Solving Homelessness: Health Care

Homelessness is unhealthy. In the United States poverty, extreme or otherwise, is unhealthy. For many middle-class families, simply being underinsured in unhealthy. Health care is a wide-reaching issue but the cost of health care, with or without insurance, is frequently financially devastating and potentially deadly.

Doctors don’t work for free. If you can’t pay the bill and the insurance company (assuming you have one) won’t cover the expenses, then medical care and medication are cut off. That’s the way things work.

For people trying to survive extreme poverty (homelessness), the conditions of day-to-day life exacerbate medical issues. The lack of health insurance all but eliminates health care. Trying to find work or other resources necessary to get off the streets is difficult under the best of circumstances, add an illness into that scenario and ‘extremely difficult’ becomes ‘near impossible.’

Universal Health Care

Universal health care would address the financial devastation that pushes middle-class families into extreme poverty (homelessness) when a loved one falls ill.

Universal health care would provide extremely poor people access to much-needed resources and services. Simply being able to address an illness or injury makes finding a job significantly more possible, which makes escaping homelessness possible – not easy or guaranteed but possible.

Universal healthcare would begin the long and arduous process of addressing the medical resource caste-system currently built around government-provided Medicaid and Medicare programs. People who receive health insurance through an employer have significantly more options and receive markedly better care. There are large numbers of doctors and medical care providers who refuse to accept patients reliant on government-provided benefits – unless they are government employees, in which case they receive the same care as people in the private sector. Since extremely poor people are overwhelmingly dependent upon these programs, this creates a prejudiced resource distribution wherein people at the bottom are treated very differently from people who have more social and financial ‘value.’

A true universal healthcare system would help to place all Americans on equal footing within the medical care system. It would place every person under the same medical payment system, giving all citizens access to the same medical resources without fear of financial devastation.

The social stigma surrounding extremely poor people will take significantly more time and resources to change. Medical professionals who harbor an aversion to interacting with extremely poor people (homeless or housed) will continue to shun these individuals, provide substandard care or participate in abusing vulnerable populations for the same reasons that racists treat the objects of their hate in the same manner.

The cascading effects of hatred towards extremely poor (homeless) people will have to be addressed in another way.

Solving Homelessness: Legal Assistance and Reform

Legal problems can, and often do, force people into extreme poverty, homelessness included. A court case can take over a person’s life, draining time, resources and funds. Depending on the reasons behind the case, it can cost a person their reputation, job and family – justifiably or not. Any involvement with the legal system is costly and winning is often the result of simply having more resources to devote to the process. If the issue at stake is important enough, people will (and have) devote every last resource to the fight, leaving them financially destitute.

Surviving extreme poverty (homeless or housed) is a legal quagmire of vagrancy laws; restrictions based on lack of a permanent address; illegal evictions; and accusations of theft, fraud, trespassing and simply existing (e.g.: sleeping in public). Attempting to report violent attacks or rapes is practically impossible and police brutality is not uncommon.

Those are just the most commonly known legal issues facing people trying to escape extreme poverty.

Any form of legal entanglement is devastating to impoverished families. Criminal cases are common and many of them are based on racial profiling or ridiculous laws specifically designed (and selectively enforced) to criminalize the existence of poor people because those with power don’t like seeing extreme poverty in public spaces.

I wish I could say that last sentence was an exaggeration or an analogy or even representation of worst-case-scenarios that pop-up through the country. Sadly, it is the cold-hard-reality faced by people surviving extreme poverty everywhere in the United States.

There are free legal aid programs, but they are inundated with requests for help, run by a small staff of volunteers and universally refuse to even discuss anything that is considered criminal. Legal representation provided within the court system is also overloaded and poorly managed.

As the experts in mass incarceration have pointed out, simply being part of a targeted racial group almost guarantees problems with the criminal justice system, regardless of your commitment to living a good and honest life. The same can be said for people surviving poverty – particularly those faced with extreme poverty and homelessness.

Extreme poverty and homelessness will not be significantly reduced, much less solved, until prejudiced and predatory laws are eliminated, all people are provided access to quality legal assistance and addressing an issue through the court system does not require being either extremely wealthy or a willingness to face complete financial devastation.

There’s a lot of work to be done here.
I don’t have a clean or easy answer.
It must change.
Period.

Mass Incarceration and Vagrancy Law Resources:

Solving Homelessness: Living Wage Work

“Get a job!” is one for the most common insults screamed into the faces of homeless people and individuals begging for change. Extremely poor people are stereotyped as being lazy, unreliable and unwilling to hold down a regular job. In reality, a significant number of extremely poor (homeless and housed) people hold down multiple jobs, working between 40 and 80 hours a week, month-after-month and year-after-year. The problem is not the ability or willingness to work – it’s the extremely low wages being paid by the vast majority of available jobs.

All over the country, the struggle is the same. Good paying jobs are inundated with applicants and almost every other opportunity pays less than the cost of living. Simply paying rent on a full-time minimum wage paycheck is impossible. Add in other expenses and holding down 2-3 jobs may not bring in enough cash to simply live.

The irony of this is the fact that there is plenty of work to be done and plenty of resources to go around. Take a walk around your neighborhood. How much would the 2-3 blocks surrounding your home benefit from a crew of people dedicated to simply cleaning, maintaining and fixing things? Expand that to the entire town or city. How much work needs to be done? How much of it get’s pushed aside year after year?

Then consider the number of small family businesses and start-up companies that struggle to survive in a market where large corporation not only dominate but reduce prices to the point where it’s impossible to compete. Providing people to work at small, local, businesses at a reduced cost to the business while paying the worker a living wage could help boost the local business economy.

A very simple program that simply provided a living wage job to any and every person who applied would go a long way toward reducing poverty (extreme or otherwise), preventing homelessness, and providing homeless people a much-needed opportunity to move into long-term housing.

Couple this program with standard employment assistance services and people who have been out of work for a long time will be provided a much-needed opportunity to return to the workforce. Even if every person working is doing low-skill manual labor, the possibility of being hired for completely different work significantly increases because it’s always easier to get a job when you have a job.

Also, presenting yourself in an interview becomes both difficult and complicated when you are stressed about finding your next meal, a place to sleep, the possibility of being evicted, or the overall safety of your children. These are things that employers consider liabilities and reasons to remove a person from consideration – if they should find out. They are also things that make remaining cheerful and pleasant a challenge.

A significant number of the seemingly insurmountable hurdles faced by extremely poor people could be addressed by simply providing a job that pays enough to cover the cost of living to anyone who wants one, regardless of their work history, background, criminal history, skill set or age.

This program would have to provide opportunities for teenagers, including those who are trying to help their family pay the bills, trying to care for siblings on their own or simply surviving without the help of a family. An education is crucial, but being open to helping these kids cover the cost of living through a job (full or part-time) presents a multitude of opportunities to address things like obtaining a GED.

Providing people with a criminal record or a less-than-perfect background with work that covers the cost living – guaranteed – helps to reduce criminal activity because it makes crime less necessary. When people have the ability to choose to live a good honest life, then making the decision to pursue criminal activity is more complicated because they really and truly do not have to break the law just to survive.

Making work available to anyone who needs it, at all times, also acts as a safety net for individuals who:

  • Lose their job due to cutbacks or a large corporation shutting down.
  • Quit a job due to a hostile work environment.
  • Leave their spouse due to abuse or a crumbling relationship.
  • Were forced to close a small business.
  • Are faced with the loss of work and/or income for any reason.
  • Many more…

The bottom line is simply this, providing a living-wage-job to anyone both willing and able to work benefits everyone in a specific geographic region and goes a long way toward reducing homelessness overall.

Fighting for an Education

I believed I could become more than what their statistics believed I could. I also knew, outside of my mom and sister, no one else believed I could beat the statistics. But there comes a time where you have to follow your heart, where you have to make your own decisions to better yourself, even if everyone else calls you crazy. I knew to Mr. Robertson and English, I sounded crazy, naïve . . . a little homeless boy trying to dream big. I was being overlooked. I knew there were other non-homeless students in better schools who were given an opportunity. Wanting the same opportunity shouldn’t be a crime. How could they expect me to look around at my life and just accept it, and just roll over and die? Why couldn’t I have more? I didn’t choose the life I lived. But I could choose to opt out for a better life for myself since I was the only one who had to live it…Most kids I knew were dropping out. I knew I would have to fight the public school system with everything I had if I wanted to come out college ready. If, and only if, living on the streets didn’t kill me first.

My Way Home: Growing Up Homeless in America by Michael Gaulden

From the preface:

This memoir covers the latter part of my homeless journey, ranging from age fourteen to seventeen, predominately my high school years. The horror of my homelessness is what I call it. Allow me to take you down my path and to walk in my footsteps along my own hellacious underground railroad. If you are reading this in the midst of your own overwhelmingly challenging journey, it is you for whom I write….It is you whom I urge not to quit. I know your pain and through my pain, I wish to give you strength. For everyone else reading this, please understand my story is only one of millions of other homeless people.

Poor People’s Campaign: Lincoln Nebraska

The Poor People’s Campaign launches today with coordinated local protests in state capitals all over the USA.

Nebraska is one of the states that does not have a campaign organised, so I took a photo of the capital and modified it a bit:

Now there’s a protest in Lincoln, NE!

It doesn’t have the same powerful (and important) effect as a real life protest, but it’s the beginning of something…hopefully…even if that something is just an idea.

Homeless Communities

All of the following groups are working to establish communities for people trying to survive extreme poverty (homelessness):

Rootz of Change: (Atlanta, GA, USA) An intentional community, farm, training center and a community of anti-poverty activists.

Dignity Village: (Portland, OR, USA) A tiny house community offering temporary living to people trying to survive extreme poverty (homelessness). Also maintains a collection of micro-businesses. Quote from website: We feel it’s necessary to establish a community-based living facility where people living on the streets can have their basic needs met in a stable, sanitary environment free from violence, theft, disruption of peace, and drugs and alcohol.

Right to Dream Too (R2Dtoo): (Portland, OR, USA) Safe camping location/community offering a safe location to sleep. Video tours and interviews of the community are listed on the website. I recommend watching this one: Right To Dream Too (R2D2) City Hall Meetings Portland OR 2013 Quote from website: Right2DreamToo (R2DToo) was established on World Homeless Action Day, Oct. 10th, 2011. We are a nonprofit organization operating a space that provides refuge and a safe space to rest or sleep undisturbed for Portland’s unhoused community who cannot access affordable housing or shelter. We exist to awaken social and politcal groups to the importance of safe undisturbed sleep. Our purpose is to create a placewhere unhoused people can rest or sleep without being rousted by police or private security and without being under the threat of violence.

Opportunity Village: (Eugene, OR) Micro-housing community providing transitional housing and community support for homeless. Managed by Square One Villages, a non profit  dedicated to creating self-managed communities of cost-effective tiny homes for people in need of housing.

Build Our House Project: (Philadelphia, PA) Quote from website: Sustainable, supportive housing, organised by poor and homeless people, for poor and homeless people. Working to end homelessness in Philadelphia through justice and compassion.

Community First!: (Austin, TX, USA) Quote from web page: A 27-acre master planned community that provides affordable, permanent housing and a supportive community for the disabled, chronically homeless in Central Texas. A development of Mobile Loaves & Fishes, this transformative residential program exists to love and serve our neighbors who have been living on the streets, while also empowering the surrounding community into a lifestyle of service with the homeless. Additional information, upcoming events and videos can be found on the Community First Village Facebook page.

Homeless Ecoville: (Richmond, VA, USA) A self-sustaining, tiny home community created by and for extremely poor (homeless) people. Quote from website: It is a community of people who work together toward being a self-sustaining village. A Go Fund Me page has been set up to raise funds for the land.

Tiny Cabins 5 Safe Harbor: (Seattle, WA, USA) Quote from Facebook page: A safe harbor from the mean streets of Seattle, a community of tiny cabins & dorm tent shelters, doing what we can to help one another.

Evil Church Folk

The next shelter operated under a church…The temperature’s generally cold in there so we stayed layered up with jackets. We all lived in a room right beside the church. They welcomed us to the deserted early morning service but nothing else. We were under strict orders not to talk to the congregation. We weren’t allowed to interact. In fact, we had to stay as far away from them as possible, especially during service. They were afraid of us. They were afraid of a bunch of homeless people wandering around their church. It made them nervous. They couldn’t tell the homeless people there were all families. They couldn’t distinguish between us and dirty vagabonds on the corner drinking and swearing…The shower wasn’t in the building where we slept, though. Some genius put it across the parking lot. We could only take showers at designated intervals, those slots mainly around service times where more staff could monitor us. To take a shower, we had to strip down to meager towels and walk across the parking lot to the shower building with everyone around watching. Without a doubt one of the most embarrassing things I had ever done. I couldn’t begin to describe the humiliation all those cold eyes feeling sympathetic toward us, glad we were unfortunate and not them, it made me feel so bad. It didn’t make sense to me why we had to strip down to our bare essentials. I think they said an incident had happened which made them have to create such an embarrassing ordeal. They moved out of our path, far enough so we couldn’t touch them, but hovered around us close enough to get a good view….They made the ordeal even worse. They just kept staring. No smiles, no friendly conversation, just relentless attention. They didn’t whisper about us, they just silently watched.

My Way Home: Growing Up Homeless in America by Michael Gaulden

From the preface:

This memoir covers the latter part of my homeless journey, ranging from age fourteen to seventeen, predominately my high school years. The horror of my homelessness is what I call it. Allow me to take you down my path and to walk in my footsteps along my own hellacious underground railroad. If you are reading this in the midst of your own overwhelmingly challenging journey, it is you for whom I write….It is you whom I urge not to quit. I know your pain and through my pain, I wish to give you strength. For everyone else reading this, please understand my story is only one of millions of other homeless people.

Poverty and The Law of Compounding Exploitation

As a security professional within a corporate environment, I am tasked with identifying and mitigating vulnerabilities or threats. Information Security (InfoSec) effectively comes down to this: 1) know what you have (valuables), where it’s located and who has access to it, 2) identify potential vulnerabilities/weaknesses coming from both inside and outside the company (or DMZ), and 3) eliminate/reduce all vulnerabilities and weaknesses to the fullest extent possible, while carefully monitoring those that you choose to allow to remain unaddressed (there are many reasons for making this decision).

Take this process and apply it to a community of people. For the sake of argument:

  • Make 10% of that population homeless.
  • Create an economic structure wherein people are constantly flowing in and out of homelessness. The population keeps changing.
  • The total % of people who are homeless increases, slowly, over time.
  • 25% of the people who experience homelessness spend the rest of their lives living with a mental or physical illness (disability?) acquired as a direct result of being homeless.
  • 75% of the people experiencing homelessness, at any point in time, are children.
  • The protection afforded to housed people is not provided to homeless, making them perfect targets for criminals, predators and ‘recruiters’ of all kinds.
  • Surviving homelessness requires surviving violence.

If this community has 100,000 people, then a minimum of 10,000 people are being forced to live underground at any given moment in time. 7500 of these individuals are children whose education is being interrupted and/or negatively impacted by the experience. There are also a minimum of 2500 people who are dealing with illnesses and disabilities as a direct result of being forced to live underground while surviving extreme poverty.

Those 7500 children and 2500 permanently injured/disabled adults (we’ll assume they are all adults) are (re)entering society with training, experience, perspective and skills that may or may not positively contribute to the safety, security and positive function of society.

As a security professional, I shake my head in disgust because those 7500 unknowns (at this point, they are not officially threats) were completely avoidable. I did not have to be concerned about them at all. It is a situation that could (should) be eliminated through housing, access to basic resources/necessities, respectful and effective assistance from police forces and safe, quality, reliable and free education.

Now, let’s introduce some known threats.

All of these threats could consist of a grand total of 10,000 people due to overlap (read: the highest number listed above), but it also could consist of a total threat base of 16,200 people – assuming no overlap. So my known threat base ranges from 10,000 to 16,000 people in the total population. Assuming %s remain consistent and all known threats are adults, then it can be assumed 250–400 experienced homelessness at some point.

I’m guessing that you are looking at that relatively low number of homeless predators and wondering: how does this illustrate compounding vulnerability exploitation? Allow me to illustrate…

Compounding force #1: One vulnerability leads to a strengthening of a threat which, in turn, creates another vulnerability.

10,000 perpetrators/threats (10% of the total population) are committing crimes against 10,000 vulnerable (homeless) people (10% of the total population) either by preference or as a form of practice. The homeless are not provided police protection and they cannot defend themselves due to extreme poverty and social stigma. Therefore, a potential criminal who has not crossed the line into full-blown criminal activity, is provided a ‘sandbox’ where these behaviors can be acted out and perfected before perpetrating them against people who ‘matter.’

Compounding force #2: The purposeful allowance of an exploitation, and the refusal to take proper action in response, increases both the threat and the vulnerability.

The widespread acceptance surrounding the degradation, marginalization and violent treatment of poverty survivors (homeless people in particular), creates a pervading social construct (culture) that is less able (unable?) to identify and address these same behaviors perpetrated against the general population. The community has become ‘numb’ to criminal activity and lost a significant (important) portion of it’s willingness and/or ability to properly address these actions.

The culture of a community/environment must be such that threats can be identified and addressed, promptly, properly and effectively. If the culture is negatively affected in one circumstance, allowing a known threat/criminal act to go unaddressed (unpunished), then that same threat will not only continue, but will grow stronger and begin to expand (aggressively).

Compounding force #3: Threats that are mitigated ad-hoc and separate from the whole often generate more vulnerabilities and create new categories of threats.

The widespread refusal to treat poverty survivors (homeless in particular) with the basic respect due to any human being, combined with an aggressively enforced caste system that forces people into permanent association with a ‘lesser-than’ category, directly and negatively affects all poverty survivor’s ability to improve their lives both financially and socially. They are placed between the proverbial ‘rock and a hard place.’

Desperation and lack of options can force people to find creative solutions (this is good), but it can also push them into making alliances and decisions that place them into the community threat category (this is bad).

The homeless are the absolute bottom, they are not the entire community of poverty survivors. Those who are surviving poverty while remaining housed (however tenuous that situation may be) will see what is happening to those trying to survive homelessness. The actions taken against the homeless will directly and profoundly effect the decisions made by those who are ‘merely poor.’

The two communities combined are placed in a state of desperation, trying to improve their situation. This makes them all particularly vulnerable to everything from relatively light criminal activity (e.g.: shoplifting) to criminal association (e.g.: joining a gang or a criminal network) and radicalization (e.g.: joining terrorist organizations like the KKK or ISIL and participating in hate crimes or terrorist attacks).

By isolating and ignoring the safety and welfare of one segment of the community, the threat level is increased for another segment of the community. Due to the ostracism and marginalization of poverty survivors, the actions taken by poverty survivors, in reaction to their situation, are separate from the actions taken by the police and similar organizations in protections of the community as a whole. This disconnect creates an increased number of threats seeking to exploit vulnerabilities found throughout the community.

Compounding force #4: The creation of exploitable vulnerabilities increases with the acceptance of those exploitations.

When the only thing separating those vulnerable to degradation, vicious social behavior and open violence is financial standing, moving a targeted individual into a state of absolute vulnerability hinges on destroying their financial standing.

In other words, everyone is vulnerable, because anyone can have a financial crisis at any moment.

It’s easy to assume that you are immune to such experiences. But it is even easier to examine the life and habits of any individual or family and identify that ways in which they could go from housed and financially secure to living out of shelter – in a stunningly short period of time.

For criminals and predators, this is an important loophole. It permanently establishes a vulnerability within every single household, that can be exploited to reduce or eliminate a threat to criminal operations. Because the vulnerability is entirely financial, exploiting it presents minimal risk to criminals and predators. After all, arranging for a family member for come down with a mysterious illness that requires a lengthy hospital stay, or simply ensuring the primary breadwinner looses his or her job, is relatively easy.

Conclusion

There is no such thing as an isolated threat. Every ecology or environment (e.g.: computer systems, the environment, human social networks, towns and cities, etc.) operates within the push-and-pull of threats-vs-vulnerabilities. Every threat has the potential to grow strong and every vulnerability has the potential to grow larger. Both have the ability to spread to other systems, ecological environments, communities, etc.

Dividing the world into absolute, unchanging, categories of US and THEM is a dangerous habit. A truly effective system of threat identification and mitigation recognizes that there is no them – there is only us.

Food and Perceptions of Poverty

Quote

Amazon.com

“What happened in this country, especially since the Industrial Revolution, was that wild foods were deemed of lesser quality, and therefore less desirable, than cultivated foods. The prevailing attitude seemed to become that if one had to forage for food, that meant that one was too poor to purchase food, and in this Land of Opportunity, where everyone could and should be rich, being poor was akin to being worthless and lazy. Only those who were very desperate foraged, and only in times of extreme hardship … or only for certain foods.”

Browsing Nature’s Aisles: A Year of Foraging for Wild Food in the Suburbs by Wendy Brown and Eric Brown

Book Review: Trump Is a Nasty Knight

Amazon.com

Nick and the Nasty Knight by Ute Krause was published in 2012. The book is not anti-Trump protest literature. It’s just a story about a boy who lives in an impoverished town where the political power (the nasty knight) uses taxes, sleazy political (legal) maneuvers and physical violence to drain every last penny out of the residents.

This knight lives in an enormous castle where he keeps all of the gold locked up, forces people to carry him around because he will not be bothered with walking and…get this…he uses a golden toilet.

Much like Maurizio Cattelan’s “America“, the similarities and political applicability are almost eerie. While it’s important to note that Trump’s golden toilet is an internet myth, it’s symbolism is very much a political reality.

When I first read this book to the children in my life, I was hoping for an anti-bullying or a problem solving story. Every once in a while I will come across a kids book with excellent pictures and some good hard advice for dealing with people – this is not that book.

The story is about Nick, a child who is taken from his family, by the nasty knight, as a slave (yes, he is actually taken as a slave) because his family is poor and had no more money to give to the knight when he came pounding on their door during one of the all-to-frequent tax-collecting tours. Nick is trapped in a never-ending cycle of work, the reality of which is well illustrated without being excessively scary.

He decides to escape his indentured bondage by climbing out a castle window and accidentally stumbles across the knight’s secret room full of (stolen) gold. Nick steals one coin and successfully escapes. Once in the woods beyond the city, he encounters a group of bandits and thieves who are just as horrible as the nasty knight – possibly worse.

At this point in the story I’m feeling both impressed by the realism and a bit disappointed in the lack of proactive resolution. The main character just can’t get a break.

The bandits find the single gold coin and Nick tricks them into returning to the castle. He leads them to the secret room filled with gold and sounds the alarm, causing an enormous brawl between the knight, his soldiers and all of the bandits.

Side note: the knight won’t walk to his golden toilet but he’ll jump into a potential bloodbath of a battle to protect his gold…interesting.

Ok, that was pretty good. Tricking bad guys into fighting bad guys is an impressive maneuver.

But then it turns out that the coin the boy stole was a magic coin, which ultimately transforms all of the bad guys into alligators. This saves the town and returns peace and prosperity to all. Here’s a quote:

When the people up in the castle saw what had happened, they began to cheer. Without the Nasty Knight, they were once again free!…From that day on, Nick made sure that at last his poor mother and his family had enough to eat every day.”

(sigh)

It’s a good story for kids. The ending to the plot is pretty standard in literature and film but…

I really wish the resolution hadn’t been reliant on a magic coin or the elimination of a handful of bad guys. Neither scenario is real and there are other ways to resolve the story.

Even so, this book remains on the family bookshelf and is pulled out from time to time because acts of bravery and defiance in the face of corrupt powers and politicians is a good place to begin. It’s an excellent story to enjoy and to talk about; because, sometimes, the flaws in stories lay the groundwork for excellent discussions about what is fun fiction vs effective in real life.

In this case, the symbolism is fitting and powerful: It’s a story about using money to take down a corrupt politician with a golden toilet.

There may be a few adults in your life who would appreciate listening to this story over the holiday break.