Homelessness Myth #20: They Make Millions

Also published on The Huffington Post

The myth that homeless people make millions or thousands of dollars is a myth of gigantic proportions. This myth incorporates the mistaken belief that homeless people make big money by trading on their homelessness, which is simply not true.

Panhandling is one of the primary ways a homeless person can raise funds. In today’s parlance “begging” is called “panhandling.”

I learned a great deal about the nature and necessity of panhandling from a young homeless woman I met outside a theater in Los Angeles. It was 9:30 p.m. on a cool winter’s night when I walked by her as she stood by a shopping cart that held her young child and her infant.

“Can you spare some change?” she asked.

I reached into my pocket and pulled out two $1 bills. As I handed these singles to the young mother, she pulled out a wad of bills from her pocket. She proceeded to place my bills on top of the high stack that she already had.

I began to walk away when I thought I would talk to the young mother.

“May I ask you a question?”

“Sure.”

“I’m wondering about something. It’s late at night, you have two young children and you have a lot of money. Why are you and your children outside in the cold?”

“Well, you don’t understand.”

She pulled out all of her money from her pocket. For the first time I noticed that the high stack of bills was actually a bunch of crinkled one dollar bills stacked one on top of another.

“Before you came along, I had $26 here. Now, with your two dollars, I have $28. I’ll be out here until I get $36 for a motel room for me and my babies.”

I was silent. I had no more cash to give her. So, I wished the young mother well and left with a heavy heart.

Obviously, panhandling is not as lucrative as some of us think. This young mother taught me that appearances can be deceiving.

Recycling is another way a homeless person can make money. We’ve all seen a homeless person pushing a cart filled to overflowing with cans and bottles. Sometimes there are even plastic bags bulging with recyclables tied to the sides of the cart.

Can a homeless person “get rich quick” by recycling? Not really. Working from dawn to dust, a homeless person may gather as much as $40 in recyclables. Just enough for a motel room and perhaps one meal.

Also, recycling is not easy work. It requires some mental ability and more than a little physical strength. Certainly, this method of pursuing an income is not available to the elderly or infirm.

My homeless friend Danny recycled cans and bottles every day for years. Each morning Danny would follow the same route, visiting the same locations searching for discarded recyclables. He considered recycling his job and he was devoted to his work.

A lovely, responsible person, Danny was hired not long ago by the City to do part time maintenance work. Although he enjoys his new job, Danny says that he misses his old job of recycling and the places he would visit every day.

Government benefits are another way that a homeless person can acquire funds to live. In California general relief (GR), also known as “welfare,” is a program funded by the county. Although each of the 58 California counties sets its own amount of benefits, San Diego County provides $234 as a loan to a single qualifying adult.

A $234 loan per month is a far cry from riches. Often a homeless person will use some of his or her GR to rent a motel room for several nights and to pay for food during this same period of time. His or her goal is to clean up, rest, and possibly remember what it is like to be housed once again. This brief respite gives the homeless person an opportunity to leave the harsh conditions living on the streets.

A homeless person may also qualify for Social Security benefits. Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is available to assist the elderly, blind, or disabled person who has low or no income. In the year 2000, SSI’s maximum monthly benefit was $512.


Social Security Disability Insurance
 is a monthly benefit for disabled people who have worked within 10 years of the disability and paid Social Security taxes. In the year 2000, the average benefit was about $750.

The monthly benefits available to a qualifying adult through SSI or SSDI will not make a homeless person rich. The goal of these programs is to provide a safety net for those who do qualify. These funds may be sufficient for a homeless person to secure housing.

People are homeless for a host of reasons, but they are not pretending to be poor. They do not have the funds for three meals a day and a roof over their heads every night.

No homeless person is getting rich through panhandling, recycling or any government program.

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Why Do We Discriminate Against Homeless People?

Also published on The Huffington Post

My homeless friend, Larry, was upset as he recounted his recent experience: “The other day I went to a fast food store, bought a coffee and went outside to sit, drink my coffee and have a cigarette. But, they wouldn’t let me. ‘Move along,’ they said, ‘You can’t stay here.’ All I wanted to do was sit and have my coffee and a cigarette. And I had bought their coffee!”

What could I say to Larry? I have heard this before — presumably-housed people treating a homeless person differently than they would a housed person. For example, when housed people buy items at a fast food restaurant, we expect to be able to sit in the restaurant or on its patio and enjoy our food. It goes without saying. It’s what we expect and it’s what we get.

What are we talking about here? Fears. Fear of people we don’t know. We’ve been taught since childhood not to talk to strangers. But we’re adults now. We can introduce ourselves to anyone and thereby meet a neighbor and potential friend.

Fear of economic loss by having homeless people on the premises is a concern for any business. Everyone needs a home. But, until everyone has a home, we will have homeless people among us. What is a business to do?

I wonder if when a business accepts the patronage of a homeless person, whether that business has any responsibility to the homeless person. My homeless friend, Jimmy, was involved in a situation lately that gave me pause to think about this.

For over 10 years, Jimmy and his wheelchair-bound wife, Ellen, were homeless. When Ellen died nearly six years ago, Jimmy could not contain his grief and drank to try to literally drown his sorrows. Every day, Jimmy would visit his local convenience store and buy his morning paper and breakfast beer. During the day, as his finances would allow, Jimmy made as many trips to buy beer to the same convenience store. Needless to say, Jimmy has been a consistent customer for many years.

But his last trip to his convenience store was different. As Jimmy tells it, when selecting his morning newspaper, he thought he had paid for it and put it in his bag. Jimmy was still in the store when the owner of the convenience store approached Jimmy and told him that because he had tried to steal the newspaper, Jimmy was henceforth barred from shopping in his convenience store.

The day after this incident, Jimmy told me that he felt terrible about being barred from his convenience store.

Please know that I am not condoning theft by any means by any person, housed or unhoused. However, misunderstandings do arise.

So, I offered to speak to the owner of the convenience store on Jimmy’s behalf. Jimmy said that he would apologize to the management for the incident.

Unfortunately, the owner of the convenience store was not present when I went there, so I left my phone number with the manager and asked that owner call me so we could discuss the incident. [Note: the owner never called me.]

I shared Jimmy’s feelings about the incident with the manager. She was not interested in anything I had to say on Jimmy’s behalf. She did tell me repeatedly and with feeling that “they” are always standing outside the store and that “once ‘they’ steal from us, ‘they’ can never come back.”

I said that there was only one person involved in this incident and it was Jimmy. The manager did not know Jimmy’s name, but said that she did know that he had been coming to the store for years. She said that since he had stolen from the convenience store, he was barred from shopping there in the future.

I said that I understood her position, but that Jimmy felt terrible about the incident and would like to come in and apologize to her. She said that she was not interested in his apology.

“Please,” I entreated, “Allow Jimmy to come and apologize to you because it would be good for him to do so.”

“No, I’m just not interested,” she repeated.

This incident is an example of how some businesses regard homeless patrons as different from their housed patrons. I can use myself as an example. Every day for over two years, I have been walking several miles in the morning. On my way home from my exercise route, I always reward myself for my efforts by buying a cup of coffee in my local convenience store.

At my convenience store, the manager often greets me by name when I enter and the sales people are always friendly to me during my stay in their store. I am treated with respect and as an individual. I don’t feel like a “they.”

Could it be that homeless people, as was the case for Jimmy, are not seen as individuals? I guess I’ve written this piece in hopes of reminding all of us that homeless people are people, too.

Homeless People Need ID

Also published on The Huffington Post 

Homeless people need identification documentation for the same reasons that housed people need ID: to prove who they are, to become eligible for services and for their own self-esteem.

However, for homeless people, having personal IDs is truly a matter of survival. All government assistance programs require identification documentation as the follow examples show.

    • Without ID, homeless people cannot get food stamps, so they may not have money to buy food.
    • Nor can they get general relief (welfare) to pay for lodging, for example, without proving who they are.
    • Senior homeless people need ID to get Social Security benefits.
    • Homeless people with physical or mental disabilities which prevent them from working can only rely on Supplemental Security Income (SSI) if they have ID.
  • If homeless people have worked 5 years out of the last 10 and are unable to work because of a disability, they may qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) with ID.

My previous article, “The Trifecta of Identification,” set forth the numerous steps that it takes anyone to get ID. For a person without a home or resources, each step can be a major hurdle to getting identification.
But how do homeless people feel about having or not having ID? I asked a number of homeless youth and adults this question. I am grateful to each person for his/her response.

Lily, 27 years old:
“I have no ID of any kind because my stuff was stolen. I had my California ID stolen downtown. Without ID, it’s kinda hard. I couldn’t get a hotel room last night because I had no ID. Someone else did it. But, I was bummed. It wasn’t good. I’d like to get an ID, but I don’t have the money.”

T.J., 19 years old: “ID is pretty important. You need it for most things.

“I have all my IDs — birth certificate, social security card and photo ID. I feel better having ID because I don’t get a ticket for not having ID. I can buy cigarettes and get a hotel room.”

Wayne M. F. Robbins, Jr., 21 years old: “Personally, I think ID is a separation of who I am. Most people don’t ask, ‘Who are you?’ They ask for your ID.”

“I feel like a slave. My parents gave me that name, but if my ID is not current or if it’s broken, you can get in trouble, or fined. My ID is crinkled at the corners, so I have to buy another one. How much is an ID? $35?”

“IDs and social security cards aggravate me. I don’t feel that I should be tied down to 9 digits…”

Erin Kuklis, 22 years old: “I have no ID. I think ID is a waste of time and they have too much info on them. I’m from Alaska. I came here in August. ”

“One of my military cards, driver’s license and social security card — my whole purse with all my IDs is gone. My ID was stolen. My bank account was wiped out. There are three other people pretending to me. Those people have my parents’ address so they know where my parents live. There’s way too much info on IDs.”

“I can’t get a California ID because I have nothing showing who I am. When they [DMV] look me up, they don’t believe it’s me…”
Over the past six and a half months, our Center for Justice and Social Compassion (CJSC) helped the following homeless individuals complete the steps necessary to obtain ID. I thank each of them for their comments.
Logan, 49 years old: “No ID means you’re not even ‘Mr. Nobody.’ You can’t get work. You can’t cash your check. The police don’t like the idea [that you have no ID]. You have to eat out of the dumpsters. You have to beg for food.”

“A closed mouth don’t get fed. I asked the manager, ‘If I pick up all the trash in the parking lot, can you throw me something to eat?’ A few times they say, ‘No,’ but at some point they say, ‘Yes.'”

“Now [that I have ID,] I feel excellent … I have options now. I couldn’t get my medication without ID.”

“Having ID makes me feel really good. If I work, I can cash a check. If I get stopped by the cops, it’s valid information.”

John, 59 years old: “Before I had ID, I couldn’t do anything. After I got ID, I could do things … go to stores, all that.”

Nameless, 48 years old: “[Before CJSC got my birth certificate and replaced my social security card and Medi-Cal card,] I only had my California photo ID. I wasn’t worried about ID then. I didn’t really think about it until I went to a doctor’s appointment and they needed more ID.”

“Now that I’ve got all of my ID, I’m worried about hanging on to it. Hopefully, I can hang on to it. That’s my biggest concern. I’m worried I could lose my ID.”

The Trifecta of Identification

Also published on The Huffington Post

When a homeless person has a certified copy of his/her birth certificate, a state-issued photo identification card (or driver’s license) and an original social security card, he/she possesses “The Trifecta of Identification.” Having possession of these three forms of ID is often the threshold issue for a homeless person to access many services. In order to receive needed identification documentation, a homeless person may have to overcome numerous hurdles.

Throughout the United States, government entities often provide direct services and/or fund services for unhoused people. However, access to these services generally requires the production of one or more personal identification documents on the part of the homeless person.

For example, the County of San Diego, CA, provides County Medical Services (CMS) for uninsured, low-income individuals who have immediate or long-term medical needs. In order to qualify for CMS, an individual must have identification documents: a certified copy of his/her birth certificate, a California photo identification card (or driver’s license) and a social security card. In addition, a divorce decree or death certificate of a spouse is required, if applicable.

Unfortunately, many homeless people do not have any form of identification. Why? A homeless person’s ID may be lost in the disruptive process of losing his/her home and many of his or her possessions. Further, without shelter, a homeless person may lose his/her ID because he/she does not have a consistently secure place to keep identification documentation. Finally, without shelter, a person is often exposed to inclement weather and may be vulnerable to acts of theft and violence through which his/her ID is lost.

While state requirements may differ, the steps in the State of California for getting identification documentation can present a host of hurdles for a homeless person, as can be seen as follows.

A. Certified Copy of a California Birth Certificate

To get a certified copy of a California birth certificate, a person needs to
1) Determine whether he/she is authorized to obtain a certified copy or only an informational copy
For a full listing of authorized individuals, seehttp://www.cdph.ca.gov/certlic/birthdeathmar/Documents/Certified-Copies-Birth-and-Death-PAMPHLET-(11-10)-MERGED.pdf

2) Download from a computer, or get, the California Department of Public Health Pamphlet, How To Obtain Certified Copies Of Birth And Death Records
Available at the immediately above referenced website.

3) Download, or get, the Application for Certified Copy of Birth Record

4) Sign and have notarized the Sworn Statement, attached to the application, which contains the declaration that the registrant is entitled by law to receive an authorized copy of the birth certificate

5) Pay $16 for the certified California birth certificate

6) Mail the completed application form, notarized sworn statement and check or money order to CDPH Vital Records
See http://www.cdph.ca.gov/certlic/birthdeathmar/pages/certifiedcopiesofbirthdeathrecor ds.aspx

B. California Photo Identification Card

To get an original photo identification card from the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), a person needs to
1) Visit a DMV office
2) Complete application form DL 44
3) Give a thumb print
4) Have his/her picture taken
5) Provide his/her social security number
6) Verify his/her birth date and legal presence through a certified copy of his/her birth certificate or other acceptable documents
7) Pay the application fee. A reduced fee based on income may be available through a public assistance program.
See http://www.dmv.ca.gov/dl/dl_info.htm

C. California Driver’s License

To get an original driver’s license from the DMV, a person over 18 years of age needs to
1) Visit a DMV office
2) Complete application form DL 44
3) Give a thumb print
4) Have his/her picture taken
5) Provide his/her social security number
6) Verify his/her birth date and legal presence through a certified copy of his/her birth certificate or other acceptable document
7) Provide his/her true full name
8) Pay the application fee
9) Pass a vision exam
10) Pass a traffic laws and sign test.
See http://dmv.ca.gov/dl/dl_info.htm
In order drive a car in the State of California, a person under 18 years of age must qualify for a provisional permit and supply the signatures of his/her parents, legal guardian or person(s) having actual full and complete custody. For further details, see http://dmv.ca.gov/dl/dl_info.htm#SSN

D. Duplicate California Photo ID or Driver’s License

To a apply for a duplicate (lost or stolen) photo identification card or driver’s license from the DMV, a person needs to
1) Visit a DMV office
2) Complete application form DL 44
3) Give a thumb print
4) Have his/her picture taken
5) Pay the application fee A reduced fee based on income may be available through a public assistance program. No fee for a senior citizen (62 years of age).
See http://www.dmv.ca.gov/dl/dl_info.htm

E. Social Security Card

To apply for a new Social Security number, a U.S. born citizen age 12 or older needs to
1) Complete an Application For A Social Security Card (Form SS-5)
2) Produce two original or certified copies of documents proving
a. U.S. Citizenship through such documents as a U.S. birth certificate or U.S. consular report of birth or U.S. passport or Certificate of Naturalization or Certificate of Citizenship
b. Age through such documents as a U.S. birth certificate or passport
c. Identity through such documents as a U.S. driver’s license, or state-issued non-driver identification card or U.S. passport or Employee ID card or school ID card, or health insurance card (not a Medicare card) or U.S. military ID card3) Take the completed application and original documents to a Social Security office and be interviewed
See http://www.ssa.gov/ss5doc/?ID=ori&Selfchild=self&Status=us18&Submit=Submit

To get an original social security card for a U.S. born citizen under 12 years of age, a parent or legal guardian needs to
1) Complete an Application For A Social Security Card (Form SS-5); and Show documents proving the child’s:
a. U.S. citizenship;
b. Age
c. Identity
2) Show proof of the parent’s or legal guardian’s identity.
3) Take the completed application and original documents to a Social Security office.
See http://www.ssa.gov/ss5doc/?ID=ori&Selfchild=child&Status=us&Submit=Submit
For further details about applying for a social security card for foreign-born citizens or noncitizens, seehttp://www.socialsecurity.gov/ss5doc/

F. Replacement Social Security Card

To get a replacement social security card, a person needs to
1) Complete an Application For A Social Security Card (Form SS-5)
2) Show original or certified copies of documents proving Identity and U.S. citizenship or immigration status, if not a U.S. citizen.
3) Take or mail the completed application and documents to a Social Security office. Any documents mailed will be returned.
See http://ssa-custhelp.ssa.gov/app/answers/detail/a_id/251

To get a replacement social security card for a child, a parent or legal guardian needs to
1) Complete an Application For A Social Security Card (Form SS-5).
2) Show original or certified copies of documents proving the child’s identity and U.S. citizenship, current, lawful, work-authorized status if the child is not a U.S. citizen
3) Show a document proving the parent’s or legal guardian’s identity.
4) Take (or mail) the completed application and documents to a Social Security office
See http://www.socialsecurity.gov/ss5doc/?ID=rep&Selfchild=child&Status=us&Submit=Submit
For further details about replacing a social security card for foreign-born citizens or noncitizens, seehttp://www.socialsecurity.gov/ss5doc/

G. Mailing Address

In addition to meeting the requirements to obtaining a certified birth certificate, personal identification card (or driver’s license) and social security card, a homeless person must also overcome the hurdle of having no home address so that he/she can receive the mailed documents. To overcome this hurdle, a homeless person needs to find an alternative acceptable mailing address. Sometimes, nonprofit organizations will offer to serve as a mailing address for a homeless person.

H. The Time Factor

Having patience may or may not be considered as a hurdle to getting identification documents. However, patience is a necessary attribute for any applicant for identification documents, including a homeless person, because each identification document can take anywhere from weeks to months to be received through the mail.

Certainly, the time and effort needed to overcome the hurdles to securing the required identification documentation may delay the receipt of said documents and as a result delay the services needed by a homeless person. Sometimes, these hurdles prove insurmountable for a homeless person and vital services are not received.

Occasionally, the certified birth certificate, a state-issued photo identification card (or driver’s license) and an original social security card are collectively referred to as, “The Holy Trinity of Identification,” a reference to religious belief in The Holy Trinity: God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit.

However, I prefer to refer to these three documents as “The Trifecta of Identification.” A trifecta is a type of bet in a horse race in which the gambler must select the first three finishers in exact order. Like the gambler winning a trifecta, getting “The Trifecta of Identification” is far from a “sure bet” for a homeless person.

Arson for the Humanitarian

Also published on The Huffington Post

 

At 5 a.m. on Friday morning, January 11, flames rising from Bianca Koch’s red 1991 BMW convertible lit up the alley between Narragansett Avenue and Niagara Street in Ocean Beach, CA (OB). Luckily, the fire department was able to put out the blaze before it could spread to nearby structures. While the cause of the fire is still under investigation, Bianca feels that her car was deliberately totaled as a result of arson.

2011-02-18-BiancaKoch.jpgBianca Koch Surveys Her BMWNearly three years ago, Bianca, 40 years old, moved to OB because it was a convenient location for her business of supplying markets, stores and cafes with organic health products. Further, although she had lived in different parts of San Diego, she favored the beauty of Ocean Beach and its small-town neighborhood atmosphere.

Ironically, she also appreciated the sense of security she felt in OB because, in her words, “the beach patrol has everything under control… They check up on people asking them by name, ‘How are you doing?'” She noted that neighborhood groups, including the Ocean Beach Mainstreet Association (OBMA), “looked out for everyone” and encouraged the reporting of crimes. Biance felt, “Any time of night, I could step out and go to the beach. There was nothing to be afraid of…That has changed now.”

Although a woman of many interests, Bianca has been concentrating her time on three basic pursuits:

(1) Suppling her customers with organic dehydrated wheat grass, organic fermented Kombucha Tea in amber bottles and alkaline natural spring water in 100 percent biodegradable bottles.

(2) Writing the following articles about OB for the local paper, The Peninsula Beacon:

“Local Police Officers Commended For Excellence,” Opinion Section, Letter to Editor, Nov 18, 2010: Volumne 25 , Number 24.

“Special Christmas in OB; It’s Great to be Part of It,” Opinion Section, Jan 6, 2011, Volume 26, No.1.

“Free Medical Exams to Be Offered In OB,” Summary Page of News, News Brief, Jan. 13, 2011, Vol. 26, No. 2.

“OB: Is it the world’s friendliest dog town?” Guest Commentary by Bianca Koch,
Jan. 27, 2011, Vol. 26, No. 3.

“Headcount on Homeless: OB’s clergy group rallies to address the needs of transients, disadvantaged,” Feb. 10, 2011, Vol. 26, No. 4.

“Tunisian Visitor Sees Mirror Images in Egyptian Crisis,”
Co-authored with Kevin McKay, Feb. 10, 2011, Vol. 26, No. 4, p. 4.

“Young Students Bring Breath of Fresh Air to Survey,” Feb. 10, 2011, Vol. 26, No. 4, p. 7.

(3) Working as a volunteer with homeless people, the local churches and outreach groups.

Bianca believes that she knows why a person or people destroyed her vehicle: “I think it is a group of people who don’t like me promoting or helping homeless people or the churches.” Note: Bianca’s car was destroyed the day after her article of February 10, “Headcount on Homeless: OB’s clergy group rallies to address the needs of transients, disadvantaged.”

She cares deeply about the welfare of homeless people.

Bianca explains, “I am very passionate for the human rights of people. Listen, understand, try to put yourself in their shoes. Try to think what it would be like if you were hurt, raped by a relative… They have no one to turn to. Thanks to the churches and the outreach groups for all that they do. But we need more [help].”

What exactly does Bianca do?

“Although I have not been asked to do it, I always have supplies in my car, my former car, for homeless people… I generally don’t give money to them, but I will supply them with needed toiletries so that they know that someone cares. I got a radio for someone who needed a radio to drown out the voices in his head. Most of all I listen. They [the homeless people] all come to me with their problems and everything.”

When does Bianca help homeless people? “I do this every [available] hour of every day.” Bianca is quick to say that helping homeless people ‘is not my mission. It’s a part of my daily life.”

In return for the respect that Bianca shows homeless people, she feels that homeless people “give respect back” to her. Continuing, Bianca says, “If people would respect them, they will give the same respect back. They will try to fit into the community, if they can. No one gives them the chance.”

Since the fire, Bianca has received notice that she must vacate her apartment within 60 days.

So what are her plans for the future?

“I need to buy a car — that’s my immediate goal. I need a place to live. And I need to continue to do what I’m doing [to help homeless people]. I would like other people to join me…

“Treat homeless people with kindness and you will get a lot. There are different economic levels in our community. The different economic levels need to get to know each other. Then we will have a clean, beautiful OB. I wish it would be that way all around the world. But I will start here in OB.”

 

Homelessness Myth #19: R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Also published on The Huffington Post

Imagine for a moment the image of a homeless person. How do you feel? Are you imagining someone you respect?

Many of us do not respect homeless people. And by “us,” I mean “housed people.” Often, having respect for homeless people is only a myth.

At home with our families, at work surrounded by colleagues and even with friends, we may thoughtlessly use negative words, such as “bums” or “transients” to describe unhoused people. Our use of these words has become so prevalent that even homeless people use them to describe themselves.

For example, I saw a homeless man wearing overalls taking a shower at the beach two days ago. Standing in the cold weather under even colder running water, the homeless man made a great effort to wash. \As the homeless man finished his shower, he explained to an approaching housed person, “That’s how a bum washes his jeans.”

The word “homeless” is an adjective. There are homeless dogs and homeless cats. We need to remember our nouns. We need to be clear and accurate when we’re speaking about a “homeless person.” By avoiding the noun “person” when we’re talking about someone who is unhoused, we’re essentially dehumanizing the person about whom we’re speaking.

Words count and we know that words can hurt.

In addition, while we may be sympathetic to housed people with various limitations, our empathy does not seem to extend to homeless people with the same limitations. It seems that many of us have become desensitized to the plight of homeless people through constant exposure to negative language and images in our culture. For example, our print, radio and TV media often contain many disrespectful and inaccurate references to “transients,” when those homeless people are often born and raised in the same area in which they are currently homeless.

We may also show disrespect through our treatment of homeless people. Why else would we offer fewer services than are needed by them? We disrespect homeless people when we have insufficient shelter space for the number of homeless people within any municipality. We generally don’t meet homeless people “where they are.” In other words, we often ignore the reality of their situations and require that homeless people live up to our standards in order to get into shelters and/or receive services.

However, there is some very good news. The cities of Los Angeles and San Diego are now attempting to “meet homeless people where they are” by providing housing to 50 and 25, respectively, most-in-need homeless people regardless of their personal needs, habits and/or addictions. After these people are housed, appropriate services will be offered.

Why should we respect homeless people? We need to respect homeless people because they’re people. Living without a home, money, modern conveniences and often a job, they’re suffering more distress than many housed people have ever experienced.

Further, about 45 percent of homeless people are mentally ill. Does this diminish the respect that we owe them? No, because they’re still people. Most of the time we are unaware that certain housed people that we know are mentally ill. Because of a number of factors, mental illness among housed people is often not as obvious as the mental illness of homeless people.

It seems to me that the issues of homelessness have been in existence long enough for homelessness to become a formal science. Although we don’t offer enough shelter to meet the entire need, we now offer homeless people more housing assistance than ever before. Our service programs have become more effective over time and our statistical methods of counting homeless people have improved.

Therefore, it’s time to review our language concerning homeless people, our cultural influences on the topic of homelessness and our treatment of homeless people so that we can recognize our biases. When we realize our negativities, we can make changes to reflect our enlightened state of mind.

Once we respect homeless people, our world will change for the better.

 

Homelessness Myth #18: The Police Will Solve It

Also published on The Huffington Post

Homelessness is first and foremost a social service issue. In other words, homelessness can be and will be resolved through the work of compassionate individuals and social service agencies, be they nonprofit organizations or government agencies. Nevertheless, the myth exists that homelessness is primarily a police issue.

If homelessness is truly a social service issue, why is police activity often seen as the ultimate solution to ending homelessness?

First, some housed people fear homeless people. The concept of “NIMBYism,” not in my backyard, is the totality of the negative thoughts and fears of some housed people who think that their safety depends upon homeless people, as well as social service programs serving homeless people, not existing in their neighborhoods, their “backyards.” These housed people often look to their municipal policymakers, legislative bodies and the police to “solve” homelessness by preventing or removing homeless people and homelessness programs from existing in their neighborhoods.

Second, often in response to the real or perceived feelings of housed people, some municipal policymakers and legislative bodies have focused on homelessness as an issue to be removed from within their borders, rather than as a city issue to be solved. These municipal lawmakers may pass ordinances that appear to remove the problem of homelessness within their city as a political tool for garnishing votes in the next election from their fearful constituents.

City ordinances do not cost money to draft and pass because the municipal legislative bodies are already in place and being paid to pass ordinances. So passing ordinances relating to homelessness per se, costs no additional funding.

Third, when a city focuses on passing municipal ordinances for removing homelessness from within the city, its police department becomes charged with enforcing these ordinances. Police departments already exist and, hence, no additional funds are needed to create an enforcement body.

There is no doubt that there are many fine members of police forces across the United States who diligently enforce the laws and simultaneously compassionately help homeless people. In addition, in a number of municipalities, there are police teams specifically dedicated to addressing homelessness. Sometimes these police teams have a working relationship with social service agencies and may refer homeless people to them for needed services. However, while the police can help homeless residents, the police cannot be expected solve all of the issues of homelessness.

What can we as individuals do to help end homelessness? We can do a lot:

• We can volunteer for and support local social service agencies who are helping to end homelessness.

• There still may be time this January to volunteer and support the HUD-required Point In Time Count (PITC) of homeless people which has been mandated nationwide bi-annually at the end of January since 2005. HUD uses the statistics gathered as a basis for distributing millions of dollars of federal funds to social service agencies.

• We can be kind and compassionate to everyone regardless of economic standing.

I asked several social service providers to share their views on this myth. I am grateful to them for their comments that follow.

“There are a lot of times when the police get the rap… My experience is that the police are much more of a friend to us [Alpha Project] and homeless people. But, the police are complaint-driven…

“All the best officers are sympathetic to homeless peoples’ situations. Anytime the HOT Team [San Diego Police Homeless Outreach Team] brings in a homeless person, we put them in the shelter… The HOT Team is our biggest advocate. There is no place to take anyone without the Winter Shelter being open.”

— Bob McElroy, President, Alpha Project. The San Diego Winter Shelter Program is run by Alpha Project.

“Social services — whether publicly or privately funded — are all dedicated to improving social conditions- – that’s why they’re called social services. It’s part of the community that has solving social problems as its core mission, its bottom line. Social service agencies are core in providing the relationships people need to be successful. 

“Yes, to solve homelessness, let’s make everyone count. Let’s support the experts – the social service agencies – in the powerful work of building relationships with each person who is without a home.”

– Patricia Leslie, M.S.W., Director, Social Work, Point Loma Nazarene University

“The police can be invaluable partners in our shared effort to alleviate homelessness. However, they cannot be expected to arrest or simply relocate people who are homeless. Many jurisdictions restrict the reach of the law enforcement when it comes to where people sleep or reside during the day… 

“However, what is clear is that Homelessness is not a Police Issue, it is a ‘Community Issue’. As a community, we can solve homelessness. The solution begins with empathy, compassion, and understanding. This is often difficult, but necessary in order to create the groundswell of action needed to create solutions. From this, we need to commit to affordable housing, employment options, health care, and ongoing supports in order to enable people to achieve their potential. Whose issue is it? Ours.

– Peter Callstrom, Executive Director of the San Diego Regional Task Force

“I, of course, sincerely believe that homelessness and problems that accompany it must be addressed by society at large and the social service agencies that have the knowledge and skills to help the homeless population. Government (cities and counties) and the service providers should be working together to help homeless individuals and families acquire housing, health care, both physical and mental health, education and the employment skills they need to become contributing members of our society.

“The police do have an important piece in this process, but it should be ‘compassionate policing’ such as the Homeless Outreach Teams that are trained to work with the chronic homeless population…

“All of us must take some responsibility to help solve [the homelessness] problem. So many talented and caring people are trying hard to end homelessness. We all need to do our part.”

– Hannah Cohen, Policy Consultant on Issues of Housing and Homelessness, President of the Cohen Group

“It’s such a myth to me, that when I heard that, I almost brushed it off my shoulder…because the political involvement [in homelessness] does not make the issue go away, it only moves it around. You can sweep [homelessness] under the rug, then you shake the rug and people on the other side of the street get upset. 

“Whatever we do to get rid of ‘the problem’ [homelessness], we affect all those communities around us. It does not go away; it only grows.”

– Tim Sandiford, Head Trustee, Point Loma United Methodist Church, Commissioner of Ministries and Missions, Member and Point Person for Public Facilities, OB Forum