to get a job. But having a smartphone with a data plan can even be better. People have a way to email resumes and apply online (which is often expected). A data plan can be a way to write and improve one’s resume and even learn new skills through online training and research. Having a  smartphone is a critical requirement in today’s job market.

Laundry cards allow the homeless to remain clean and presentable.

4. Students

To increase stability, schools should allow students to claim transitory status in order to allow a student to stay at the same school. This status should remain “need to know” to reduce any possible embarrassment associated with homelessness.

Support strategies should be developed regarding some level of attendance tardiness and homework issues that can be directly attributed to the more complex dynamics of being homeless.

Support services thru the school for the child: meals, counseling, showering in the gym in early in the morning, books, and other storage should be made available.



5. Mental Illness 

Focus FIRST on the mentally stable or on moderate mental Illness.

For the severely mentally ill, I don’t have an answer, but it will take large amounts of money, expensive and trained professionals, and individual support in their OWN environment.
They need to be approached in a non-confrontational way in a public setting with limited numbers of people. Security will also need to be available.  Being taken off of the street for stabilization may be necessary, but that matter must be handled delicately. The approach now is to wait until they commit a crime and to then throw them in jail. Society needs to decide if re-institutionalizing people in mental hospitals is necessary. If not, we have to accept them hanging out in public.

Violating people’s constitutional rights in order to make our streets more stable will need to be well documented in order to deter abuses of the mentally ill.

It has to be based on behavior, which is a difficult call, but it’s better than the alternative of neglect.

6. Drug Addiction

Level of addiction is a factor, someone who drinks can get off the street without stopping the drinking, but a drunk can’t get off the street until (s)he stops drinking, And, while smoking pot might be contributing to the laziness of a homeless person, the self-medication might actually help ease the pain and hopelessness of being homeless. Because of this, there is no easy universal approach that can be applied in all circumstances. Decisions have to be made on a case-by-case basis. Below are some ideas that may border on human rights violations, but may be necessary.

Addiction farms/islands
Forced rehab
Stopping drug deals around shelters - uncover police needed
Hazardous Material needle disposal
Witness protection for the homeless
Segregation by addiction
Hardcore drug addict separation
Giving the addict a buddy that won’t quit on them (AA model)

Economic Solutions:

 We need to provide structural economic answers.

Currently:
Those who have jobs can’t afford to rent close to work.
People are under-employed and/or underpaid.
First-time job positions are now career positions.
A person’s pay does not match their cost of living.
People are not sold skills they can turn into paying jobs.
There is a lack of training for needed positions.
There are no longer career funnels for people.
Too many people apply for too few slots.
There are few trade experimentation opportunities.

Proposals:

(Housing)

Revisit rent control, gentrification, low-income housing, project housing, tiny houses, public transportation, and commuter buses to work. 
Institute neighborhood/individual-based rent control.
Revisit who decides who lives in affordable housing.
Develop partial free markets in affordable housing.
Develop affordable housing around public transport stations.
Force developers to be responsible for affordable housing options as well.
Expand Habitat For Humanity in upgrading existing houses to keep older people from losing their homes when cities force code violations.
Create more hostels and SRO private ownership with tax and other incentives.
Create public developments thru HUD.
Create other charitable donations to the city for projects.
Revisit empty buildings, private owners, public governance, regulations, tax incentives, and developer benefits for city-approved regarding other developments and public projects,
Revisit eminent domain of convertible properties that are in distress from property taxes and/or bank defaults, or long-term abandonment. Model abandon vehicle laws.

(Jobs)
The Welfare to Work program needs to be revisited - giving proper support for returning someone to the workforce. Programs need to be fully funded with instructors who teach usable job skills and job application techniques.
Increase public trade schools to keep the cost of education down and to keep up with demand. (ie. Jr colleges and low cost public occupational schools).
Return to teaching trades in high schools.
Encourage businesses to pay to train employees in return for specified years of service.

(Minimum Wage Increase)
Minimum wage increase (addressing the below complications) - 
Separate the employers into at least two groups:

1. The large corporation which may pass the costs on to consumers: 

Results:
They move some operation overseas to cut costs.
Franchising will become more common.
They close some Stores/Locations.
They move the full-time employees to part-time positions.

2. Small to medium businesses

Results:
They may need tax incentives, subsidies, or low rate government loans in order to increase the minimum wage.

(‘Social Leverage’)
 Social Branding Leverage

If we can name our sports stadiums, why not name the large-scale affordable housing building complex The Amazon Affordable Housing and Sorting Facility?

Create multi-use zoning of work housing complexes where a small portion is a homeless shelter and services. A much larger section is affordable housing in four forms with four price ranges: Hostel style with group sleeping, SRO style with a shared bathroom, Studio Apt. style,  and Single Family style with multi rooms. The Studio and a Single Family section that is more upscale. A large company has work facilities and or training facilities onsite for employment opportunities and job skills training.  


Conclusion

100 years ago, there was the wrong side of the tracks, the shady area, or the 'drunk' area.

With the downfall of family support and the chipping away of the multi-teared economic structure we built for ourselves out of World War Two, the opportunity to place people into available jobs that will sustain them and their dependents has deteriorated.
We have moved from unions and large amounts of jobs in an industrial based economy to jobs being much more individual in their procurement and orientation. We no longer have large teams of similar skilled groups and many job types have been shipped overseas.

To keep from dumping people out onto the street, we need to start rebuilding our economic structures.

We should encourage the public to not be ‘hobophobic’ and to be solution oriented.

Challenge:

You have 23 days until a person’s homelessness is irreversible. GO!