Saturday, June 23, 2007

The Canadians Have Caught On

I've found a new hero in Canadian "street nurse" Cathy Crowe. This longtime health professional and homeless advocate worries that Philip Mangano has been spending too much time in Canada spreading the gospel of Housing First for the "chronic homeless" and public/private partnerships such as Project Connect.

Crowe totally has Mangano's number. Which doesn't mean Canadian politicians and human service bureaucrats won't be just as enamored of the corporate-friendly Ten Year Plan strategy to end homelessness as their technocratic brethren to the South. It just means that Canada still has homeless advocates who are willing to question the government.

And if our government isn't questionable, I don't know whose is.

Crowe describes Mangano's Canadian Ten Year Plan road show as promoting a punitive approach to homelessness that is hostile to emergency services and focused on victim-blaming approaches that offer cosmetic change while doing nothing to address root causes of homelessness.

Michael Shapcott and I had a chance to hear Mr Mangano in Calgary earlier in May. He really is a remarkable speaker — you could almost say evangelical — preaching the issues of health, economics and the social evils of homelessness. The trouble is that the American approach is obviously not working. It's a game of smoke and mirrors. So why on earth are our municipal and national leaders looking to the United States for solutions on homelessness?

As Michael Shapcott explains: "So, what's wrong with this picture? While Mangano has been piling up frequent flier points visiting every part of the US to convince state and local governments that they need to take up the responsibility for a "housing first" policy for the homeless, his political boss — President Bush — has been gutting the US federal government's funding for housing. This year alone, there are massive cuts to seniors' supportive housing and disabled housing funding. The US federal housing program for people with AIDS will help about 67,000 people this year — yet an estimated 500,000 people living with HIV / AIDS desperately need housing help.

The problem is so bad that even the rather staid Joint Centre for Housing Studies at Harvard University has proclaimed in its latest annual State of the Nation's Housing that affordable housing and homelessness have reached their worst levels ever, and funding cuts by the federal government are the chief culprit.

Crowe points out that homeless people in cities across America are under attack from law enforcement approaches that target sitting and sleeping in public, feeding people, using parks, panhandling, and other public activities to create an urban environment that is hostile to the visible poor, and says that Canada is beginning to catch America's cold.

In Canada it's the same thing. We are witnessing an almost fetishized emphasis on research, including street counts and investigations into panhandlers' needs, new by-laws against panhandling and by-laws restricting where homeless people can sleep, reduction of funding to programs that do outreach to people who are homeless, and a withdrawal of funding for emergency day and night shelters. Toronto alone has lost over 300 shelter beds just this past winter and it continues to rely on its Streets to Homes program as an answer to visible street homelessness. There are many reports that people who are housed through this program suffer greatly from hunger and isolation and remain at great risk of becoming or do become homeless again.

As we struggle to come to grips with homeless policy in America and break the USICH's growing hegemony over the issue of homelessness, maybe we need to keep a better eye on Canada. They're certainly looking out for us.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007


Rural communities assess their homeless population, and how to get the money to fix it

Clackamas County stretches from the outskirts of urban Portland to the wilderness of the Mt. Hood National Park. The county filled with suburban centers, small rural towns and rugged mountain terrain is finding itself at a crossroads in the Bush administration’s dream of ending homelessness in 10 years. On June 7, the county will formerly release its point-in-time count of people experiencing homelessness. It’s not pretty.

An estimated 8,272 individuals were experiencing homelessness in Clackamas County at the end of January, according to documents released to Street Roots. This includes 3,543 people actually counted, plus 4,729 additional homeless persons estimated using statistical modeling based on a formula for counting bird populations. The count estimates that 2,531 children in 1,082 families are homeless in Clackamas County.

“It’s shocking for many people to see so many people living without a home, especially those who see the issue of homelessness as an urban problem,” says Brenda Durbin, interim director with the Clackamas County Department of Social Services.

“No one recognizes the boundaries between Clackamas and Multnomah counties,” says Durbin. “It’s crucial we are working together to address poverty at a regional level.”

The 2007 figures indicate an increase over the previous count in 2005. That year, nearly 2,500 people were counted, and nearly 7,600 people were believed homeless across the county

“Homelessness in the suburbs is about families,” says Martha McLennan, Executive Director of Northwest Housing Alternatives. “Single adults have a tendency to go to the city for services, but families tend to go to the suburbs where they can sleep in their cars, or camp out and feel safe.”

There is only one family shelter in all of Clackamas County. And it can only shelter up to five families at a time. “It’s all about affordable housing,” says McLennan. “Most of the development is high-end and people don’t have a place to go.”

In particular, it’s about rural housing, which has been essentiallly siphoned down to a trickle by the federal government, and the needs of rural communities feeling the impact of a homeless population. That’s according to Barbara Duffield, policy director of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth in Washington D.C.

“We need to significantly increase investment in all housing programs,” Duffield says. “Particularly the rural housing programs. It can address infrastructure issues like the lack of public transportation that makes it so difficult for families in rural and suburban areas to participate in programs and obtain and maintain employment.

“The federal government must recognize that homelessness doesn't look the same everywhere,” says Duffield. “The ‘one size fits all’ approach of recent years, most evident in the chronic homelessness initiative and in HUD's limited definition of homelessness, simply does not reflect the reality of rural and suburban communities. Of course, the truth is that those policies don't reflect reality in urban areas, either, but they are even more at odds with local experiences in suburban and rural areas. Suburban and rural areas do not have the same service infrastructure as urban areas, but they do have an affordable housing crisis that is as bad as urban areas.”

A difference of philosophy

In terms of how the government tallies it’s homeless population, Clackamas County has broken from the pack. Most cities and counties have chosen to follow federal guidelines in conducting the point-in-time count of people experiencing homelessness. Federal guidelines by the Department of Housing and Urban Development now say homelessness is limited to people who are on the streets or who are staying in shelters.

Clackamas County and some federal programs refuse to use the new definition, choosing instead to follow the more encompassing definition it replaced. The old definition includes individuals or families doubled up with family or friends due to economic conditions, people living in motels and hotels, cars, trailers and campgrounds and children staying in housing not fit for habitation. “There’s a widespread belief that the HUD count is too narrow,” says Durbin.

Instead of getting locked down in a political battle of wills, Clackamas County simply extracts the information HUD requires from the larger count to comply with federal guidelines.

Durbin says the county made it a point to count people doubled up through extensive outreach at food banks, with public schools, and by having people stationed at Department of Human Services locations. At the crux of all these numbers is money. The counts are key in competing for the federal funds available to address the problem.

“The (homeless) plans have divided the advocacy community and providers throughout the state,” says Donna Bolt, homeless coordinator with Oregon’s Department of Education. “Some things have become very difficult. The will to help is there, there are just so may people in rural areas that are living with different circumstances. You have people living outside in a shed, or camping down by the river.”

In another break from program, Clackamas County chose to call its plan a 10-year plan to address homelessness, rather than end it as the federal government suggests. The program was adopted in November.

“The decision was made on the understanding of the macro-issues that effect the issues of homelessness concerning policy and economics,” says Durbin. “We didn’t feel we could say we could end homelessness in 10 years. We can address certain aspects of homelessness, but to actually end homelessness will take more resources that the county can offer.”

In addition to the adoption of the 10-year plan, Durbin says the county enacted an ordinance that gives people a lenient five-day camping notice (Portland’s is 24-hour), and let’s people store their personal belongings with the county for up to 30 days.

It doesn’t all add up

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, counting the number of homeless people in the United States is methodologically challenging and highly political — a dangerous combination with an interesting history. Since the 1980s, the estimated numbers of people on the streets nationwide have changed dramatically, from as low as 250,000 to as high as 3 million.

A one-day count in January found 2,010 people staying in shelters, on the street, in their cars or camping out in Deschutes, Jefferson and Crook counties, an 8 percent increase over previous counts. In Lane County, more than 1,200 individuals were counted in a one-night count with more than 6,000 individuals experiencing homelessness throughout the year. In 2006, more than 1,100 individuals were counted in Washington County.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness claims 16,221 people experienced homelessness in the Oregon in 2005 and 744, 313 nationwide. The numbers have been widely criticized by advocates across the country as far to low.

Sampling figures from seven of Oregon’s 36 counties, Street Roots tallied more than 20,000 people that had experienced homelessness just between the end of 2006 and the beginning of 2007.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness numbers also discount many of Oregon’s homeless kids and youth due to the rigid definitions of homelessness by HUD. Oregon’s Department of Education Homeless Coordinator, Donna Bolt, says more than 13,000 kids and youth experienced homelessness in Oregon in 2005-2006, and “everything we are seeing indicates those numbers are going to be higher this year.”

“We believe that education is a way out of poverty,” Bolt says. “The McKinney-Vento Act had a different set of definitions (for homelessness) and we are under a different part of the McKinney Act that’s not recognized by HUD. Our essential goal is to try to get kids in a position to not drop out and not let the failure of other systems help to keep kids down. If the 10-year plans were really being created to address the actual needs of specific communities, it would be great,” says Bolt.

Rural communities throughout Oregon and the rest of the country are being hit hard by federal cutbacks. In 1976 the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the agency charged with creating affordable housing in rural areas, created 30,175 units nationwide. By 2005 that number had dropped to 783. The Bush administration has proposed to zero out the program altogether.

“Nobody has picked up that money at the other end,” says Paul Boden with the Western Regional Advocacy Project, an organization made up of grassroots organizations along the West Coast, including Sisters of the Road and Street Roots. “Rural communities are losing family housing. And then they’re losing homeless money because the federal government doesn’t want to serve families. They want to serve homeless adults.”

Reform on the hill

On February 6, Representatives Julia Carson (D-IN), Geoff Davis (R-KY), Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Rick Renzi (R-AZ) introduced legislation called the HEARTH Act to the house floor to consolidate the McKinney-Vento Act and Department of Housing and Urban Development three main competitive homeless programs into one. The programs include a Rural Housing Stability Assistance Program to more accurately meet the needs of rural areas; creating a new program authority to fund homeless prevention programs; and providing more flexibility to communities who are offering effective approaches.

The bill would also change the definition of homelessness to include individuals doubled up and living in poor living conditions. The bill currently has 61 sponsors, including many in the Housing Subcommittee.

The HEARTH Act has broad support among people working with homeless children and youth in public schools, including Catholic Charities USA, National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, Volunteers of America, Community Action Directors of Oregon in Salem, and hundreds of others.

According to Barbara Duffield, the bill would, “put communities back in their rightful position of determining how HUD homeless dollars are best spent to meet local needs.”

Clackamas County numbers:
- 3,543 homeless persons counted
- 1,310 children (37%)
- 2,333 adults (63%)

Top places people experiencing homeless slept in 2007:
- Doubled up/overcrowded conditions, 62%
- Outdoors – camps, streets, forest, 10%
- Emergency shelter, 9%
- In cars/trucks, 9%

Top things people say they need to get out of being homeless:
- Money to help pay rent, 52%
- Money to pay rent deposit, 40%
- Help getting a job, 38%
- Medical care, 29%dollars are best spent to meet local needs.”

From the June 1 edition of Street Roots. Written by Israel Bayer

Saturday, June 2, 2007

If a house falls in Skid Row, does it make a sound?

Recently the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced the “winners” of this year’s McKinney homeless assistance funding. Los Angeles was one of the big losers.

Because of a bureaucratic accounting dispute between HUD and the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles, $13 million in Shelter Plus Care supportive housing grants were denied to that community. This, in spite of the fact that Los Angeles has the largest homeless population in the country.

This denial of funds means the loss of permanent housing options for 250 households.

If LA City had lost $13 million in federal funding for policing
Skid Row, the Mayor’s office and our federal representatives would be all over it! The business community and developers would be shouting from the top of City Hall's tower and in every media outlet in town. There would be no worry about political fallout. There would be only righteous indignation that "public safety" was being jeopardized by bureaucrats in Washington, DC.

But where is the political pressure, where is the righteous indignation when it comes to the housing needs of LA's poorest people?

Attempts by community groups to get the Mayor and most of our federal representatives on record against this calamity have proven futile. The only elected officials who responded to the crisis were the City Council who unfortunately have no effective power to influence this situation in the long term. Councilmember Jan Perry understood the impact on her constituents and directed the Housing Authority to transfer alternative resources to the underfunded projects. So again, local government was forced to rob Peter to pay Paul.

No other voices were heard. Only an unnatural silence. Federal political bureaucrats arbitrarily take affordable housing money away from a community that far and away has the largest number of homeless people in the country, and neither the Mayor nor most LA representatives in Congress speak up. Why?

Mayors are in a bind. They depend on the federal government for all sorts of funding, from infrastructure to environment to policing. The housing needs for the country’s poorest people through HUD’s annual McKinney Act allocations is but a small piece of the overall pie. To kick up a ruckus over this cut in homeless funding could, and probably would, put at risk all the other federal money a Mayor requests and needs. This deplorable reality is well understood by every local official who works on issues that rely in whole or in part on federal funding.

But the story is different for our federal representatives. They do not depend on federal funding. They do not depend on HUD. Quite the reverse – they control HUD's pursestrings. The problem is that our federal representatives inevitably follow the Mayor’s lead: If the Mayor says it’s an issue, then it’s an issue. If the Mayor says it ain’t, well then, it ain’t.

When local groups asked their federal elected officials to fight for reinstatement of the $13 million cut, they heard the same refrain: "What does the Mayor think?" When local groups followed up with the Mayor, they were told it would be taken care of… next year.

This explains why local communities continue to see their federal
affordable housing programs decimated with hardly a peep about it in Washington, DC. The situation is not unique to Los Angeles.

Mayors don't do anything out of fear of biting the hand that feeds them, and federal representatives don't say much as they seem to feel they work for the Mayors rather than the people who elected them and sent them to DC.

Our representatives in Congress are elected by us. They need to hear us, and then they need to deal with federal agencies to ensure that these agencies are accountable and humane to the people in their communities, and that includes homeless people.