Saturday, January 31, 2015

Ten Things to Know

Not all top 10 lists are trivial and for entertainment purposes, only. Here are some facts that might give us pause to reflect on how well some of us have it.

Fact One. Over half a million people are homeless
On any given night, there are over 600,000 homeless people in the US according to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Most people are either spending the night in homeless shelters or in some sort of short term transitional housing. Slightly more than a third are living in cars, under bridges or in some other way living unsheltered.

Fact Two. One quarter of homeless people are children
HUD reports that on any given night over 138,000 of the homeless in the US are children under the age of 18. Thousands of these homeless children are unaccompanied according to HUD. Another federal program, No Child Left Behind, defines homeless children more broadly and includes not just those living in shelters or transitional housing but also those who are sharing the housing of other persons due to economic hardship, living in cars, parks, bus or train stations, or awaiting foster care placement. Under this definition, the National Center for Homeless Education reported in September 2014 that local school districts reported there are over one million homeless children in public schools.

Fact Three. Tens of thousands of veterans are homeless
Over 57,000 veterans are homeless each night. Sixty percent of them were in shelters, the rest unsheltered. Nearly 5000 are female.

Fact Four. Domestic violence is a leading cause of homelessness in women
More than 90% of homeless women are victims of severe physical or sexual abuse and escaping that abuse is a leading of their homelessness.

Fact Five. Many people are homeless because they cannot afford rent
The lack of affordable housing is a primary cause of homelessness according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. HUD has seen its budget slashed by over 50% in recent decades resulting in the loss of 10,000 units of subsidized low income housing each and every year.

Fact Six. There are fewer places for poor people to rent than before
One eighth of the nation’s supply of low income housing has been permanently lost since 2001. The US needs at least 7 million more affordable apartments for low income families and as a result millions of families spend more than half their monthly income on rent.

Fact Seven. In the last few years millions have lost their homes
Over five million homes have been foreclosed on since 2008, one out of every ten homes with a mortgage. This has caused even more people to search for affordable rental property.

Fact Eight. The Government does not help as much as you think
There is enough public rental assistance to help about one out of every four extremely low income households. Those who do not receive help are on multi-year waiting lists. For example, Charlotte just opened up their applications for public housing assistance for the first time in 14 years and over 10,000 people applied.

Fact Nine. One in five homeless people suffer from untreated severe mental illness
While about 6% of the general population suffers from severe mental illness, 20 to 25% of the homeless suffer from severe mental illness according to government studies. Half of this population self-medicate and are at further risk of addiction and poor physical health. A University of Pennsylvania study tracking nearly 5000 homeless people for two years discovered that investing in comprehensive health support and treatment of physical and mental illnesses is less costly than incarceration, shelter and hospital services for the untreated homeless.

Fact Ten. Cities are increasingly making homelessness a crime
A 2014 survey of 187 cities by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty found: 24% make it a city-wide crime to beg in public; 33% make it illegal to stand around or loiter anyplace in the city; 18% make it a crime to sleep anywhere in public; 43% make it illegal to sleep in your car; and 53% make it illegal to sit or lay down in particular public places. And the number of cities criminalizing homelessness is steadily increasing.

For more information look to the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, the National Center for Homeless Education and the National Coalition on the Homeless.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Future of Volunteering?

Recently, I wrote about some states criminalizing public gatherings where food is given away to the homeless. In my ongoing researching, I came across this article and found it interesting.

In the United States, 21 cities have restricted sharing food with homeless people through legislation or community pressure since January 2013, and about 10 other cities are in the process of doing so, the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) said in a report released Monday.

“One of the most narrow-minded ideas when it comes to homelessness and food-sharing is that sharing food with people in need enables them to remain homeless,” the report said.

The report was released a day before Fort Lauderdale, Florida, was set to vote “on the city’s third ordinance this year that will target the life-sustaining activities of people experiencing homelessness,” the NCH said in a news release.

“If the biggest crimes we had to worry about in this country were sitting, sleeping (in public places) and eating and sharing food, we would be in a good state,” said Paul Boden, director of Western Regional Advocacy Project, the organization that launched the Homeless Bill of Rights campaign, an ongoing movement to introduce legislation in California and Oregon to "overturn local laws targeted to remove people from public space."

The NCH report outlines different means by which various jurisdictions allegedly restrict food-sharing. One is the passage of laws requiring a permit to distribute food in public places such as parks. Another is a requirement to “comply with stringent food-safety regulations,” the report said.

A third means — the “most difficult to measure,” according to NCH — involves community-level restrictions imposed by home-owners and businesses that do not want homeless people “in their backyard." This takes the form of pressuring food-distributing organizations to either stop their activities or to relocate their programs to other areas so that homeless people are not "attracted to their communities."

“Regardless of income and housing status, people are going to perform these activities (like sharing and eating food), but only a homeless person is going to see the inside of a jail cell for performing these activities,” Boden said, adding that local governments are passing laws that they know people are going to break.

One in six people struggle to get enough to eat in the United States, according to Feeding America, an organization that works toward hunger relief.

In a December 2013 Hunger and Homelessness Survey conducted by the United States Conference of Mayors, all but four of the 25 surveyed cities reported an increase in requests for emergency food assistance over the past year. Unemployment, low wages, poverty and housing costs were the leading reasons for hunger, according to the survey.

“In all of the responding cities, emergency kitchens and food pantries had to reduce the quantity of food persons could receive at each food pantry visit or the amount of food offered per-meal at emergency kitchens,” the survey said. “In 78 percent of these cities, they had to reduce the number of times a person or family could visit a food pantry each month.”

In its report, the NCH recommends that protections for the homeless be added to city, county or state anti-discrimination laws.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Homeless Students

Homeless students are of every race and cultural background. Ninety percent of homeless families are single-parent families that are typically headed by the mother. The characteristics of homeless students are similar to other students living in poverty, the difference being that they do not have consistent housing.

Research shows that homeless and low-income housed mothers have higher lifetime and current rates of major depression and substance abuse. Many homeless and poor housed mothers have experienced severe physical abuse by a childhood caretaker, childhood molestation, and severe violence by a male partner.

Homeless students are often on their own by the time they reach secondary school age. Administrators frequently refer to these older homeless students as unaccompanied youth or, more informally, as "couch surfers" or "couch hoppers." Unaccompanied youth may have more struggles than homeless students living with their families, and many drop out of high school. These students are unable to live in family shelters and adult shelters are often not safe for them. In addition, men and boys over the age of 16, even if they have a family, are not permitted to reside in most family shelters.

Homeless students sometimes do not get enough to eat and therefore come to school hungry. Homeless students may not get enough sleep at night or are afraid to sleep. Many homeless students do not receive adequate medical or dental care and are more likely to have health problems. Homeless students have higher rates of upper respiratory and ear infections, skin diseases, and common cold symptoms than their peers.

In general, homeless youth are frequently shy and withdrawn, tend to feel isolated and disconnected from school, and often feel stigmatized and alienated from their classmates. Homeless students are likely to have lower self-esteem and higher levels of anxiety than their peers. Studies found that 76% of street youth reported having attempted suicide, and feelings of rejection, low self-worth, and isolation were prevalent. The suicide rate for homeless males between the ages of 18 and 24 is 10.3 times higher than the national average.

About 12% of homeless children are not enrolled in school and up to 45% do not attend school regularly. This is a cause for concern because poor attendance is a significant predictor of dropping out of school. Overall, the academic achievement of homeless students is poor. Research indicates that 43% of homeless students repeat a grade, 25% are placed in special education, and 50% are failing academically. Other data reveal that only one-third of homeless students read at grade level compared to more than half of their same-aged peers.

The relationships that homeless students have with school staff members may be the only associations they have with people who are living in a productive and positive manner and who can serve as guides for how to live constructive lives. School provides stability for homeless students and gives them a sense of self-worth. Graduating from high school has been identified as a protective factor for this population, which highlights the need for intervention to ensure that homeless students receive adequate educational opportunities. A knowledgeable principal can help ensure that all staff members know the rights of homeless students and that they receive required services. The following are some ideas to provide support in school for homeless youth.

Provide workshops for teachers and staff members to inform and address the unique needs of homeless students. Educate staff members about the special needs of homeless students and ways to work with their parents or guardians to make certain that they know their educational rights. General information about developmental issues and resources should be discussed and definitions of homelessness should be clear to everyone. It is helpful to display information in prominent locations. Administrators should also stress that homeless students' privacy and emotional health should be protected.

-much thanks to National Coalition on Homelessness.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Runaway Youth

As a kid, I threatened to run away at least a few times a month. Once, I even made it as far as the railroad tracks a mile and a half away. Fortunately, I had just (barely) enough sense to turn around and head back to my house. My life was comfortable and I had no excuse for my tantrums so they faded quickly. For many youth, however, running away from home is a reality.

Homelessness among young people is a serious issue. Homeless youth, sometimes referred to as unaccompanied youth, are individuals who lack parental, foster or institutional care. The National Runaway Switchboard estimates that on any given night there are approximately 1.3 million homeless youth living unsupervised on the streets, in abandoned buildings, with friends or with strangers. Homeless youth are at a higher risk for physical abuse, sexual exploitation, mental health disabilities, substance abuse, and death. It is estimated that 5,000 unaccompanied youth die each year as a result of assault, illness, or suicide.

*One in seven young people between the ages of 10 and 18 will run away.
*Youth age 12 to 17 are more at risk of homelessness than adults.
*75 percent of runaways are female.
*Estimates of the number of pregnant homeless girls are between 6 and 22 percent.
*Between 20 and 40% of homeless youth identify as Gay, Bisexual, or Transgender.
*46 % of runaway and homeless youth reported being physically abused.
*38 % reported being emotionally abused.
*17 % reported being sexual abused by a family or household member.
*75 % of homeless or runaway youth have dropped out or will drop out of school.

The reasons for running away vary.

Many youth run away, and in turn become homeless, due to problems in the home, including physical and sexual abuse, mental health disorders of a family member, substance abuse and addiction of a family member, and parental neglect. In some cases, youth are asked to leave the home because the family is unable to provide for their specific mental health or disability needs. Still some youth are pushed out of their homes because their parents cannot afford to care for them.

Youth who have been involved in the foster care system are more likely to become homeless at an earlier age and remain homeless for a longer period of time. Youth aging out of the foster care system often have little or no income support and limited housing options and are at higher risk to end up on the streets. Youth that live in residential or institutional facilities often become homeless upon discharge. In addition, very few homeless youth are able to seek housing in emergency shelters due to the lack of shelter beds for young people and shelter admission policies.

Some youth become homeless when their families fall into difficult financial situations resulting from lack of affordable housing, difficulty obtaining or maintaining a job, or lack of medical insurance or other benefits. These youth become homeless with their families, but later can find themselves separated from them and/or living on the streets alone, often due to shelter or child welfare policies.

The consequences of life on the street for homeless and runaway youth can be deadly.
There is an increased likelihood of high-risk behaviors, including engaging in unprotected sex, having multiple sex partners and participating in intravenous drug use. Youth who engage in these high-risk behaviors are more likely to remain homeless and be more resistant to change. There is also a greater risk of severe anxiety and depression, suicide, poor health and nutrition, and low self-esteem.

Difficulty attending school due to lack of required enrollment records (such as immunization and medical records and proof of residence) as well as lack of access to transportation to and from school. As a result, homeless youth often have a hard time getting an education and supporting themselves financially.

I hope this changes our perception of kids who run away. Life on the streets is no place for youth and the situations driving them from their homes can be devastating.

-Information courtesy of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Catch and Release

This blog has discussed numerous reasons that cause people to become homeless. I can remember several instances at the shelter when taxis would roll up, unload someone who had been discharged from incarceration or a treatment facility, and then drive away. Presto! Problem solved because the individual now had a "place to stay." Sometimes we could accommodate the person, but other times the situation was a bit more complex than just opening the doors and allowing anyone to stay.

Because we serve families, there are certain stipulations and safety guidelines we adhere to, and we are not permitted to accept any and every person, carté blanche, who shows up unannounced or is dumped on our doorstep by different providers or organizations. Nationally, this is a huge problem as a growing body of information documents the large number of people who become homeless upon discharge from hospitals and treatment facilities, jails and prisons, and the foster care system.

Ineffective discharges from institutions generate homelessness because it is a convenient means to an end. It happens when a person completes their mandated stay at a specific facility and then has no place to go, so they end up at a shelter. Unfortunately, many people are still dealing with the issues that led them to treatment and are not able to function safely in a communal environment without unsupervised or continued care.

Each case highlights the scarcity of community resources to meet the housing, health care, and other needs of individuals without personal resources, and demonstrates the responsibility of institutions to work to increase community resources. At Samaritan House, we are honored to play a role in helping people and families get back on their feet. In order to be part of the solution, here are some helpful insights to prevent homelessness pertaining to this topic:

Prohibit discharges into homelessness from all publicly funded institutions such as hospitals, treatment facilities, prisons and jails, and the foster care system. Invest in recuperative care facilities for patients without homes who require supervised medical care but are not ill enough to remain hospitalized.

Require all publicly funded institutions providing residential care, treatment or custody to secure all available entitlements for residents prior to discharge and to provide staff persons trained in housing placement assessment and assistance.

Establish assisted living type recuperative care facilities for homeless individuals who require medical, mental health and/or addiction services over a period of time in order to sustain their housing stability while they recuperate, recover, and prepare to enter permanent housing.

Create sufficient jobs and incomes, affordable permanent housing, universal health insurance, accessible health care, and other community services to meet the needs of all persons at risk of homelessness.

Ending homeless is a realistic goal if we can work and partner together by honoring and addressing the specific needs of people who require, and then are released from treatment facilities or other places. We do a disservice when we paint homelessness with a broad brush and generalities instead of examine each person's specific needs.

*information courtesy of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

Monday, January 12, 2015

What a Crime

The word 'criminal' conjures many images. Hardened lawbreakers pacing their cells and career felons menacing the public and preying on the unsuspecting. Men in 1920s zoot suits dancing while trying to save a little girl named Annie (Sorry... That last one refers to Michael Jackson's Smooth Criminal). Whatever our preconceived notions, we have a certain specific idea of what a bonafied criminal should look like.

Several cities in America have instituted measures and laws criminalizing certain elements of homelessness, especially in public places. The criminalization of homelessness refers to measures which prohibit life-sustaining activities such as sleeping/camping, eating, sitting, and/or asking for money/resources in public spaces. I have researched a few of these ordinances that are common in many places and my intention is not to cast judgement, but to present the the information and let you decided the validity of the these laws.

In some places, living or sleeping in public places within city limits is illegal. Law enforcement has the right to perform out sweeps of city areas in which homeless people dwell. These sewers consist of confiscating personal property including tents, bedding, papers, clothing, medications, etc. The intent is to make communities safer by relocating the homeless, often moving them outside city limits. But what about the safety of those homeless who have been moved?

Panhandling within city limits is illegal in numerous cities around the country. High-traffic areas such as parking lots and busy intersections are often inhabited by homeless people looking for money or work. Again, public safety is an issue, but there also is an issue of unsightliness. When consumers are asked for money public places, it is bad for business and might hamper people from shopping. But should people be allowed to solicit funds or make requests for work in places with more chances to succeed?

Another common law I found made it illegal for groups to share food with homeless people in public spaces. These cities enforce a “quality of life” ordinance relating to public activity and hygiene. Issues of health and public congregation are sighted to curtail large gatherings of homeless. Many people break this law by venturing out and providing food and resources in spite of laws designed to keep this activity from happening.

I understand the need for law and order, and applaud those peace officers who dedicate their lives to keeping us safe. It is a difficult job worthy of commendation and respect. The point of contention stems from an idea that says the homeless are not members of the community. And while different locales wrestle with this issue, one question looms large: are these offenses worthy of being labeled 'criminal?'

Over the past 25 years, cities across the country have penalized people who are forced to carryout out life-sustaining activities on the street and in public space even though these very communities lack adequate affordable housing and shelter space. Ultimately, many of these measures are designed to move homeless persons out of sight, and at times out of a given city. But just because someone is unseen does not mean they cease to exist and shouldn't there be another alternative to living besides criminality?

Just some thoughts.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Storage Stories

It seems there are television shows that cater to everyone's desires. Since the Christmas break started, I feel like I have watched every single one of them. Hoarding? Check. Celebrity baking competition? Check. People hunting for Sasquatch? Check. Listing the rest of my voyeurisitc tendencies might take the rest of the day, so hopefully you get the idea. One show that piqued my interest revolved around a group of people who purchased the contents of storage units abandoned by their owners. The contents were salvaged through and the buyers attempted to make a profit by selling the contents, piecemeal.

I watched a few episodes and wondered how many people spent time living in storage units. Was this even a feasible possibility for people facing homelessness? Some people enduring homelessness are easy to spot, but many—perhaps most—are not. They’re living with friends and families, in their cars or in shelters. But there are a growing number of people attempting to take refuge by moving into storage units. Living in a self-storage unit is neither safe nor legal, but it does occur, for a variety of reasons.

Being homeless is akin to being a nomad. Individuals are often forced to carry all their possessions with them. Renting storage units allows people to keep their most precious belongings safe and preserve what they can of their former life. When a person is homeless, privacy is a not a luxury. The ability to keep belongings in a secure place gives homeless people a renewed sense of normalcy.

It’s pretty much impossible to determine exactly how many people are living in storage units in the U.S., but there are some indicators: media reports, as well as data from shelters and other organizations that help homeless people. At any given time, about 610,000 people in the U.S. are homeless, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

Homeless people also are less likely to be chronically unemployed than many people realize. Some are working full time and simply unable to earn enough money to cover all of their basic needs. In fact, the National Coalition for the Homeless estimates that at least half of all homeless people are employed. In a way, being homeless is almost a full-time job. In many cities, people are unable to get all the services needed in one location, having to go to Point A for meals, Point B for health care, Point C for food stamps. Living in storage units permits people to have a centrally located base from which they can operate. Everything stashed away and dry with the ability to come and go from their jobs and to keep necessary appointments.

The typical image of someone living on the streets doesn’t paint a complete picture of homelessness in America. In reality, homelessness can happen to anyone, perhaps because of health problems, disabilities or economic troubles. Homelessness even affects some of our nation’s heroes. For instance, roughly 6,500 female combat veterans in the U.S. are homeless, with some of them living in storage units.

I'm not sure I will be able to look at a storage unit the same way I used to.

Extra information courtesy of National Alliance to End Homelessness and SpareFoot Nonprofit surveys.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Small-Town Musings

As the terrain changes, the scenery abandons one form for another. Mountains morph into skyscrapers while rolling hills melt into storefronts and buildings. The rolling plains evaporate into city streets and endless boulevards. I travelled east for the holiday season and was quickly reminded that, even if you take the person out of Montana, you can't Montana out of the person.

It is exciting to visit old haunts that seem new because time lives by the axiomatic principle of change. People and places evolve over the years and the same neighborhoods we grew up in, moved away from, and revisit, will have a foreign feel to them even though they remain just familiar enough to remind us we once knew them. Sometimes we pass through and recoil from the differences until we see ourselves in the reflection of a window and realized we have changed just as drastically.

Imagine the shocking cycle for a homeless expatriate who re-experiences a cherished place after an extended absence. Normalcy fades into eerie cognizance which slips into confusion wrapped in discomfort. The benchmarks and icons used as anchors to identify formerly-familiar places are altered, redesigned, or simply extinct. The sense of home a person might long for is replaced. Same place, different scenery.

It was easy for me to adapt to my old surroundings because I still had one constant that trumped all the regional variables- my family. I had the luxury of brining my Montana family with me to visit my east coast family. No matter where we went or what we did, I was able to accept the newness of my old hometown because my immediate world was stable. While I marveled at some changes and chortled at others, I was ultimately unaffected because I had an anchor allowing me to view the differences without feeling lost.

I've spoken to many homeless people who have expressed different sentiments. Because homelessness forces many people to leave their situations, it is common for some people to travel far and to be gone for extended periods of time. Weeks turn into months and then, before long, years have lapsed before a person is able to get back on their feet and return to the city they loved. But the city often changes just as much as the individual. And the reentry can be excruciating if there is no one to help restore normalcy.

This seems obvious, and I realize I'm not telling you anything you don't know. But sometimes we miss the most obvious truths around us because we are able to adapt and accept them. Change doesn't dishevel many of us as much as it inconveniences us. As the new year sets in, I hope we can see what (and who) is around us and not fall back into the default-settings we routine rely on to navigate life. Maybe we can take time to open our eyes in a different way.

Having a family and home can ground us in difficult times and allow us to move forward when our surroundings change. Please take time to remember those around us who have neither families or homes as they try to adapt to the same surroundings, albeit different scenery.