Monday, February 18, 2013

American Homelessness and the Issue of Entitlements

This poster makes a good point. Something is clearly wrong when you treat your enemy prisoners worse than your own citizens. When enemies are entitled to better conditions than your average homeless person, it's worth a closer look.

To add insult to injury, while prisoners of war (pardon, enemy combatants) had, at the very least, free medical care, a roof over their heads and warm meals, past studies have indicated that up to a third of all of adult homeless men were US veterans and as such are, without the protections guaranteed by the Geneva Convention. 

(One bright spot: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) reported that the number of homeless ex-service men and women has declined by 7% in 2012- far better than the national rate. ) 

This informational poster, however, did its job. It got me thinking about the issue of homelessness and entitlements.

To Be Without a Home, Like a Complete Unknown
First of all, even before the worst effects of the recession rippled through the country, homelessness was a shame for the nation with aspirations of greatness. Back in 2009, it was estimated the number of homeless Americans at between 2.3 and 3.5 million.
Surprisingly (given the present state of the economy) the rate of homelessness actually decreased from 2009 to 2012. (A one-percent drop isn't much for a superpower to brag about, of course.) There is a good reason for this modest decrease in the number of people living on the street or in community shelters. Blame Obama's Big Government boogeyman.
I'll explain in a moment.

But, even with that tiny glimmer of hope, that statistical decrease is misleading. The number of individuals in homeless families might have decreased by 1 percent nationally, but the numbers actually increased by 20 percent or more in 11 states. Altogether the rates increased in 24 states and the District of Columbia.

And importantly, that increase was among the unsheltered population.
A majority of homeless people counted were in emergency shelters or transitional housing programs, but nearly 4 in 10 were unsheltered, living on the streets, or in cars, abandoned buildings, or other places not intended for human habitation. The unsheltered population increased by 2 percent from 239,759 in 2009 to 243,701 in 2011, the only subpopulation to increase.
The unsheltered population is notoriously hard to count, so the numbers could be much higher. But, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, 23 percent of homeless people are reported as chronically homeless, that is, according to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)
a person who is "chronically homeless" is an unaccompanied homeless individual with a disabling condition (e.g., substance abuse, serious mental illness, developmental disability, or chronic physical illness) who has either been continuously homeless for a year or more, or has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years. In order to be considered chronically homeless, a person must have been sleeping in a place not meant for human habitation and/or in an emergency homeless shelter.
In other words, while the percent of the homeless population decreased the number of chronically homeless and unsheltered homeless has increased. Consider this every time a homeless shelter in your area is closed due to lack of state or federal funding. With the subject of reduced government spending on every politician's lips, the situation is likely to get worse.

Closing Doors on the Homeless
The budget stalemate in Washington isn't only about political games and brinkmanship. It has already had a catastrophic effect on those people who have already lost everything.
In Orange County, Florida, for example, shelters operate seasonally, giving the homeless an opportunity to at least escape the coldest time of the year. It's not much but it's better than nothing. In the last years, the shelters were unable even to meet this modest goal.
The armories in Santa Ana and Fullerton were supposed to remain open until April 1, but "we've flat run out of money," said Larry Haynes, executive director of Mercy House, which runs the winter armory program for the county.
The armory shelter programs, which traditionally are financed by county, state and federal funds, are supposed to be open from the beginning of December until about mid-April. But for the past two years they have run for a shorter time due to a lack of funds.
Last year, the state stopped its contributions to the program because of a budget deficit. There were no state funds again this winter and the services didn't begin until mid-December.
Homelessness in Florida is affecting the lives of children too. According to an article from The Florida Center for Investigative Reporting:
In Florida during the past five years, homelessness among public school students ages 5 to 17 jumped 84 percent. During the 2010-11 school year, the most recent year for which statewide data is available, 56,680 students were reported homeless.
As Barbara Duffield, policy director of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C., said in that report:
“You can only expect so much from a child if they don’t receive what they need at this stage of their lives,” You need to eat, sleep and be warm and safe. These are all basic things.”
So when it comes to the needs of children, the question becomes: Are these basic things actually "entitlements"? Do American children, born into one of the richest nations in the world, deserve this kind of neglect and parsimony?

Struggles for New Image
In Los Angeles, where there are more than 51,000 homeless people living in L.A. County alone, the numbers of homeless families, seniors and veterans have seen double-digit increases in just one year.
It was reported last year in the Christian Post that the largest overnight emergency shelter in LA was barely struggling to survive because of federal budget cuts and the weak economy. That shelter which houses up to 600, now has to turn away "up to 100 women and 40 men each night because of lack of funds."

Brenda Wilson, who along with her twin sister, Lynda Moran, operates New Image Shelter for the Homeless, told the CP reporter,
"We are seeing an increase with women, homeless runaway youth, families, and an increase in Asians."
Nationally, experts tell us that young people are becoming the new face of homelessness. Many may have college credits and work histories are nevertheless underemployed or jobless: the first precursor to being homeless. According to the New York Times, that problem is largely hidden because young people are less likely to shelter in traditional rescue centers.
Without a stable home address, they are an elusive group that mostly couch surfs or sleeps hidden away in cars or other private places, hoping to avoid the lasting stigma of public homelessness during what they hope will be a temporary predicament.
One president-led inter-agency initiative Youth Count! has attempted to call attention to this aspect of the larger homeless problem. Its mission is "to aid and encourage communities across the country in developing and implementing strategies to better reach unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness." 

How it will survive with the proposed budget slashing is anybody's guess.
But homelessness isn't limited to one ethnic or age group. As The Reverend Andy Bales, the CEO of the Union Rescue Mission homeless shelter in Downtown L.A, said in one article:
"These are your own neighbors... These folks could be you. All that has to happen is you lose your job for long enough and can't pay your rent and lose your home and have no one to turn to and this could be you. This is your neighbor and we are not treating people correctly by dumping them on Skid Row. Everybody belongs in their own neighborhood if they wish to stay there and I think we have a duty to help our neighbors rather than drop them off somewhere when they hit hard times. The best thing we could do is prevent our neighbors from falling into homelessness."
He added that there have never been enough shelters in any of the places he's worked. When the axe falls on an assortment of programs, there will be even fewer. More of the homeless will be on the streets, more children and young people, more veterans, more women. More will become chronically homeless, and, being unsheltered, fewer of those will be counted in statistics.

Where Help for the Homeless Came
Earlier in this post, I mentioned that there was, in fact, a small decrease in the numbers. This news requires an explanation. According to The State of Homelessness in America 2012, a report from National Alliance to End Homelessness:
The decrease [1%]was likely due to a significant investment of federal resources to prevent homelessness and quickly re-house people who did become homeless.
Given the numbers of foreclosures and the sharp decline in employment during this time, a 1% decrease is actually somewhat impressive. (Still it's nothing to brag about when the defense budget and tax cuts for the richest are, when it comes to federal budget cuts, strictly out of the question.)
The President deserves credit for stepping up to the plate, at least. 
The Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP), funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009) was a $1.5 billion federal effort to prevent a recession-related increase in homelessness. It was built upon ground-breaking work at the federal level and in jurisdictions across the nation to improve the homelessness system by adopting evidence-based, cost effective interventions. In 2010, its first year of operation, it assisted nearly 700,000 at-risk and homeless people. This report provides evidence that it was successful in achieving its goal of preventing a significant increase in homelessness.
The HPRP program to combat homelessness was part of the stimulus package that Republicans have absolutely despised. The Obama stimulus included $1.5 billion for HPRP with a program life-span of two years. The program aimed "to help families who are either homeless or at risk of becoming homeless to pay rent, make security deposits, pay utility bills, and cover other housing expenses."

Additionally it provided funds to help these families receive appropriate services related to housing search and retention. Homelessness isn't merely a humanitarian or a moral issue. Without homes, despite all their efforts, even qualified employable workers are unlikely to find work. The problem becomes an economic one. Add dependent children to the equation and you have what a social problem that spans generations, what Kennedy referred to as "inherited poverty."
As HPRP's life span drew to an end, the government program closed out operations nationwide on September 30, 2012. Today federal HPRP funds are no longer available.

With the proposed budget cuts, it is unlikely to be re-implemented.Conservatives, like McCain and Cantor and Ryan, who have long ago abandoned the poor for the sake of cost-cutting, will, no doubt, be pleased to know another government "handout" has ended. 

Chalk it up to another victory against entitlements for the poor by a party that supports entitlements for the rich and for special interests.
* * * *

According to the HUDwebsite, the Obama administration has certainly not ignored the problem of homelessness.
The Obama Administration’s strategic plan to end homelessness is called Opening Doors – a roadmap by 19 federal member agencies of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness along with local and state partners in the public and private sectors. The plan puts the country on a path to end veterans and chronic homelessness by 2015; and to ending homelessness among children, family, and youth by 2020. The Plan presents strategies building upon the lesson that mainstream housing, health, education, and human service programs must be fully engaged and coordinated to prevent and end homelessness.
When certain members of the Republican party are extolling the joys of government shutdowns to prove their high-minded principles about the deficit, you can be very sure that haven't considered what will happen to the homeless when the dust finally settles.

Hitting Hard Times: Nobody is Safe
While there is admittedly much waste whenever government agencies are mismanaged and not properly reviewed, everybody wants to talk about cutting government spending except when the crisis is on their own doorstep. When a tornado gallops through their neighborhood, or a flood washes away their hopes, then they expect FEMA and emergency relief dollars to come to the rescue. It's what they pay taxes for, they say. They are entitled to it as Americans. they say. Yet so often the same people will tell you that the homeless shouldn't expect to be rescued in personal emergencies.

Instead of becoming more empathetic to the less fortunate, our society seems to be turning the other direction. Even worse, lately you hear the same hardened attitude so often used against the chronic poor- ("it's their own fault.." "Why should I have to pay for their laziness, their drug problem, etc?") being used against disaster victims too. 

During the last hurricane season, I recently read somebody saying that "those" people have only themselves to blame because they chose to live in hurricane-prone areas. "Why should I have to pay for their lack of common sense?" he wrote. "Why should I have to pay for their extravagant lifestyle?" (As if every Floridan ate crepes and ladyfingers, had crumpets with their afternoon tea and threw lavish garden parties.)

There must be some place where there are no earthquakes, no tornadoes, no fires, no floods, no droughts, no blizzards, no avalanches, no killer heatwaves, and no landslides but I can't imagine where it would be, but wherever it is located, there are some very smug people living there. Those catastrophe-free people are I assume the same ones who think they'll never be homeless, never be too sick to work and never have to rely on the government for anything.

Rev. Bales, who is of course familiar the Christian faith, warns us not to think it can't happen to you. I think it's worth repeating.
"These are your neighbors.. these folks could be you...  We have a duty to help our neighbors rather than drop them off somewhere when they hit hard times. "
And Christians, even conservative ones, really ought to know what their Christ said about neighbors. Of course, if you are of the more secular frame of mind, just think of this humanitarian view as a Geneva Convention for your fellow citizen.

Here is a video with more information. Warning: some of the images may disturb you. It shows you are still human.

Now, after all that depressing news, here's how people like you  are making a difference. 

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