Congrats, New Orleans!!

Maryellen Hess:

Congratulations to New Orleans for setting the goal to end veteran homelessness and seeing it through! I hope other cities see this as a challenge to show their humanity as well.

Originally posted on Trauma Hub:

Congratulations, New Orleans, for tackling homelessness for our Veterans! You stepped up to Katrina, and now look! Thank you! Xo

Please read this article and stay abreast of what we can do as a community to resolve homelessness for our Vets, and as a whole.

Thank you.


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What would MLK jr. say about homelessness?

Maryellen Hess:

I read a powerful letter recently about an ignored but fundamental accomplishment of Dr. King. The writer opened my eyes in a way no one else had done.

There is a part of Dr. King’s legacy, she says, far more important than leading civil resistance. He taught the people on the ground – the ones who marched, defied Jim Crow laws, sat at the lunch counters – to accept the violence that their actions would certainly precipitate. Unless they overcame their fear of that violence they could not push the limits needed to create change.

Do we now have to teach our homeless how to accept the violence against their dignity as a way to push back against it?

Originally posted on brainsections:

I really don’t know, but I do know that in a politically correct world people are still looking for a scapegoat for all their frustrations and anxieties and homeless people are the new scapegoat. You can’t rag on the usual people about looking or acting differently; so just attack those who, for whatever reason, will not march to societies conventions. The reasoning behind this is that homelessness is a choice and the people who are homeless are making poor choices. The people who are forcing them to “convert” to living a normal life are feeling very virtuous. Any and all kinds of pressure to change the homeless individuals path are allowed.

Okay, folks. Didn’t we go through all of this in history before? One religion decides that their way is the only way, and you know the rest…

The same is happening here to-day. Get real. Not everyone started their…

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“It was as if they burned my house down.”

These are the words of one man who lost everything when city police in Akron, Ohio took apart a homeless encampment and confiscated the campers’ belongings. In 2013 Patrick Moe lost his military service papers and pictures of his late wife in this “homeless sweep”.

In October 2014 Akron police once again removed virtually everything from another homeless camp. It was the latest in several the City has done since 2011. Students and professors from the Case Western School of Law have stepped in on behalf of 11 people who lost everything they owned because the police took their belongings and disposed of them. In essence confiscations imply homeless people don’t even have the right to own things.

These sweeps are part of a growing trend to criminalize people for following their survival instincts. Beyond the citations for sitting on the sidewalk or sleeping in a park the cities that claim they don’t know what else to do are disingenuous. Even police policy resources such as the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing provides guidance on how to address homeless encampments without creating even more hardship.

The Center’s advice speaks to the issue of reducing the police departments’ exposure to lawsuits about infringement on civil rights and loss of personal property. They describe processes about notification, researching whether the property is legally protected from trespassing and more. This only makes sense for a resource for law enforcement organizations. This does not make its guidance any less valuable to achieve better ways to resolve the issues fairly, without making a lot of arrests or taking property.

The report even educates its readers about the “Housing First” approach. This strategy provides supportive housing for disabled people who have long histories of homelessness. Housing First is just what the name says – the person in need obtains a safe and secure place to live so they can focus on solving the problems that led to their homelessness.

An excerpt from a chart on the Center’s web site shows the work it has done to create a useful policy and procedure template.

police policy chart on encampments

Interestingly, the Center’s report is consistent with the experience of dozens of cities trying to reduce the visibility of homelessness by imposing penalties on people for following their survival instincts. It relies on the myth that people are choosing homelessness and its misery. If we punish them enough they will suddenly have the means to gain a home.

In reality criminalization of homelessness and destruction of homeless camps are fools’ errands that only increases social and economic costs. Solutions to homelessness restore people to better health, gives them more opportunity for successful employment and reduces hospital and jail costs.

Ordinances penalizing people who have to live in tents instead of houses; who have to walk endlessly to find bathrooms open to them; and who have no better place to sit in the rain than near buildings with overhangs ignore the realities of homelessness. We can do more to solve the problem and save their lives and dignity.

Instead of solutions we are going backwards. It’s one thing to ban people from sleeping in public. Are we really going to take their cherished pictures or their only pair of boots, too?

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Millionaires can get arrested for sleeping under a bridge, too

The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets and to steal bread.” Anatole France, 1894

At a time when the price of housing is racing ahead of wages many cities have moved aggressively against people who don’t have homes. This aggression is not to solve the problem. It is to hide it. 71 cities across the country have passed or tried to pass ordinances that criminalize feeding the homeless, according to Michael Stoops, director of community organizing at the National Coalition for the Homeless.

Often called “sit/lie” laws, they bar sitting or lying down on any street, sidewalk, entrance to a store, alley or other public place. Over the last several years there has been exponential growth in the number of cities with ordinances that effectively prohibit life-sustaining activities.

  • 64 cities ban sleeping/camping in public places, a 62% increase since 2011
  • 81 cities ban sleeping in cars
  • 200 now ban sitting or lying in public places
  • 71 have banned or proposed a ban on feeding the homeless
  • 76 percent of cities prohibit begging in particular public places, an increase of 20 percent since 2011

These ordinances include criminal penalties for violations. People who do not have enough money for adequate shelter are fined for sleeping outside. Just sitting on a bench in a public park can lead to arrest or a fine.

Cities even impose fines on good Samaritans who take food to homeless people and hand it out publicly.

Daytona Beach police cited Debbie and Chico Jimenez and four friends more than $2,000 for cooking and serving hot meals to homeless people in a public park. The police cited them for violating a local ordinance that prohibits such public feedings.

Homelessness happens for a reason.

Many homeless people work or want to work. These “sit/lie” laws are punishing people because they do not earn enough money to afford housing. Adding criminal offenses to their records won’t make it easier to find work or move into better paying jobs.

People with mental illness need treatment, not jail. Easier access to quality services and affordable housing will reduce homelessness. It is actually cheaper to provide a home than a jail bed.

Investments in prevention and treatment are the logical solution for people who become homeless due to drug dependencies. In fact, many homeless people with drug addictions started out as patients in need of legitimate pain medication. Despite public perception more people are addicted to prescription medicines than to any street drug. Opiate painkillers like Vicodin and Percoset have taken many people hostage when used improperly or for too long.

It is irrational to use sit/lie laws to address homelessness. We have research and experience on how to solve its root causes. If we shift money from the costs of the justice system to housing and treatment, we will save money on jail costs and improve our communities at the same time. Moreover, our law enforcement community can spend their time pursuing criminals who are actually violent or destructive.

Once cities have created these laws they cannot pick and choose when to enforce them. Otherwise, they are leaving themselves open to lawsuits for civil rights violations. Cities that do enforce their bans fairly will round up far more people than the homeless.

Before you take a seat on a park bench make sure you do not live in one of the 200 cities where it is banned. Do not expose your compassion for others by providing food to the needy. And do not let yourself fall asleep on a public beach even if you go there to relax. Going to jail for sleeping in public would be a hell of a way to spend your vacation.





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The Weight Watcher’s Guide to Reducing Poverty

Weight Watchers has been around for over 50 years. While other dieting schemes have come and gone, the iconic symbol of successful weight loss remains. The company itself attributes that success to strength in numbers. It tells potential participants what they already know. Losing weight alone is no fun, and can be hard to stick with. It offers a group support solution – participants are “encouraged and inspired by people like you, losing weight together.”

The New England Journal of Medicine empirically established that social relationships have a powerful impact on weight gain. Researchers found that friends had the greatest impact on obesity and that the type of friendship made a difference.

It isn’t like we really needed a study. Just look around and you will see groups of people who are drawn together in common interests or goals. This is just as true for people in long term poverty. Researcher Reeta Wolfsohn calls this a poverty mindset. Someone with a poverty mindset lives life predominantly without any thoughts of change, of improvement or of creating a different or better future. Wolfsohn surmises that these families see an inherent message from the universe that this is as good as it gets: don’t ask for or expect more.

This does not happen only in the home. Schools in many inner-city neighborhoods are dead-ends. Instead of equipping poor children with the skills they need to escape poverty, bad schools lower their expectations and sink their hopes. Schools can be lifelines out of poverty, but they can also be lifeless houses of detention.

We learn from those around us, and children from families and schools where everyone seems stuck will absorb that belief system. If you grow up in a home where it is believed hard work will lead to a better life you see value in tackling formidable barriers. In contrast, people who have accepted they will always be poor feel it is a waste of energy. Although it is a negative influence it feels familiar and safe. People in poverty look at life as financially static.

If people surround themselves with others like them, and that affects their willingness to make changes, even positive ones, how can we help people see their potential and work to improve their lives?

The Family Independence Initiative project has done just that with its model to recruit working poor families and let them self-organize into peer support groups. After 22 years working in an anti-poverty agency Maurice Lim Miller, founder of the Family Independence Initiative, looked for a new way to generate greater self-sufficiency. Contending that no one gets out of poverty alone, Miller wanted to enroll families in groups so that they could turn to each other for help, instead of to a caseworker or a program.

In 2011 the New America Foundation published an article describing the Family Independence Initiative as “a nonprofit, community-based organization that is considered an on-the-ground social laboratory for new strategies to tackle poverty. At its core, the Family Independence Initiative approach is both radical and as old as our republic. Their philosophy is that low-income people can advance together if we re-ignite the resource sharing, mutual support, and role modeling that has historically helped immigrant families leave poverty behind. They model new policies that reward strength and initiative (as opposed to need) and are led by the families themselves, rather than programs or professional caseworkers.”

As part of the Family Independence Initiative, working poor families self-organize into peer support groups. They set personal goals for their families and obtain cash payments for reporting monthly progress. Small amounts of money can be earned when families report the actions they take. They receive about $25 to $30 in return for a range of about 50 actions they can document.

In designing the program Miller started with the question “What would the result be if families were … encouraged to turn to friends and social networks for help and direction?

FII tracked progress of participants across all study sites. Among the San Francisco cohort, the Family Independence Initiative reports that households
• increased their income by an average of 20 percent,
• half the school-age children improved their school performance,
• 3 out of 5 households reduced their debt, and
• 3 out of 4 increased their savings, from an average of $437 to $1,433

According to FII, families report that consistently charting their progress—and sharing that progress with the families in their monthly support group meetings—keeps them focused on making changes and moving forward.

The participating families can use their meetings and social network to help each other with overcoming barriers to their goals. After all, they are facing problems that they have faced individually. The difference is now they have formed relationships with others who are looking ahead and seeing hope for positive change. It turns the “poverty mindset” on its head among those who are working together.

Getting ahead in a world with growing inequality of opportunity and resources is formidable, and, like dieting, progress can be slow. The Family Independence Initiative shows participants there is strength in numbers. The participants surround themselves with believers that keep hope and success in sight.

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Is your client part of the 85%?

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The wait for affordable housing is getting longer and longer…unless you are part of the 85%. In recent years HUD and state funding sources have shifted more of their investments to serve people who have been chronically homeless. These programs … Continue reading

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I stayed because I don’t want to be homeless

On September 17, 2013 domestic violence programs across the U.S. served 36,348 homeless victims in emergency shelters or transitional housing. On that same day 5,578 requests for housing assistance went unfilled as providers were maxed out on beds and vouchers.

That amounts to 41,926 people fleeing domestic violence in one day.  The number may be a little low because only 87% of domestic violence providers took part in the survey. Nor does it count people fleeing DV who were not seeking help from a provider.

So it’s fair to say a minimum of 41,926 people needed a safe place to stay that day.

Emergency shelters and Transitional Housing fill a need but only for a short time.  For many victims shelters are brief respites from the turmoil in their homes. Survivors of violence may be coping with depression, trauma, hopelessness and a belief they are worthless. Abusers build financial dependence as part of their hold. Healing emotionally and physically takes time. Building reliable income takes time.

Not surprising, few victims can move from their home or a shelter directly to affordable permanent housing. The National Low Income Housing Coalition’s recent issue of “Out of Reach 2014″ estimates that there are only 31 affordable apartments for every 100 very low income households.

Most financial support for affordable housing programs begins with HUD, and the agency has set aside money for programs that must serve the homeless. That’s where Rapid Rehousing comes in. As its name implies HUD has begun shifting resources to more homeless prevention and for those who do become homeless, more resources to shorten the length of homeless episodes. Years of research on best practices and outcomes led to revamped programs to end homelessness. The HEARTH Act (Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing) recognizes Rapid Rehousing as an effective approach to reducing homelessness.

Many affordable housing programs must be retooled to meet the HEARTH Act intent and its expected outcomes. Identifying who is “homeless” is one of those elements. Fortunately for victims and advocates looking for resources the HEARTH definition carves out a special recognition of their dilemma. The new definition states

“individuals and families who are fleeing, or are attempting to flee, domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, stalking, or other dangerous or life-threatening conditions that relate to violence against the individual or a family member.”

Qualifying as homeless is the first step towards obtaining HUD assistance. And note that the definition does not refer to victims who have already fled domestic violence. It refers to those “attempting to flee.”

There are two primary sources of Rapid Rehousing assistance. The most significant resources (of which I am aware) come from HUD’s Continuum of Care program. Every community has a council to administer its Continuum of Care funds. The easiest way to find yours is to start at the top. HUD posts a map and index of local councils. Once you identify the lead agency you can begin making contacts about what funds are available in your community.

Your search should not stop there. Contact your city or county community development department and ask about the Emergency Solutions Grant (ESG). Once the domain of emergency shelters HEARTH expanded the use of ESG. Now its funds can pay for rapid rehousing programs.

Because ESG can pay for Rapid Rehousing does not mean it has to pay for it. Advocates will have to do some homework to find out whether ESG money has been designated for Rapid Rehousing in their community. Identify your local ESG resources directly from the Continuum of Care. You can also check with your city or county community development office to find out if it has designated any funding for Rapid Rehousing.

Advocates and survivors should advocate for help from rapid rehousing programs with this understanding – it is designed to move families from homelessness to housing who need only a few months of help paying the rent. It varies from community to community but ultimately the survivor must be able to pick up and maintain the rent.

One more caveat – resources are limited in a time of extraordinary demand. So when you hear the words “I’m from the government and I’m here to help,” remember the HEARTH Act clearly intends to help those who are fleeing, or attempting to flee, domestic violence. For that we should be grateful.

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