Our Mission

Founded in 1989, HtH is the oldest all volunteer, action, homeless organization in the state of Texas. The mission is Education and Advocacy around the issues of ending and preventing homelessness.

Urgent Issues

Re-Criminalizing Homelessness — Speak up now!

The Austin city council recently voted to put on its May ballot a vote to reinstate the no camping ban including the no sit/no lie ordinances. Now is the time to contact your mayor and council members particularly those who have supported decriminalizing homelessness, such as Mayor Adler, Kathy Tovo, Ann Kitchen, Greg Casar, Sabino Renteria, and others, we pray.

First call to action is cold weather shelter. Anyone that reads this, our urgent plea is to email our mayor and city council in this urgent time of cold weather. House the Homeless is encouraging to use the Convention Center or other alternatives sites that are already over burdened due to Covid-19 or at capacity.

A second call to action is to not displace unsheltered neighbors from bridges and the four major camp areas without having an immediate plan for alternative shelter/housing.

Finally, advise your mayor and council members that the wording for the May ballot regarding reinstating a camping ban must consider that those with disabilities, the aged, and in fact anyone with no place to go. The no sit/no lie ordinance is absolutely inhumane and unconscionable we must have at least 15 minute respites particularly for those with disabilities and make other provisions.

Federal Minimum Wage Debate

Federal resolve is insufficient; highly recommend Universal Living Wage formula indexed on the cost of housing wherever the person lives and works. 

The Vietnam War Legacy

In the previous post, we learned that the servicemember suicide rate is not quite as high as what people go around saying. Forget about the frequently and erroneously cited 22 suicides per day — it’s “only” 20.6 per day. That is also an upsetting statistic, especially when we consider the enormous number who are not counted — the slow suicides who are trapped in a cycle of homelessness, self-neglect, addiction, rejection, and hopelessness.

Of course, some politicians are well aware of the problem’s dimensions, such as U.S. Congressman Steny Hoyer, who represents Maryland’s 5th Congressional District. He has worked on veterans’ issues, particularly suicide, and on our most recent Veterans Day he made this statement:

We must stand with our veterans and their families, not just in words but in taking action to improve veterans’ access to quality health care, combat the alarming rate of veteran suicide, ensure that those returning from service can find good jobs that ease the transition back into civilian life, and make certain no veteran is homeless and living on the streets.

Every now and then, a really catchy title shows up in a list of references, and demands to be followed up on. In this case, the 24-year-old article appears to still be beyond a paywall. Its intriguing title is “A theory-based nursing intervention to instill hope in homeless veterans.”

The authors are Jane H. Tollett, who at the time was serving as Chief of Homeless Veterans Service in Anchorage, Alaska, and Sandra P. Thomas, who at the time directed the Ph.D. Program at the College of Nursing, University of Tennesee. The Abstract says,

This quasi-experimental study sought to determine if a specific nursing intervention to instill hope would positively influence levels of hope, self-efficacy, self-esteem, and depression in homeless veterans. Miller’s Model of Patient Power Resources served as the conceptual framework from which a middle-range theory of homelessness-hopelessness was derived to guide the study… Support for the theory was seen in the increased levels of hope and self-esteem and decreased depression in veterans who received the nursing intervention.

In a review of this study published by Advances in Nursing Science, Bonnie K. Fahey, BSN, RN, wrote:

Often the hospitalization of the homeless veteran is little more than a reprieve from the stressful life on the street. The authors demonstrated through their research that homeless veterans can overcome hopelessness by taking an active part in treatment.

The homelessness-hopelessness theory and its implications have given me a clearer picture of the dynamics involved in the predicament of homeless veterans. The prospect of breaking the cycle of despair in this underserved population is both encouraging and exciting.

“Suicide is painless/It brings on many changes.” To a previous generation, that line written by Mike Altman was intimately familiar as the M*A*S*H theme song. The TV series about the Korean war was really about the Vietnam war, and incidentally, what were the active duty and veteran suicide rates during the Vietnam war? Hard to say.

Last year, the PBS documentary “The Vietnam War” stirred up a lot of feelings, some of which are expressed by John Ketwig, lifetime member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, an organization that is still very active. To his mind, there may have been between 150,000 and 200,000 Vietnam veteran suicides.

Those numbers are guesswork, and maybe as good as anyone else’s guess, including the official record-keepers, and here is why:

There are no reliable statistics about veteran suicides. Most states and localities do not submit suicide reports to the VA, and in many cases the local examiners are not sure if the death was indeed self-inflicted…

The statistics that might clearly define the scope of the problem simply don’t exist, and we are only seeing a fraction of the problem. Realistic numbers will never become available from the government or military because of the negative impact they would have on the costs of VA health care, or on the recruiting efforts so vital to the all-volunteer military.

An article by Meg Lacy from the website Psychology Benefits Society, only two years old, highlights the hazards that may face surviving Vietnam-era vets today:

Despite the fact that the Vietnam war occurred approximately 40 years ago, the moral injuries sustained are still felt by many who served our country. It is not unusual for Vietnam Veterans to have coped with difficult times by staying busy at home or at work. As retirement looms, it is not unusual for Vietnam era veterans to experience additional age-related risks such as social isolation, a feeling of burdensomeness, and changes in health status.

Lacy’s message is that coping strategies that have held a person together for decades may fail at this crucial juncture. It also suggests that friends and family members might be extra vigilant, and that veterans themselves take a step toward self-preservation by acknowledging their own vulnerability at this transitional life stage.

It’s easy to advise, “Get help from the VA,” but the Veterans Administration is not always the most efficiently run or speedily responsive organization. Furthermore, some civilians have an unusual attitude, as demonstrated by an ABC News headline, “Suicide Rate Spikes in Vietnam Vets Who Won’t Seek Help.”

The story quotes Rudi Gresham, who was a combat soldier in Vietnam, and who went on to become a senior advisor to the Department of Veterans Affairs in the George W. Bush era:

These guys were the first generation not to trust the guys in the white coats, and they didn’t trust the government… A lot of the Viet vets with PTSD held it in… They didn’t want to let their family know their dark secret. They wanted to be in the workforce and be productive like the generation of World War II, but they were not respected by society.

In the following quotation, Michael De Yoanna points out the fallacy inherent in the “won’t get help” trope, as it applies to vets who served more recently, but maybe nobody ever got around to saying it about the veterans of previous conflicts:

The Government Accountability Office, found that 57,000 Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines troops discharged between 2011 and 2015 for misconduct had post-traumatic stress disorder, brain injuries and other conditions, like adjustment, anxiety and depressive disorders. Of these troops, more than 20 percent, or about 13,000 of them, received “other than honorable” discharges, which made them potentially ineligible for veterans benefits, including access to health care for their conditions… Those troops, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, had mental health disorders and brain injuries. Misbehavior among troops — and thoughts of self-harm — can be symptomatic of those kinds of wounds.

So, there’s another thing to worry about. The entire topic of “bad paper” discharges is currently appearing in courtrooms across the country.

The Home Coming Statues Updates

Watch this space for news of The Home Coming, the sculpture whose figures include a veteran. The Home Coming, the fulfillment of years of dedicated work, is coming home to Austin. And get the story of one Vietnam veteran, Richard R. Troxell, co-founder of House the Homeless.
Reactions?

Source: “Hoyer Statement on Veterans Day,” MajorityLeader.gov, 11/09/18
Source: “A theory-based nursing intervention to instill hope in homeless veterans,” Ovid.com, 12/01/95
Source: “To the Editor,” NursingCenter.com, December 1996
Source: “Ketwig: More veterans commit suicide than were killed in Vietnam,” Roanoke.com, 11/10/17
Source: “We Lose Too Many Vietnam Veterans to Suicide: Here’s How You Can Help,” PsychologyBenefits.org, 03/29/17
Source: “Suicide Rate Spikes in Vietnam Vets Who Won’t Seek Help,” ABCNews.go.com, 05/03/13
Source: “Some 78,000 Veterans And Troops Lost To Suicide Since 2005,” KUNC.org, 06/29/18
Photo credit: on Visualhunt/CC BY

Of Servicemembers and Suicide

Last time we talked about some of the incidents described in Richard R. Troxell’s book, Looking Up at the Bottom Line. Back in 1989, there was talk of decommissioning Bergstrom Air Force Base, right outside Austin. Richard set out to gather support for the idea of turning the facility into a center for substance abuse treatment and job training.

It made sense, because a lot of the people experiencing homelessness who needed these services also happened to be veterans. But it was not to be. Richard wrote,

The city, in its wisdom, hired a consultant who said due to noise consideration that the airport would not be the most conducive place to conduct rehabilitation and job training for the homeless community. Apparently, it was good enough for thousands of veterans and all the mothers who gave birth at the base hospital, but it isn’t good enough for the homeless population?

The homeless are somehow perceived to be better off living on the street, in our parks, eating out of garbage cans, and now subject to arrest for sleeping in public!

This mindset is all too prevalent among people without a scrap of human empathy, who speak with a forked tongue. They give lip service to the idea of helping, but when a reasonable proposal appears on the horizon, all of a sudden it’s, “Oh, no, we can’t put our homeless veterans into a repurposed building.” More than likely, there isn’t as much profit in it for builders, either.

The same kind of thinking wants to tear down every makeshift lean-to and take away every packing crate because they are hazardous places to sleep, and not fit for human habitation. Some folks actually go so far as to piously assert that it is less dangerous for people to have no habitation at all. So the chorus is, “No, the homeless vets are much better off as they are, while we apply for federal funds and hire some contractors to make them a nice new building at some point in the future.”

The “s” word

It has become a trope or an urban legend that, on an average day, 22 American military veterans end their own lives. Not long ago, the Department of Veterans Affairs publicized the fact that the statistics from its first National Suicide Data Report have been misreported and misinterpreted, and the number is actually 20.6 per day. On learning that things have not been quite as bad as we thought, what else can we do but rejoice?

The first Suicide Report, issued in 2012, covered the years from 2005 to 2015, was misconstrued because people did not realize that the numbers included suicides not only of veterans but of active-duty servicemembers including National Guard and Reserve units. As Meaghan Mobbs phrased it in Psychology Today,

The failure to contextualize that figure, or any figure, results in a narrow focus on the number itself with a blind eye toward both its complexity and limitations.

Also, there has apparently been some misunderstanding about what exactly constitutes a veteran. “A common source of confusion” are the words used, although it would seem that the military would have had plenty of time, over the decades, to nail down that definition.

This brings up another point. Suicide is still attended by a great amount of stigma. For religious reasons, or for family loyalty reasons, people want to avoid filling in “suicide” on official forms, and it is still possible to fudge the paperwork. Although sometimes the cause is quite obvious, there must be many ambiguous deaths. Did someone drive off the road and over a cliff because they were surprised by a wild animal, or…? Also, these numbers do not include the thousands who commit slow suicide over time.

There is another layer of baffling complexity. Not only have the totals been misinterpreted, they may have been inaccurately reported. The record-keeping has certainly been incomplete. These stats are based on data from less than half of the states, and some of the non-reporting ones included gigantic veteran populations.

In an effort to grasp the essential numbers, the Veterans Administration consults state-generated death certificates, where a box can be checked if the deceased person ever served in the military. For states that do not submit their information, the numbers are extrapolated.

One valid question is, why does it take so long to pull all this data together and analyze it? We have computers now.

Last fall the updated VA National Suicide Data Report 2005-2016 was published. It says,

Veterans who use VHA have physical and mental health care needs and are actively seeking care because those condition s are causing disruption in their lives. Many of these conditions — such as mental health challenges, substance use disorders, chronic medical conditions, and chronic pain — are associated with an increased risk for suicide.

Interesting details

The veteran suicide rate is higher than that of the general public, particularly among women. As for methodology, firearms play a role more frequently in veteran suicides than among the general public. Out of every 20.6 suicides (the daily average), six of those individuals had recently used VA health care services and 11 had not. (Active duty personnel accounted for four a day.)

Counterintuitively, married veterans are at greater risk for suicide — possibly, very ill vets who are not getting all the medical support they need, and don’t want to be a burden on their spouses. Meaghan Mobbs wrote:

While rates of suicide were highest among younger veterans (ages 18-34) and lowest among older veterans (ages 55 and older), veterans ages 55 and older accounted for 58.1 percent of all veteran suicide deaths in 2015.

She went on to bring up very worrying possibility:

Furthermore, there is a strong body of evidence to suggest that suicide is contagious… With more social media use correlated with more depression, there is very real risk that veterans might feel they are not living up to their former lives, lives of their former teammates/buddies still in the fight, or the general idealized portraits that people tend to portray.

********
Watch this space for news of The Homecoming, the sculpture whose figures include a veteran.

Reactions?

Source: “Looking Up at the Bottom Line,” Amazon.com
Source: “VA reveals its veteran suicide statistic included active-duty troops,” Stripes.com, 06/20/18
Source: “VA National Suicide Data Report 2005–2016,” VA.gov, September 2018
Source: “The VA Releases Second National Suicide Data Report,” PsychologyToday.com, 08/28/18
Photo credit: Toronto Public Library Special Collections on Visualhunt/CC BY-SA

Before House the Homeless

Pictured on this page is one of the smartest and most beloved Texans who ever shared thoughts with the world. His bio says,

National radio commentator, writer, public speaker, and New York Times best-selling author, Jim Hightower has spent four decades battling the Powers That Be on behalf of the Powers That Ought To Be — consumers, working families, environmentalists, small businesses, and just-plain-folks.

A ferocious caller-out of corporate misbehavior and governmental malfeasance, he runs The Hightower Lowdown, a website whose motto is “Everybody does better when everybody does better.” Hightower is what we now call an influencer or a thought leader; in other words, someone whose endorsement is worth being proud of.

He says this about Looking Up at the Bottom Line:

Finally, someone with some common sense! Troxell lays out a plan that will end homelessness for over 1,000,000 wage workers — without costing tax payers a dime. Plus, this is a great read — a compelling activist’s tale.

Looking Up at the Bottom Line is of course the book written by House the Homeless President Richard R. Troxell. The autobiographical volume tells how, after serving as a U.S. Marine in Vietnam, Richard returned disoriented, emotionally damaged, and without a place in American society, i.e., homeless. He tried some college, but it didn’t work out. When his father died, he says, “I went over the proverbial edge… I rejected people and began living in the woods.”

With only a backpack, Richard traveled to North Carolina, Louisiana, and New Mexico, sheltering in a truck and even a cave. He worked for the Forest Service, restoring trails, and in a bar, and as a volunteer firefighter. Canada seemed like a good idea, but somehow he ended up in Philadelphia instead, and that is where things changed. Living in an abandoned house, he met a fellow named Max Weiner, who set him on the road to political activism.

Deep in the heart of Texas

We’ll skip ahead to Richard’s eventual arrival in Austin, where he set out to challenge unfair housing regulations. This led to a course of working with (and when necessary, against) the city council, various political operatives, business interests, and the local authorities. In 1989 he co-founded the non-profit organization House the Homeless.

The struggle is on behalf of all the displaced and unhoused, but Richard could not and cannot help having a special place in his heart for ex-military people. He wrote,

We have veterans who have served our country well in Vietnam, Desert Storm, the Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan, killing in the name of God and Country, returning to their home only to find they have none. Others were so traumatized, like myself, that they vomited it all up and wandered the country aimlessly for years confused, in pain, and abandoned.

Harking back to his own Southeast Asia experience and its aftermath, he says,

It was a senseless war in which soldiers, myself included, were left unsupported at every turn in Vietnam and again when we returned home. The ones that it did not maim or kill, it made crazy and homeless for many years. Some are still that way. Most of these young men and women were too emotionally destabilized to work even if they could find it. Many were suffering from the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD.

He adds a poignant detail from that historical era, of which few Americans are aware:

Veterans of World War II scorned Vietnam veterans. Even though there was a Department of Veterans Affairs, it was comprised of WWII veterans and there was no outreach and no welcome mat for Korean and Vietnam veterans. World War II veterans had fought in a “real war.”

That was when increasing homelessness in the Homeland became glaringly apparent, with the national disgrace of placeless veterans living in alleys, sheds, wooded areas, tunnels beneath cities and even, with any luck at all, in shelters. It would not be surprising to learn that, over the years, VA hospitals have contained individuals who did not really need to be in medical facilities, but who would otherwise be homeless. A doctor’s compassion can stretch to finding reasons to delay a patient’s discharge.

With or without government aid, many vets have been able to reintegrate into society. But since Vietnam, the country has been in a constant state of war, so there is no shortage of newly discharged vets to take the place of those who have managed to achieve a stable lifestyle. Even today, the statisticians who keep track of these matters estimate that around one-third of people experiencing homelessness in the United States are veterans.

This explains why Austin’s Homeless Memorial Sunrise Service is always held within a week of Veterans Day. Richard’s story is similar to that of the fictional character John, one of the figures in the sculpture that will soon become part of the local landscape, and readers are enjoined to watch this spot for further news of The Home Coming.

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Photo credit: Center for American Progress on Visualhunt/CC BY-ND

How People Give

People who have lost everything, and who sometimes are made to feel like they are nothing, need to be reminded that they are not stupid or helpless. People need to know they still have something to bring to the table, and the world is just a little bit better because they are in it. When advocating for people experiencing homelessness, an unquestionable best practice is to always elicit and promote the clientele’s involvement.

One person might address the crowd at the annual House the Homeless Memorial, and discover a talent for public speaking that opens a whole new life path. Another might have a skill set that makes the annual HUGGS event run smoother than it ever has before. Several band members are formerly homeless, including band leader PJ Liles, who co-chairs the House the Homeless (HtH) Board of Directors. Members of Austin’s homeless community contribute to the winter gear distribution party as greeters, hall guides, room monitors, custodial workers, and kitchen helpers.

If you want to know about homelessness in Austin, ask the experts. The HUGGS guests contribute to the general sum of useful knowledge by filling out a survey. Each year a crucial topic is explored — health; work; sleep; traumatic brain injury; interactions with the police. HtH President and co-founder Richard R. Troxell says:

From my interaction with people experiencing homelessness, we craft the annual survey theme and questions. Every time one of our participants completes a survey, they are charting the path that we then collectively take to prevent and end their homelessness — for example the Universal Living Wage.

Everybody wants their protest signs seen and their voices heard. Of course, people gather on Bridge Day and Tax Day to help get the message across. Richard says of House the Homeless,

Sixty percent of our Board of Directors has always been homeless or formerly homeless… So all of our efforts/projects are based on self empowerment of folks directly affected by homelessness. The struggle to end homelessness is led by homeless and formerly homeless people.

He says this with authority because he’s talking about himself, and Dear Reader. If you haven’t read his book yet, well, what are you waiting for? That’s Looking Up at the Bottom Line by Richard R. Troxell.

Besides being President and co-founder of House the Homeless Richard is also Director of Legal Aid for the Homeless, where he works closely with people who are disabled. He says, “Homeless folks helped us devise our fix for the SSI allotment program among many other programs through the years.” (The book can also be found here.)

Best practices

A procedure shown by experience to be correct is a “best practice.” Now, a bunch of questions and caveats can sprout from this. Once the decision is made, we have to forge ahead with a creative kind of cognitive dissonance. First, we must have 100 percent confidence in this move, because to do otherwise can doom it from the start. We have to believe it’s the best practice, or else what possible justification or motivation could there be for doing it?

And also, once the practice is established, and no matter how effective it turns out to be, it is vital to have a simultaneous mental reservation — to never forget that there might be an even better way to do the thing. To accept something as correct, and stop there, is to invite mental ossification, and eventual revolt. So to really stay on top of the moment, we need to believe two mutually exclusive things at the same time. That is what existential stress is all about.

For any situation there is an old saying, and one that fits here is, “There’s a first time for everything.” A methodology cannot become a best practice without having a trial run (or a hundred). How can anyone empirically know what is the most effective way to do a thing, if it has never been tried that way before? They can’t, which is why research data alone is sometimes enough to be deemed a best practice until something better comes along.

Vision

Leadership is an optimal combination of two mindsets: This Is Great, and This Could Be Better. Leadership includes the ability to administer an organization according to the rules and the best interests of the people it is meant to serve. It also encompasses the ability to think on one’s feet, look for the cracks in the opposition’s armor, and improvise, on the fly, what one hopes are best practices.

One of Richard’s fond memories is of the Kids for Kids’ Sake project. Children made drawings to express their feelings about the holidays. They were processed into packets of 12 holiday cards, and sold to raise $1,500, which was then contributed to the Salvation Army to create a play-scape for the children to be in, while their parents looked for work.

The Statues are Coming!

Watch this space for news.

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Image by House the Homeless

Warriors at Home

House the Homeless talks a lot about American military veterans, because they are said to make up one-third of the national population of people experiencing homelessness. A case could be made that no one, of any political persuasion whatsoever, is pleased.

No matter what angle it is viewed from, something is wrong with that picture. A veteran is one of the figures in the sculpture grouping that will soon find its place in Austin, TX. It’s called The Home Coming.

What happens during this moment frozen in time? John and his daughter Colleen encounter a fire barrel, and as they enjoy its warmth, an elderly “bag lady” approaches. The little girl motions to her, the man says “Join us,” and after a moment’s hesitation, she does.

Backstory

Where was John before? Up until recently, he was overseas in a combat zone. Like so many others, he did not really grasp who our forces were fighting for, or why. They might have heard the phrase “military industrial complex,” but they didn’t recognize its intimate association with the apparent need to protect the American way.

Joining up felt like the right thing to do, but returning to face indifference and even hostility didn’t feel so great. He sometimes thought of the Phil Ochs song that went, “Poisoned players of a grizzly game, one is guilty and the other gets to point the blame.”

And another lyric by the same artist: “I must have killed a million men, and now they want me back again, but I ain’t marchin’ any more.”

Meta-backstory

A lot of returning veterans sustained physical disabilities during their tours of duty, and came back to find that the government departments charged with meeting their medical needs were in disarray. Many had mental and emotional issues. It was all too much to cope with. Having lost valuables both concrete and intangible, a lot of them gave up.

Things have not changed much since then. While working as a mental health professional at Men’s Life Skills Center in Los Angeles, Nick Holt went to remote areas in search of society’s dropouts. He wrote,

A veteran is someone who, at one point in his/her life, wrote a blank check made payable to The United States of America, for an amount of up to and including their life. My daily work is typically working with veterans who are ineligible for U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs services.

Many of the veterans I work with do not see an issue with the manner they are living their lives. They have no interest in mental health; let alone think of themselves as someone with a mental health issue.

Holt also passed on to readers the four lessons he learned from homeless veterans, quoted and/or paraphrased here. First, the human connections enjoyed by many homeless vets range from minimal to nonexistent. They have been there, done that, and concluded that having no relationship is better than having a negative one. But it’s not necessarily a permanent condition.

The second lesson is beautifully phrased:

They have faced enormous challenges, but demonstrate resilience, bravery and hopefulness in their determination to try again.

In creating a relationship with a skittish person, one of the professional secrets is to assume the best. Take it for granted that the person is not weak, but strong. Assume that clients are adults with rights and dignity and a capacity for bouncing back. At the very least, the outreach worker can be trained to present a neutral, nonjudgmental persona.

Also, homelessness and trauma are a vicious cycle, creating a sinister spiral that can be stopped. Get somebody under a roof, and you’ll be amazed at their ability to thrive. Third:

The odds are stacked against them, but they remain humorous, playful and creative.

In other words, just the kind of folks who could turn into great neighbors and employees, if given the chance.

The fourth lesson Holt came away with is that maybe the rest of society should listen and pay attention:

Homeless veterans know what they want and what they do not want, and they are happy to share their views with you. Unfortunately, their expressiveness and assertiveness can be perceived as aggressiveness (and sometimes is).

One way or another, voices will be heard. Here is where mental health professionals shine. They can help a person learn to channel aggressiveness into its socially acceptable version, assertiveness, and get things done. Housed people with the NIMBY mindset, and businesses with a vested interest in the perpetuation of zoning ordinances, are responsible for a tremendous waste of humanity.

In many cases, you’re looking at people who have been trained by the U.S. government to be dropped in a hostile environment with few resources, and survive. Compared to that, figuring out how to survive in America is a piece of cake. Throw in some opportunity, and who knows what such resilient people could accomplish.

Such a person might, for instance, devote decades to helping others, and write a book like Looking Up at the Bottom Line.

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Source: “4 Lessons Homeless Veterans Have Taught Me,” The Huffington Post, 05/07/14
Image by Timothy Shamalz

In Austin, Stuff Just Got Real

Apple Computer Inc. announced its plan to build a new billion-dollar facility in Austin, TX, which will practically triple the number of its employees in the city. When that is achieved, Apple will be Austin’s largest private employer. (The rewards and incentives promised to Apple are explained here by business reporter Daniel Salazar.)

Without unions or corporate income tax, Texas is attractive to corporations. The state sends 36 members to the House of Representatives in Washington, so it’s a great place to wheel and deal, and wield influence on national policy.

The new employees will make a lot less than their Apple counterparts in the Bay Area or New York, but still more than the people currently experiencing homelessness in Austin. Incidentally, journalist Jeremy Bogaisky mentions that,

Apple also said it planned to establish new offices in Seattle, San Diego and Culver City, California, that would house 1,000 workers each.

Wait, what? That language is shady. Offices do not house workers. Housing houses workers, and Austin already doesn’t have enough housing. The influx of well-paid tech people can’t help but displace even more of the poor who are holding on by their fingernails.

Austin’s pool of technical talent is still relatively small, a site-selection consultant told the press, but Apple is “confident that the economic factors and hipness quotient […] will help the company bring in talent from elsewhere.”

But why?

A metropolis like San Francisco or Seattle — or Austin — is bossy. Zoning ordinances are carved in stone, and new construction of affordable, multi-family units is regarded with horror more appropriate to the bubonic plague. The laborers needed for new construction can’t even afford to live locally. This brings to mind a favorite idea of House the Homeless co-founder Richard R. Troxell, who advocates for the revival of workers’ hotels, like the old YMCA. Richard says,

You pay your $10. Stash your gear in your private SRO unit, get a good night’s sleep, wake in the morning, go down the hall to the community shower, then grab your tool bag and your hard hat and head out to work at a living wage job. You have just saved taxpayer a third of the dollars they are willing to spend on “the Homeless.”

Exclusionary municipal zealots have a lot of tricks up their sleeves, like procuring historical landmark status for an old gas station, to block construction of an apartment building. If somebody else got there first, nothing can be built tall enough to block their view. There won’t be enough room for cars to park, they whine. The “character” of the neighborhood will be marred.

Is bigger really better?

Rather than ride the coattails of an already thriving city, shouldn’t a corporation help a struggling city to become great? Ordinary people, communicating via social media, express the same sentiments. Why not pick a place with a depressed economy, like Detroit or Cleveland? Many cities, despite falling on hard times, still have amenities like museums, airports, and sports teams.

Build a huge facility in a second-tier city, and hipness will show up. Comedy clubs and fancy underwear boutiques will open branches. Touring bands will add the place to their itineraries. The things that make a city attractive will arrive, to serve the new population of well-paid professionals. Denominations will line up to plant new churches. Bicycle trails will be constructed. Coffeehouses will show up, and patisseries, and a shop that sells nothing but olive oil.

Somebody will get the bright idea to build housing — maybe even the kind that’s affordable to the firefighters and teachers who make the city worth living in, as well as for the working-class support staff who keep the techxperts comfortable.

Journalist Matthew Yglesias spoke with two housing economists:

[Janna] Matlack and [Jacob] Vigdor find that in housing markets that are “slack” — where there is either plenty of existing housing or it is easy to build new homes so that sale prices approximately equal construction costs — there are spillover benefits. In a slack market, the new rich people don’t impact rents very much but their presence creates new working-class job opportunities.

 

Not everyone wants to live in a megalopolis. Half the people in Los Angeles hate living there, but it’s where the entertainment industry is. Not all tech workers want to exist in science-fictional environments. Plenty of people don’t want a two-hour commute, no matter how much opportunity it presents to enjoy audio books. Lots of people, even some with the highest of high-tech careers, actually want to steer their lives onto a more organic path.

Density is better than sprawl, for a number of legitimate reasons. Wouldn’t it be fun to purposely shape a city by building infill homes — yes, even multi-family units, and plenty of them — instead of suburbs? It has been said that Austin will attract tech workers because of the “cool factor.” Why not go somewhere smaller and more boring, and create the cool?

Reactions?

Source: “For Apple, The Price Is Right In Austin For A Big New Campus,” Forbes.com, 12/13/18
Source: “Big Tech Isn’t the Problem with Homelessness. It’s All of Us,” Wired.com, 06/21/18
Source: “The tragedy of Amazon’s HQ2 selections, explained,” Vox.com, 11/09/18
Photo credit: Bex Walton on Visualhunt/CC BY

Food Heroes

The beginning of the year is a wonderful time to ponder the question, “What can I do?” Here are some inspirational stories of things that real people have done, can do, and are doing — specifically, about hunger.

As the federal government subtracts from the funding that feeds Americans, individuals find ways to help. One of the more spectacular stories is that of Angelo Sarkees of Lewiston, NY, who told a reporter,

Maybe people will think about what they can do to help out their food pantries and help out the less fortunate, this time of year especially. Send a check, volunteer. Instead of throwing it in the garbage, think about how you can help the food pantries in your area.

Sarkees, who has now entered his 70s, retired from his state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, so a certain mindset about controlling waste was already in place. Combining this with the intention to feed people, he decided to raise money through recycling. He started by picking up after a jazz festival, then branched out to other big public events, which supply a bountiful harvest of recyclable drink containers.

Sarkees recruited many local restaurants and other businesses, as well as office complexes, to synch up their recycling efforts with his Deposits 4 Food project. He would let people drop off empty cans and other debris at his house, or even pick up items from their homes.

A company called Porter Empty Return gives him 10% over what other recyclers receive, and owner Doug Adamson told the press,

We give him extra on his empties, but we also give him all the scrap metal from the cans and bottles that aren’t returnable. And we also give him metal from the computers we break down and he turns that in.

Sarkees figures that most days, he devotes two hours a day to the work. Three years ago, he told WIBV,

My ultimate goal is $100,000. Whether I make that or not, I’m sure I’ll get to $50,000.

An update this December confirmed that, at the five-year mark, he has surpassed the smaller goal, having raised $65,000 so far for three local food pantries. This amounts to about 600,000 cans and bottles, and 100 tons of scrap metal.

A plethora of possibilities

One never knows when an opportunity will materialize. In Little Rock, AR, there was an under-bridge location where hungry people could meet up with church groups and other organizations who brought food. Then, the area was closed for highway construction. This was a problem for a while, until attorney Gary Holt volunteered the parking lot of his downtown office.

He also set up the communication system for the people with food to organize their schedule. Local media obtained this quotation from Holt:

Helping people whose life is in chaos is what I do for a living, and boy if there’s anybody whose life is in chaos, it’s the homeless. So, it was a no brainer.

On a normal day, the Union Gospel Mission in Seattle serves 1,000 meals. Two years back, an anonymous donor gave 3,500 pounds of rib-eye beef steaks for Christmas dinners for people experiencing homelessness.

In Fort Lauderdale, FL, Gloria Lewis and Anthony Vargas bring home $700 worth of groceries every week to their two-stove, four-refrigerator kitchen. With the help of their son Ivin, they prepare 225 dinners and 180 breakfasts in individual serving boxes.

When they started six years ago with 20 meals per week, they bought the food themselves, but then local businessman Bob Byers stepped in with substantial cash donations that have enabled the increase. Ms. Lewis says,

I have always worked in low-income jobs and I could see just how easy it is to become homeless… The worst thing about homelessness is that even when you get off the street, it’s so easy to end up back there… There’s such a stigma about homeless people but they are a group of people that are so helpful to one another and so supportive… The stereotypes that surround the homeless are so far from the truth. I see myself every day in these people and I think it could be me so easily, so I go and feed them…

Since 2015, the Fargo, ND, franchise pizza shop owned by Jenny and Mike Stevens has given away close to 150,000 slices of pizza (approximately $70,000 worth) to three homeless shelters and anybody who drops into the store and asks. This is partly financed by paying customers who drop dollars and loose chance into a donation box.

The family also recently started crowdfunding their efforts online. A sign in the window says,

To the person going through our trash for their next meal, You’re a human being and worth more than a meal from a dumpster. Please come in during operating hours for a couple of slices of hot pizza and a cup of water at no charge. No questions asked.

In Washington, D.C., restaurant owner (and Muslim immigrant from Pakistan) Kazi Mannan offers free meals to people experiencing homelessness. He told the press,

I want to say, “Hey listen, corporate people and people in politics! Listen to me!” I want to show them what love can do, and I want to spread a wave of love that touches the lives of millions.

Reactions?

Source: “Lewiston man collects $17,000 in cans for charity,” WIVB.com, 12/22/15
Source: “Lewiston man donates $65,000 to food pantries returning cans, bottles, scrap metal,”12/22/18
Source: “Attorney offers parking lot to feed homeless,” THV11.com, 09/12/15
Source: “Secret Seattle Santa donates 3500 pounds of steak for homeless dinners,” KOMONews.com, 12/26/16
Source: “Florida Grandmother Makes Over 75,000 Dinners for the Homeless: It’s ‘God’s Purpose’,” OutdoorCookingReport.com, 04/17/18
Source: “This tiny pizzeria has served over 142,000 slices to the homeless,” TODAY.com, 01/10/18
Source: “This Pakistani in DC is making people believe in humanity once again,” DailyPakistan.com, 11/29/18
Photo credit: Louis Tanner (zoominin) via Visualhunt/CC BY

Clothing Heroes

These reports, both current and further back in time, are about the efforts made to collect and redistribute clothing, which is, after all, one of the top three essential human needs. For those who have no choice but to survive in public, constantly witnessed and judged, the ability to replace clothing is vitally important. They are always at risk of having their belongings stolen, either by people even more desperate, or by representatives of the law.

For a whole separate set of reasons, socks are very much needed. Know who could use a bunch of socks, right about now? House the Homeless. In Austin, on January 1 (New Year’s Day), the annual HUGSS (hats, underwear, gloves,  scarves, and socks) for the Homeless event will take place once again. It is not too late to sign up and do something to help 500 fellow Texans.

Also in Austin, the Clothes Closet for Homeless Men was established in 1999, with the rule, “If we wouldn’t wear it we don’t hand it out.” The facility didn’t even have a permanent space. On designated days, tables and racks would be moved from a storage area to the conference room of the Central Presbyterian Church.

The location offered not only clothes, but shoes, belts, hygiene items and Bibles. In April of 2015, there was a party with cake and other refreshments as the Closet served customer #20,000. Best of all, it’s still going today, open on Mondays for eligible folks who first sign up at the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH).

Think something, do something

Stanley Tomchin made a pile of money in the gaming industry, and over the years his philanthropic attention has turned to several areas of human need. In 2014 he asked friends on the California coast, where he had one home, to donate their gently used clothing to people in Las Vegas, where he another of his residences was located. In explaining the need, he said,

Friends tell me they’ve never seen so many needy families in stressful situations in more than twenty years. Whole families “work” the parking lots at malls asking for $1 to feed their children.

In Iowa, a businessman decided to collect used coats, snow pants, gloves, hats, scarves and blankets, and then to dry-clean all the items (fortunately, dry-cleaning was his business) and donate them to the Dubuque Rescue Mission to either distribute, or offer in its thrift shop. (A dry-cleaner would have a head start on donating items, because inevitably in that line of work, some things are never picked up, no matter how hard the business owner tries to make contact. After a legally established period of abandonment, they are up for grabs.)

Mike Hagar did more than just receive, collect, or transport the donated cold weather gear. Adding an extra dollop of class to the operation, he also cleaned and pressed used business outfits, of which shelter residents got first pick, for job interviews. (This may sound unfair, but it illustrates one of the many nuances involved in serving these populations, where membership, however temporary, may not include a place to keep a good shirt. A shelter resident is likely to have at least a nail on the wall to hang things from.)

D.I.Y. activism

What is a rent-free, premises-free, pop-up clothing store? Just what it sounds like, otherwise known as the Street Store. Anyone can make this happen, and people have been doing so all over the world. Mark DeNicola muses on the mental blocks that stand between us and the extraordinary altruistic achievements of which we dream:

The most common hiccup holding us back from doing it, is an uncertainty towards how exactly we can do this — we often feel as though we lack the tools or skills necessary to be a part of what we are passionate about.

What’s great about The Street Store is that it has created the tools for you. Tools that are so easy to follow and use that over 40 groups have already put them into practice in major cities such as: Manchester, Vancouver, Oslo, New Jersey and Las Vegas.

Watch the video!

Reactions?

Source: “The Clothes Closet for Homeless Men Serves 20000,” RioTexas.org, 05/04/15
Source: “Stanley Tomchin Helps to Dress Homeless and Needy in Las Vegas,” MarketWired.com, 03/25/14
Source: “Dubuque dry cleaner collects and donates hundreds of items for homeless shelter,” TheGazette.com, 02/27/15
Source: “A Brilliant Idea That Is Making It Easy For Us To Help The Homeless,” Collective-Evolution.com, 01/21/15
Photo credit: Ewan Munro on Foter.com/CC BY-SA

Seasonal Good Deeds

Sure, we love to fill Christmas stockings with candy canes and trinkets. This year, try something different — FILL SOCKS WITH FEET!

Thanksgiving in Denver, CO, looked a bit different this year thanks to the nonprofit organization Impact Locally. Usually, it is a store that sells nothing, but gives away clothing to people who need it.

This November, CEO Travis Smith had the clothing racks moved elsewhere for the day and turned the premises into a free restaurant with fancy accoutrements like tables and menus, allowing the guests to do something they don’t often have a chance to do — sit down and choose what they wanted to eat, and eat it while listening to music. (The page referenced here even includes a nice video from photojournalist Josh Whitston.)

Bellingham, WA (90 miles from Seattle), has the reputation of an elite enclave often named one of the best places to live in the United States. It has also been named one of the worst places, in terms of affordability, with a house costing typically $300,000.

Bellingham has splendid outdoor recreation opportunities, a great bookstore, and a lot of bars. Almost 20% of its residents admit to binge drinking, which may include the tech ninjas and successful writers, and/or the 21% of Bellingham’s population who live in poverty (which is well above the national average).

The county’s homeless population has increased by 10% in just the last year, and the housed people of Bellingham, to their credit, currently see homelessness as the city’s top challenge. The Lighthouse Mission has a daytime drop-in center, but sometimes it reaches capacity. This winter, a meeting room in the basement of the Public Library will be used in extreme weather as a daytime refuge. If things really get rough, City Hall also has emergency daytime shelter space.

The Lighthouse Mission also vets female candidates for nighttime space at Fountain Community Church. Over the three harshest winter months, the church hosts between 45 and 50 women each night, but they must vacate the premises by 7 a.m., a not particularly hospitable time to emerge into icy wind and snow.

Last year, the church’s sleeping quarters were administered by a total of 130 volunteers. Journalist Kie Relyea reported,

The shelter is a partnership among several churches… It will cost about $35,000 to operate, with money coming from church congregations, the city and private donors, [Pastor Rick] Qualls said. About $5,000 is set aside so that single moms and their children can stay in a hotel room, which also gives them a place to stay during the daylight hours…

The reverse Advent calendar is an idea for any year, anywhere. Joshua Barrie wrote about this charming custom, recommended by a group from across the ocean, called the UK Money Bloggers. Traditionally, an Advent calendar dispenses a little treat or gift to a child, each day of the weeks leading up to Christmas. With the reverse Advent calendar, a household sets aside a box or a bag and puts something it each day, to eventually be donated to the local food bank.

Actually, this concept works better by not strictly following the calendar. Mid-November to mid-December is a good time to do it. The local food bank will tell people the best time to make donations so families can access them before Christmas.

Food banks and community pantries are familiar with an increase in requests in holiday seasons, when people who never have much have even less. They find themselves asking questions like, “Do we heat, or do we eat?” By the way, please consult this excellent article about things that food banks need and don’t get enough of. One of them is socks!

Sock it to me…

There are excellent reasons why people experiencing homelessness need a lot of socks. Wearing two pairs at once can improve badly fitting shoes, or provide extra insulation against cold. They tend to be worn 24 hours a day, and to wear out fast. Regrettably, they pretty much need to be treated as disposable, for good reason.

Laundry opportunities are rare, and if a backpack is your only home, there is a certain reluctance to give houseroom to a bunch of dirty socks. Fast-food restaurant customers and library patrons are displeased when someone washes their socks in the establishment’s restroom. Even if socks can be washed, there is nowhere to dry them, especially in cold weather. So, new socks are highly prized.

Veteran Robert Graves wrote about England in the aftermath of World War I in Goodbye to All That, which was published in 1929:

Ex-service men were continually coming to the door selling boot-laces and asking for cast-off shirts and socks.

Boston’s Dr. Ernesto Gonzalez spoke to an interviewer about issues stemming from exposure to wetness, and the lack of hygiene opportunities:

Athlete’s foot is a very common disease among people who are unable to change their socks or their shoes, or who cannot take showers frequently. So it’s very frequent for them to have fungal diseases.

An anonymous former homeless person wrote,

Socks mean the world to you. They keep you warm, make you feel like you have something new, and just comfort you.

People experiencing homelessness need more socks, and they need to not have their socks and other belongings stolen and destroyed by cops and city or transit workers. They need places to keep their stuff. They need places to keep themselves. But let’s start with the socks.

In and around Austin, TX — or anywhere!

Please learn more about how to donate cold-weather necessities, through House the Homeless.

Reactions?

Source: “From free clothing store for the homeless, to free Thanksgiving restaurant for the homeless,” TheDenverChannel.com, 11/22/18
Source: “It’s cold outside, so Bellingham church makes a difference by sheltering these women,” BellinghamHerald.com, 12/08/18
Source: “Why the ‘reverse advent calendar’ is the best thing you can do this December,” Mirror.co.uk, 11/02/17
Source: “10 Things Food Banks Need But Won’t Ask For,” 1027KORD.com, 12/23/13
Source: “Boston Doctor Who Quietly Treats The Homeless Is Honored,” WBUR.org, 04/25/11
Photo credit (middle; top and bottom): Fair Use; Ryan Tyler Smithright (inov8d) on Foter.com/CC BY

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