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Robin Williams, Paul Walker, and Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin

Let’s talk about something nice for a change — like how a beloved show business figure quietly carried out his own plan for making the world a better place. When comedian and actor Robin Williams died last month, some of the media coverage concerned his activism on behalf of people experiencing homelessness.

Many still remember Comic Relief, a 12-year series of concerts that raised $50 million for programs benefitting people in dire need. In 1986, Whoopi Goldberg, Billy Crystal, and Robin Williams were the original hosts. Brian Lord wrote about Williams:

He actually had a requirement that for every single event or film he did, the company hiring him also had to hire a certain number of homeless people and put them to work…. I’m sure that on his own time and with his own money, he was working with these people in need, but he’d also decided to use his clout as an entertainer to make sure that production companies and event planners also learned the value of giving people a chance to work their way back.

The journalist also expressed the hope that the companies concerned had continued to hire people experiencing homelessness to work on other projects after their connection with Williams ended.

Documentary

Actor Paul Walker, who died last winter, is said to have received hate mail because of a 2009 film project called Shelter. The documentary was a collaboration between Walker, his old friend Brandon Birtell, and social worker Ken Williams. During their college years in California, Walker and Birtell both were homeless for periods of time, actually sleeping in cars and living on the streets. Regarding Shelter, Nick Manai explains:

They centered their efforts on detailing the daily lives of four homeless people they befriended…. three women and one old blind man. All four were being helped by Ken Williams’ social service team, but were still sleeping in tough places that were tortuously rugged.

The very wealthy coastal town of Santa Barbara was ideal for an exploration of homelessness, not only because Walker and Birtell had been homeless students there, but because of the extreme income gap between the richest residents and the poorest. While making Shelter, Walker was also shooting a major motion picture called Fast & Furious, on location in Brazil. His dedication to the indie project was such that he commuted back and forth by plane. Reporter Ivy Jacobson says of Shelter, “The film wasn’t large enough to make it to big screen, but it’s still being shown in classrooms all over the country and making an impact.”

Happy Birthday, Little Tramp

A hundred years ago, in 1914, Charlie Chaplin created the Little Tramp, the cinema’s quintessential homeless character, not from artistic fantasy but from his own life experience. When this amazing actor and director was only 2 years old, he and his mother and brother were abandoned by the elder Chaplin. As a young lad, Charlie spent time in the workhouse. After their overstressed mother was committed to an insane asylum, the boys became street performers. Paul Whitington writes:

Until Chaplin came along, homeless people were almost invariably portrayed in film as vagabonds, drunks and villains…. [The Tramp was] the most beloved cultural icon on the planet for more than a decade: the plucky loser who refuses to believe that the world is as cruel a place as it seems.

Reactions?

Source: “Robin Williams Required Everyone Who Hired Him to Put Homeless People to Work,” aattp.org, 08/23/14
Source: “A Little Known Robin Williams Story,” BrianLord.org, 08/12/14
Source: “Paul Walker Was Homeless in College: Sent Hate Mail for ‘Shelter’ Movie,” guardianlv.com,12/09/13
Source: “Paul Walker Was Once Homeless: How He Learned Compassion,” HollywoodLife.com, 12/09/13
Source: “Charlie Chaplin stumbled on his most famous creation, the Tramp, a week after making his Hollywood debut,” independent.ie, 08/31/14
Image by Insomnia Cured Here

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Overpaid Execs and Destitute Moms

executive overcompensationLast time, House the Homeless considered the inability of small shareholders to influence corporate policy, including executive pay packages. In related news, the Economic Policy Institute gave some statistics about American companies during a chosen time period, 1978 to 2011. During those 33 years, the report says, the compensation received by CEOs “increased more than 725 percent.”

In other words, some of those top executives were making 6 or 7 or 8 times as much as they would have 33 years earlier. The typical worker’s pay increased 5.7 percent over the same time period. The difference between 725% and 5.7% is so ludicrous, you have to wonder if the EPI did the math right.

In 1965, the report says, a CEO was paid about 20 times as much as a worker. In 2011, a CEO was walking away with 231 times as much as a typical employee. Corporate America is permitted to decree that one hour of one Person A’s life is worth hundreds of times as much as one hour of Person B’s life.

In a recent Fortune article, Eleanor Bloxham discussed the ideal CEO-to-average worker pay ratio, which in a sane world would be more like 20-to-1 than 231-to-1. Richard R. Troxell is also quoted in this article, and it was not the first time Bloxham had turned to the president of House the Homeless for authoritative information about homeless issues.

She is deeply concerned with how inequality affects the soundness of the whole social fabric, saying,

Inequality invites us to examine long-held beliefs and the real poverty of greed. It asks us to not only put our brains to work but also to raise our emotional IQs, to challenge ourselves to feel what it is like to walk in other people’s shoes.

Footnote on Foster Care

As a family defense lawyer, Gaylynn Burroughs has known many parents accused of child neglect. One case concerned a young mother named Lisa who called social services because the building’s landlord ignored the raw sewage leaking into her apartment. When a caseworker visited, she asked for a place in a family shelter. Instead, the caseworker took her children away. Adding insult to injury, the system treated Lisa like a criminal, making her take parenting classes, have a mental health evaluation, sign up for therapy, and show up for random urine testing. As for requiring the landlord to make repairs, or finding her and her kids a better place to live, the bureaucracy did nothing.

Mary Ratcliff, an online commenter, wrote that in San Francisco children were routinely taken from parents who lived in dilapidated housing, even when the landlords responsible for the unlivable conditions were the local, state, or federal governments. Burroughs quoted Dorothy Roberts, Stanford University law professor and author of Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare, who states that poor families are 20 times more likely than wealthier families to have dealings with the child welfare system, and that poverty is the main reason why children are sent to foster homes.

Race is a big part of the picture, since black families are four times as likely to be poor. Fifteen percent of American children are black, but 34 percent of the children in foster care are black. But, says Roberts,  caseworker reports make it personal, accusing parents of neglect because their children don’t have adequate food, clothes, education, medical care, or even decent shelter, when the root problem is simple destitution. Going back to the question we asked in a previous post — “Are homeless parents paranoid?” — the answer is “No.” Roberts said:

One thing most women in the United States do not worry about is the possibility of the state removing children from their care. For a sizable subset of women, though — especially poor black mothers [...] — that possibility is very real.

Reactions?

Source: “CEO Pay and the Top 1%,” epi.org, 05/02/12.
Source: “Inequality in the U.S.: Are We Making Any Progress?Fortune.com, 08/04/14.
Source: “Too Poor to Parent?MsMagazine.com, Spring 2008.
Image by Tax Credits.

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Executive Overcompensation Symptomatic of Deep Problems

executive overcompensation

U.S. CEO and Worker’s Pay Ratio 1965-2010.

For the Christian Science Monitor, staff writer Schuyler Velasco compiled a list of the American corporations where the yawning abyss between CEO pay and employee pay is most apparent. For every dollar the average McDonald’s employee makes, CEO Donald Thompson takes home 1,196 of them. How is it possible that any human being’s time is worth more than a thousand times as much as the time of another human being?

Existential questions aside, McDonald’s is the most egregious example of ridiculously munificent executive compensation, followed by Starbucks and Dollar General. Among the top 10, the least discrepancy is found at AT&T, where the biggest boss makes only 558 times the wage of an average worker.

Ratcheting up Salaries

For Dissent Magazine, Colin Gordon explains the process of deciding how much to pay a bigwig. A show of detached neutrality is made by deferring to the wisdom of a “compensation committee.” The members are other bigwigs with similar job descriptions. Next week, one of those execs will be up for a raise, and guess who will be on his compensation committee? That’s right — the very same guy whose salary he is deciding today. Gordon says:

These compensation committees [...] have perfected a machine for ratcheting up executive pay. As a general rule, CEO pay is calculated from a benchmark of peers. The result is a lucrative game of leapfrog. The selection of peers is arbitrary — and often consists of cherry-picking larger and successful firms with higher-paid executives.

In effect — with very limited input from shareholders and no demonstrable connection to firm performance — top executives set their own salaries.

Shareholders Lack Clout

Supposedly, performance-based pay is subject to shareholder approval, and a reasonable person might ask, “Why don’t they take charge, and rein in these greed-heads?” But as it turns out, the deck is stacked. The system contrives to make shareholder influence largely theoretical. Their role is purely advisory and the corporation doesn’t have to do what they recommend.

For a giant business with high-powered lawyers on retainer, it is very easy to circumvent any rule. The corporate entity can hide, even from its own stockholders, exactly what is going on, in what Gordon calls “a concerted effort to camouflage the level and terms of executive pay packages with various forms of stealth compensation (such as lavish retirement deals) or rigged performance measures (such as stock options).” Even worse, there are two classes of shareholders. Gordon says:

Increasingly, shareholding is dominated by the block holdings of big institutional investors (mutual funds, pension funds, and the like). And many public firms use ‘dual class’ shares to distribute voting rights more narrowly than stock ownership.

Stockholding citizens, even the most socially conscientious, have very little clout. And what do the execs get paid for? Who knows, but it’s a pretty sure bet they are not busy figuring out how to reduce the income gap, and pay enough so that none of their employees need to apply for government relief.

Universal Living Wage

Eleanor Bloxham, CEO of The Value Alliance and Corporate Governance Alliance, believes that a company should be transparent about whether it pays a living wage to every person who works for it. For a recent Fortune CNN article, she quoted House the Homeless President Richard R. Troxell about the Universal Living Wage concept, so please go and take a look.

Also, please remember Economic Gap Day is coming up on Tuesday, September 2. Everyone is urged to organize or join a demonstration in a highly visible public place. Check out this video of a past Economic Gap Day to catch the vibe:

The Universal Living Wage means basic food, clothing, shelter (including utilities), public transportation, and access to an emergency room! This must be the minimum standard for every American and all people.

Reactions?

Source: “CEO Vs. Worker Pay: Walmart, McDonald’s, and Eight Other Firms With Biggest Gaps,” CSMonitor.com, 12/12/13.
Source: “Fatter Cats: Executive Pay and American Inequality,” DissentMagazine.org, 04/24/14.
Source: “Inequality in the U.S.: Are We Making Any Progress?Fortune.com, 08/04/14.
Image by Devendra Makkar.

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Over-the-Top Income Inequality

Income Inequality

When discussing the disparity between big boss pay and average worker pay, the first thing the defenders want us to know is that if top executives let their enormous paychecks be divided among the workers, each piece of the pie would be quite small.

Walmart has a million hourly employees, and 475,000 of them make more than $25,000 per year. For the purpose of this exercise, Danielle Kurtzleben leaves out those upper-tier employees. The other 525,000 workers make less. The CEO, C. Douglas McMillon, makes $25.6 million annually. If he turned over $20 million for distribution among those 525,000 employees, they would each gain only $38 per year.

When cited by industry apologists (which Kurtzleben definitely is not, by the way), examples like this are supposed to convince us to stop picking on the business world’s poor, abused CEOs. But why shouldn’t we encourage such sharing? Even if it is only $38 extra, the workers need it more than Mr. McMillon does. When a family survives on food stamps, every little bit helps. And just think what such a gesture would do for morale and public relations!

Could something like that happen?

Actually, something like that could happen, and very recently it did. At Kentucky State University, interim President Raymond Burse made news by volunteering for a $90,000 pay cut so that 24 low-income employees could have a raise. It will boost their pay rate from $7.25 to $10.25 per hour (and the institution promises to continue paying the higher wage for those positions in the future). This is a very generous example for anyone in an executive position to set, though not a totally unprecedented one.

For the Christian Science Monitor, Hayley Fox notes that at Virginia’s Hampton University, President William Harvey refused a portion, amounting to more than $1 million, of his executive compensation so that low-wage workers could be paid more. No doubt there are other examples of highly paid yet ethically aware earners trying to compensate for the system’s unfairness. Maybe this trend pioneered in academia will spread to other businesses.

But let’s get back to those who see nothing wrong with the huge discrepancy between our society’s most generously and most stingily rewarded employees. They would have us believe that everything is made right by the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) — which Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless calls the biggest scam ever perpetrated against America’s working poor.

First, you jump through the bureaucratic hoops of the application process to get back your own money that you should have had all along. And a crisis requiring money does not wait for our schedule or the government’s convenience. Mainly, the EITC is “chump change” in comparison with — and an unsatisfactory substitute for — a Living Wage that affords a family the basic necessities of life. Richard says:

Business has shifted their financial responsibility of paying a “fair wage for a fair day’s work” onto the backs of the taxpayers of America. The Federal Government has allowed the businesses of America to shirk their responsibility to pay fair minimum wages. Instead of paying what their work is worth, businesses hide behind the pitifully small tax supported stipend that leaves core American workers dirt poor and often subject to homelessness.

We will talk more about income inequality next time, but let’s just mention a few of the reasons why it is bad for the entire country. First, it’s different from general, all-encompassing poverty. Many people who grew up in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, have said they had no consciousness of being poor because everyone was equally destitute, and there was no basis for comparison. Nowadays, all who live in poverty are acutely conscious of exactly what the rich own and spend.

Historically, the consequences of extreme wealth disparity are crippling debt, a reduced standard of wellness, and economic stagnation for many individuals who had hoped and expected to better their circumstances. There is even research from the field of evolutionary psychology to show that when the difference between the highest incomes and the lowest is vast, the murder rate increases. Throughout the economy, general health and growth are negatively affected and homelessness is rampant. The processes of democracy suffer, and the political system is dangerously destabilized as the poor realize how devotedly the government serves the wealthy few. Unlike generalized and widespread poverty, an outrageous degree of inequality is very obvious. People can’t help noticing, and they don’t like what they see.

Source: “What if Walmart’s CEO took a pay cut for his workers?” Vox.com, 08/06/14
Source: “College president takes a $90,000 pay cut to give low-wage workers a raise,” CSMonitor.com, 08/15/14
Source: “CEO Of One Of The World’s Largest Banks: Income Inequality Is ‘Destabilizing,’ ThinkProgress.org, 06/13/14
Image by mSeattle

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Fear of Foster Care Threat Is Not Illogical

Sleeping Child

House the Homeless has been considering, with dismay, the brisk back-and-forth exchange between the foster care system and the ranks of people experiencing homelessness. An untethered, chaotic lifestyle leads to more of the same in the next generation. Any young person whose past includes periods of homelessness is more likely to face homelessness in the future. Kids who age out of the foster care system are more likely to become homeless. In a vicious cycle, kids from homeless families are often at risk of winding up in the foster care system.

Writer Annie Gowen interviewed the executive director of the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare, Ruth Anne White, who said “about half of states list a caregiver’s inability to provide shelter as part of their definition of abuse and neglect.” In mid-2012, news came from Washington, D.C., that homeless parents were not signing up with agencies that existed to help them because they feared losing their children.

The Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless learned that clients avoided seeking help because intake workers had threatened, if the clients really had nowhere to live, to report them to the child welfare authorities. According to rumor, the city purposely created this climate of fear to scare families away from applying for services in an overburdened system. The Washington Post quoted a Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) spokesperson who said:

[W]hile homelessness alone is not sufficient reason under D.C. law to remove a child from a parents’ care, the agency has investigated families seeking shelter to see if there were other issues of abuse and neglect.… So far, 32 families have been reported … but no children have yet been removed from their parents’ care.

Also in our nation’s capital, the disappearance and probable death of 8-year-old Relisha Rudd caused consternation. Relisha went missing from D.C.’s former General Hospital, now a massive homeless shelter where she and three younger brothers were among some 600 children in residence. They stayed with their mother, Shamika Young (who, incidentally, entered the foster-care system at age 6). Relisha was allowed to leave the facility with her “god-daddy,” a man Young trusted as a longtime friend who had taken Relisha to his family’s home many times before. She was last seen on March 1, and shortly afterward the man killed his wife and then was found dead himself.

Real fear

When questioned about why she had not reported her daughter missing, Young said she was afraid that if she went to the police, the authorities would take her other kids. Apparently, this fear was not unfounded. Records showed that some type of report had been generated three times before that could have led to the four children being placed in the foster care system. Nothing ever happened, but the possibility was perceived by their mother as a real threat.

When Relisha Rudd was in the news daily, some online commenters expressed very sentimental opinions about the superiority of foster care over shelter life or, even worse, street life. How, they wondered, could anyone possibly hesitate to recommend foster care? The sad truth is, it’s all too easy to find foster care horror stories, and all too easy to meet unaccompanied youth who ran away from foster placements to become street people.

The mutability of circumstance presents child welfare agencies with chronic uncertainty. A crisis focuses official attention on the family, but then their situation stabilizes. Then turmoil comes again, followed by relative calm. The rationale for placing kids in foster care is rarely cut-and-dried. Case workers have to make judgment calls all the time. On behalf of Washington’s CFSA, Mindy Good spoke to a reporter who wrote this account:

[I]n 2012, the District had one of the nation’s highest removal rates and one of the lowest in placing children with relatives once they were taken from the home, Good said. A year earlier, the city’s Citizen Review Panel, which is charged with monitoring the agency, issued a report that called for “significant reforms to prevent unnecessary removals — and to prevent the unnecessary harm they cause to children and families.”

In other words, the child protection authorities are criticized and attacked for two opposite reasons — for interfering too much and taking too many kids; and for not removing Relisha and her brothers from their mother’s care. The city’s health and human services, the official bodies in charge of Relisha’s life and well-being, promised a review of their procedures, but no report has yet been issued. At any rate, it is clear that homeless parents are not paranoid, because a very real possibility exists that their children can be taken from them. Sometimes it is necessary; other times it is not in the best interests of anyone.

Reactions?

Source: “Homeless D.C. families, who turn to the city for help, risk triggering a child welfare investigation,” WashingtonPost.com, 06/23/12
Source: “Before Relisha Rudd went missing, the 8-year-old longed to escape D.C.’s homeless shelter,” WashingtonPost.com, 04/05/14
Source: “Body in park tentatively identified as Relisha Tatum’s alleged abductor, police chief says,” WashingtonPost.com, 03/31/14
Image by Lyman Erskine

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Foster Care System Increases Homeless Totals

homeless (poles)

Every now and then a scandal arises from the foster care system. Earlier this year, Americans were horrified by a story from North Carolina that broke when a law enforcement officer observed an 11-year old boy handcuffed to the porch of a house. The weather was cold, and someone had tied a dead chicken around his neck. It turned out that, along with this foster child, four adopted children lived in the house. The adults in residence were a medical professional — a male who worked as a hospital nurse — and a female Department of Social Services employee who happened to be the county’s child protective services supervisor.

Had no one noticed the abuse and neglect? Some faculty members did, where the kids used to go to school. But the couple who fostered and/or adopted them had unenrolled them in favor of home-schooling. The publicity surrounding this story pointed up the fact that North Carolina has more than 53,000 registered home schools, many of them populated by foster children — some of whom were taken on just for the sake of earning subsistence payments from the government. Since there is no legal requirement to inspect home schools, this means a lot of foster kids are being raised in sequestered environments, ignored and forgotten. The potential is huge for every kind of abuse.

The case made enough of a splash to get several other social services workers fired, and to stimulate a review of the process by which foster-care licenses are granted. Meanwhile, investigators looked for approximately 36 children who had been fostered by the couple in the past.

California

Those former foster kids must be scattered all over the map. Maybe some of them ended up in the Morongo Basin, an area of Southern California whose population includes about 800 people experiencing homelessness. On leaving the area, longtime advocate Rae Packard told an audience,

In my experience working at Morongo Basin Unity Home, women who choose to leave their abuser and go into a shelter most often lose custody of their children. Judges nationwide consider shelter housing to be ‘homeless’ and give custody of the children to the abuser, who is stable in the home.

Remember the House the Homeless post titled “Are Homeless Parents Paranoid?” If paranoia represents an unreasonable or unlikely fear, homeless parents apparently are not paranoid. All kinds of heart-rending scenarios take place every day in offices and courtrooms. A homeless mother faces the real possibility that her kids can be turned over to the violent non-provider who caused all the trouble, or taken by the state and placed in foster situations. Or she can try to stay under the radar and avoid government agencies altogether. This involves teaching kids to lie to authorities, and other habits that can get them in trouble.

Elsewhere in California, journalist Greg Lee interviewed the CEO of the Riverside County branch of Court Appointed Foster Children (CASA). In that county, some 4,000 foster children reside, with another 1,500 in the nearby Coachella Valley. CASA is a volunteer organization with not nearly enough volunteers for its mission, which is to assign each child an advocate to help them deal with the court system. Deborah Sutton-Weiss made a startling statement:

The foster system is broke. We have more homeless children on the streets now than we have vets and that’s a big deal…. What does happen to them is that they either end up homeless, prostituting, in jail or dead.

The authorities take kids from their parents for reasons that are sometimes excellent and sometimes wrong or pointless. Those children grow up in foster homes, age out of the system, and all too often find themselves on the streets. Vulnerable and unprotected, girls get pregnant and have children who either have no place to live or are removed to foster placements. (Either way, they grow up with a greater chance of being chronically homeless.) There is far too much two-way traffic between the foster care system and homelessness, and plenty more about it to discuss.

Reactions?

Source: “Two growing NC student populations: homeless and homeschooled,” BlueNC.com, 11/24/13
Source: “About 800 homeless in Hi-Desert, speaker tells advisers,” HiDesertStar.com, 04/18/14
Source: “Homelessness among foster children on the rise in California,” KESQ.com, 07/22/14
Image by Martin Belam

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Homelessness in Non-Corporate Media

Destiny's Bridge 1

The cost of homelessness has been a topic before, here at House the Homeless. When we’re talking about cost, it’s not just the enormous waste incurred among the people experiencing homelessness — of life, of time and talent, and productivity, and potential contributions that they might make to the world if they were not so busy trying to survive and avoid arrest. That huge loss of human potential is sad enough and bad enough. But compared to the enormous societal expense, it’s a drop in the bucket.

How much longer can this go on? The most cursory glance at history will show what happens when too much wealth is concentrated in too few hands, and when the majority of the people struggle just to get through each day. It’s almost as if some hidden specter sits back chuckling, taking bets on how soon a cataclysm will occur, and speculating on its own selfish gains if that dire day ever arrives.

This week, House the Homeless looks at some current media offerings. Cardboard Stories is a viral video, meaning lots of people have seen it and passed it around to others. A story about it is subtitled, “Viral Video Reveals Who the Homeless Are — and It Might Surprise You.” Those words contain a grim and ironic joke. Far too many Americans have found out who the homeless are the hard way — by waking up to find themselves out in the cold (or heat).

Yes, learning the identity of “the homeless” does come as a big surprise to many people. One day you’re a solid citizen, regarding those haunters of the street as a tribe that preferably should just disappear — maybe even a different species. Next day you’re one of them. Such a rude awakening has become the reality for far too many Americans. Xander Landen for PBS says:

Since 2001, the U.S. has lost nearly 13 percent of its low-income housing according to a report by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty that surveyed 187 cities. The advocacy group’s report found that laws placing restrictions on loitering, begging, sitting and lying down in public have increased nationwide since 2009. Eighteen percent of cities now ban sleeping in public and 42 percent of cities ban sleeping in vehicles.

Understand what they are saying — It’s illegal to pee! It’s illegal to have a bowel movement! And to help the homeless avoid the temptation to perform those functions, it’s illegal to feed them! It’s illegal to sit down, even if you’re old and sick and suffering from hyperthermia or dehydration or anything else. Cities would rather spend their money to build and fill jails than to provide public restrooms or even benches. PBS also sponsors a Twitter chat that touches on many aspects of the problem.

18 days remain

Speaking of problems, there is a sizable one connected with talking about Destiny’s Bridge, a film by Jack Ballo. The film is crowd-funded through Indiegogo (the drive closes August 15), and because every paragraph is loaded with astonishing revelations and galvanizing ideas, the problem lies in choosing which section of its proposal to quote here. Should it be these words?

We see their gifts and talents at work as they set off to create their own homeless shelter called Destiny’s Bridge. The conflict in this documentary is clear — township officials file a lawsuit against homeless residents demanding eviction…. The government chooses to spend millions of dollars paying hotel owners and landlords without understanding the real issues behind homelessness or searching for solutions.

Or should it be these?

People whose lives have been taken over by poverty, addiction, depression and mental illness don’t have the resources to be rehabilitated and to get their lives back together like most people can who have family support, healthcare and financial stability…. Over an 8 year period, there have been between 80-120 people living in Tent City at any given time without any government subsidies, effectively saving tax payers millions of dollars.

Oh, please just go and check out the page for yourself.

Source: “‘Cardboard Stories’ Viral Video Reveals Who the Homeless Are — and It Might Surprise You,” TheBlaze.com, 07/23/14
Source: “More cities across the U.S. consider homelessness a crime,” PBS.org, 07/19/14
Source: “Destiny’s Bridge – A Home for the Homeless,” igg.me, 07/16/14
Image by Jack Ballo

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Unaccompanied Youth Experiencing Homelessness

Riots in Hackney

The Department of Housing and Urban Development gives the number of homeless youth in America as 46,000 on any given night, and in any given year, about 2 million youth experience homelessness for at least one night. The number of shelter beds available for this population is under 4,200. In other words, if you’re a homeless teen, your odds of finding a place to sleep are less than 1 in 10.

To break it down by age group, there are more than 6,000 homeless teenagers under 18, and about 60% of them are unsheltered. In the youth demographic of 18-24, there are more than 40,000, and about half of them are unsheltered. The system deals with two different kinds of kids — those still with parents and those on their own. Even with better funding for school districts to hire homeless liaison personnel, there is no way to know how many youth fly under the radar, uncounted.

What happens?

Most of these kids come from poverty, and they can be wary and hard to reach. Some are on the loose because their parents are in the penal system. Some have had negative experiences with mental health providers whose only tool was medication that worsened rather than helped their conditions. A lot of kids are ejected from their families, and many leave voluntarily to escape flagrant neglect, violence, sexual exploitation, or other untenable situations.

Imagine a family so dysfunctional that a 16-year-old girl asks the authorities to put her in a foster home or institution. That’s what Kathy Long’s twin sister did. Kathy had gone to visit friends for part of a summer, people she used to babysit for who had moved out of state. While she was gone, her parents ran away from home. Returning to an empty house and no forwarding address, she asked a schoolmate’s parents to rent her a room, worked part-time to pay for it, and finished high school. She went on to become a mixed martial arts fighter and five-time world kickboxing champion, and her story is definitely worth hearing. But not every abandoned teenager has Kathy Long’s gumption.

As House the Homeless has discussed, the challenges presented to former foster kids are daunting. Even worse, in a news story about California’s “hidden human disaster,” John Burton and Carol Liu observed that youth who never were in foster care fare much worse on their own. Older teens
who become homeless and have no prior child-welfare-system involvement have a very rough time. But today’s economy is cruel to most homeless teens, who find themselves increasingly pushed out of the job market and unable to reap the basic rewards of work:

Becoming gainfully employed helps homeless youth form their identities, connects them to conventional institutions such as employers and banks, provides income that could lead to self-sufficiency, and reduces their chances of engaging in risky behaviors such as panhandling and exchanging sex for money, shelter or food.

It is very easy to criticize people for not working, especially when, despite scarce resources, agencies exist to offer help in finding employment. What prevents homeless youths from connecting with services like training, tutoring, and placement programs? What circumstances either encourage young people to use available services, or to avoid them?

In facilitating this type of connection, how much influence do friends and acquaintances exert? That is the specific question asked by Anamika Barman-Adhikari and Eric Rice, whose findings will be published in the August issue of the Journal of Evaluation and Program Planning, under the title “Social Networks as the Context for Understanding Employment Services Utilization Among Homeless Youth.”

The researchers surveyed 138 Los Angeles homeless youth between the ages of 15 and 21. Slightly more than half of the subjects were literally homeless; slightly less than half were “couch surfing.” The researchers took a keen interest in how the presence of a support system affects a youth’s motivation toward employment. They differentiated carefully between human sources of support (street peers or other friends/family) and types of support (material or emotional).

The knee-jerk reaction would be to assume that kids who are given some degree of help, even if it is partial and sporadic, are less zealous in their search for employment. What Barman-Adhikari and Rice learned is counterintuitive, intriguing, and too multi-faceted to summarize here, so please see their full report.

Reactions?

Source: “Study: More Resources, Smartly Used, Needed for Youth Who Are Homeless,” PSCHousing.org, 04/15/14
Source: “Eddie Bravo Radio – Episode 39 – Kathy Long (11/24/2013),” YouTube.com
Source: “Opinion: California is failing homeless youths,” MercuryNews.com, 01/24/11
Source: “Primary Sources: How ‘Social Networks’ Affect Homeless Youths,” HHS.gov, 07/16/14
Image by Surian Soosay

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Foster Kids in Washington State

[Homeless Man Sleeping on Bench in Art Museum]Care continuum workers know that early episodes of homelessness increase a child’s risk of continuing to experience homelessness throughout life. The foster care system tries to alleviate some of the damage but carries its own risks. Even in such an enlightened state as Washington, every year nearly 200 children run away from their foster homes.

It’s painful to think of the darker reasons why a child might prefer the streets, but some runaways take off because of a powerful need to find family members from whom they have been separated. In Washington, there is a rule that a runaway foster child should be represented by an attorney, to make sure that the compulsion to connect with a sister or brother does not become a punishable offense.

The four biggies

Writing for the Seattle publication Crosscut, Judy Lightfoot discussed the four main reasons why it’s so difficult for foster kids to achieve and maintain stability in their lives. Health is a big factor, both mental and physical. A child with allergies, asthma, or any one of a hundred other ailments will face extra obstacles. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that when a child is removed from a situation of neglect or even abuse, separation trauma still hurts deeply. It should come as no surprise that a displaced kid might suffer from panic disorder, depression, nightmares, or addiction proneness.

One of the experts Lightfoot consulted was Cacey Hanauer, director of Foster Care Transitions at the YMCA. There she learned:

Another side effect of separation is a natural resistance to agencies. Youngsters raised in a system that wrenched them away from their parents ‘don’t trust anyone agency-based,’ says Hanauer. ‘Just walking in the door is hard for them.’ Even if doing so means accessing services that could help them.

Sadly, the foster care system is underfunded and in many ways dysfunctional. In this setting, it’s particularly hard to train young people to plan for the future. By its very nature, the system trains kids into passivity, because so much waiting is involved in every stage of their journey through it. For a child to try to change anything is dangerous, because complaints can be interpreted as a bad attitude. Attempts to be proactive and take responsibility for oneself can backfire spectacularly and bring down an avalanche of trouble.

Another thing that happens in the system is mobility from one foster home to another, for a variety of reasons either personal or bureaucratic. The placement might not be a good fit for the child or the foster parents, and some kids end up needing to be moved repeatedly. Even under the best conditions, it’s hard for a foster child to build a network of supportive adults and appropriate peers. Every relocation severs bonds and decreases the opportunity for a stable human community.

Extra protection

According to Washington’s Department of Social and Health Services, every year about 550 teens age out of the foster care system, and 35% of them end up on the streets within a year. For nearly a decade, the state legislature has worked at building rules to stem the tide of homeless young people spewed out by the system. Thanks to the Extended Foster Care (EFC) laws, most 18-year-olds are eligible for financial support and other state benefits until they are 21. Presently, about 360 youth are enrolled with EFC.

Care continuum personnel must also be aware of “the two-steps-forward, one-step-back” pattern followed by so many former foster kids. Their progress toward self-sufficiency is rarely linear. It seems that in Washington, at least, the bureaucracy’s consciousness has been raised enough to allow for flexibility and even fallibility.

Reactions?

Source: “How to keep foster youth from becoming homeless youth,” Crosscut.com, 07/07/14
Image by Cambodia4kids.org Beth Kanter

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Two California Projects Alleviate Youth Homelessness

[woman playing guitar on sidewalk]A large part of what we identify as American culture is born in California and, for better or worse, eventually spreads to the rest of the country and even the world. It’s a state worth keeping an eye on. Twenty years ago, a program started there that now runs learning centers in two of the worst areas of Los Angeles and in five other California counties. It’s a nonprofit called School on Wheels whose founder, a retired teacher named Agnes Stevens, made a modest start by tutoring homeless kids in a Santa Monica park.

Helping with homework was only part of her plan; encouraging the kids to participate in school activities was equally important. Of course, a big priority was to discourage dropping out of the education system altogether. Currently, hundreds of volunteers are paired up with kids to work with them one-on-one. The organization also collects donations to buy backpacks and school supplies. It counsels parents about educational goals and can help locate missing school records for families whose lives are in disarray. The “Success Stories” page is very heartening.

Homeless Youth Alliance

San Francisco has an unusual dual personality. As a place to buy or rent dwelling space, it is heinously expensive, but the clement weather allows almost anyone to survive outdoors — especially the young, healthy, and agile. In addition, the Haight-Ashbury district, where the Homeless Youth Alliance is located, bears the burden of history as the molten core of the best and worst of the ’60s.

The HYA clients are mainly unaccompanied youth, teenagers who have no contact with their families or who aged out of the foster care system. Every day the drop-in center greets between 40 and 150 youth in need of the services offered by 13 staff members and 20 volunteer workers. Adding in the contacts made by the outreach initiatives, HYA touches the lives of at least 7,000 young people every year.

At the center, the kids can shower, use the Internet, receive mail, and get help with obtaining identification papers and government benefits including shelter and transitional housing. They can join the beautification crew (earning goodwill from the neighborhood by cleaning up trash) or volunteer as outreach counselors. Here’s how it works:

For a minimum of two hours each day, 2 members of our outreach team walk along Haight Street and into neighboring parks, distributing snacks, safer sex supplies, and hygiene kits. Counselors also distribute educational materials on healthier lifestyle choices and behaviors.

Kids can take part in groups and workshops with both educational and creative aims, and sign up for substance-abuse treatment if needed. HYA meets homeless youth where they are, which means, among other things, a needle exchange program to prevent the spread of communicable disease. Nonjudgmental harm reduction is the name of the game. There is counseling for those who want it, and medical, dental, and mental-health services are available. About the psychotherapeutic possibilities, the website says:

Encounters may be crisis oriented, insight oriented, solution focused, supportive, or based on symptom management or behavioral change. Youth may access a single therapy session on an on-demand basis, or may engage in ongoing psychotherapy over months or even years. A private office is available to ensure confidentiality; but based on individual preference, sessions may take place on the sidewalk, in the park, drop-in center, or at a cafe.

The executive director is Mary Howe, who emancipated herself at a young age, and whose past experiences include homelessness, “chaotic drug use,” and jail time. She put HYA together from two previously existing groups, and as an organizer received wisdom from several mentors but was mostly self-taught. Howe has written a lot of grant proposals, an activity so arduous that only someone truly devoted to a cause would undertake it. A certain amount of interaction with and dependence on the government is unavoidable, but most of the HYA funding comes from foundations and private donors.

As much as possible, staff members come from the ranks of former clients. A collective spirit is the ideal. Kids who are being helped also volunteer to help. They have a say in the rules and in the hiring. If they thrive in the atmosphere and want to stay on as staff members, they have a very good chance of being employed. Howe says:

These youth leave home for valid reasons and it is not for me or anyone else to judge or question…. Homelessness exists because of a structural breakdown of our government, schools and families…. We rebelled, so to speak, against the way most social service programs are set up in this city. We purposely never went after government funding because we don’t need to be told how to work with the kids; we already know how because we are them.

Reactions?

Source: “Our Mission and History,” SchoolOnWheels.org, undated
Source: “Create to Destroy! Homeless Youth Alliance,” MaximumRocknRoll.com, 10/22/13
Source: “Programs,” HomelessYouthAlliance.org, undated
Image by Byron Bignell Busker

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