Thursday, May 24, 2012

Campers as a canary in the coal mine

From Channel Surfing (The photos are by Hank Kalet):

The population at Lakewood's tent city encampment is growing. When I talked with the Rev. Steve Brigham last month during my first visit, he told me he anticipated growth -- from about 70 then to about 100 by July -- but based on conversations today, he could be underestimating things.

Part of the issue is a lack of shelter space in Ocean County and the aggressive efforts of municipal and county officials to close down the smaller encampments that dot the area. That has resulted in a large number of people having little choice but to arrive in Lakewood hoping that Brigham can find them a tent.

William, who arrived early this morning with his girlfriend Lisa, is a house painter who works seasonably in Seaside Heights -- doing most of his work in the winter when the hotels are closed. Once they opened, he lost his job and the ability to pay his rent. They moved in with a friend in Freehold, but it turned out the friend was bipolar and off his medication and he began threatening them.

So they left and moved into tent city.

Sheridan lost his job as a cook in Atlantic City, one he held for 22 years, when he found out he was bipolar. After trouble with the various social services -- he thought he would be able to enter a program in Asbury Park but that fell through -- he also found himself in Lakewood.

Today was my third visit down, part of a project I am working on with photographer Sherry Rubel and filmmaker Jack Ballo. I'm writing a long poem (and doing some magazine features) and we'll present the multimedia collaborative when it's done.

In the meantime, I'll do what I can to draw attention to the structural economic problems of which tent cities like the one in Lakewood are symptoms. Officially, there are 645,000 homeless people on any given day in the United States and about 3.5 million who are homeless at some point annually. That figure is the number of individuals who access resources or services through the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. The number does not include a variety of others who lack housing, including about 660,000 children considered un-housed but not in the HUD system and about 55,000 veterans not covered by HUD. And for the most part, the numbers also do not include those living in tent city encampments.

The Lakewood encampment is one of hundreds that have cropped up across the country, most of which – like the one in Lakewood – predate the 2008 banking collapse. Their existence offers a stark reminder that the gross economic inequality that we have come to accept as a larger society has very real impacts and the housing industry, by chasing every dollar, has priced large numbers out of the market.

The response from Lakewood -- and from other towns, like Denver -- has been to criminalize the encampments and the homeless in general, rather than take steps to expand and improve the shelter and affordable housing systems.

Capitalism is the culprit here, or at least capitalism as practice in the United States. Our focus on winners and losers, on profits at all costs and our unwillingness to admit that our economic actions -- whether we are talking about buying an iPod, building a house or buying produce -- has its impacts. The corporate control we have come to accept has left us powerless to understand our own economy.

We are, as Don -- a man who helps out by bringing food and clothing by the camp periodically -- says, one catastrophe and a few weeks or a couple of months away from ending up in a tent in Lakewood ourselves.

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  • Suburban Pastoral, a chapbook by Hank Kalet, available here.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Anti-camping law targets homeless

The Denver City Council voted 9-4 to impose an urban camping ban last week -- a move "that specifically targets homeless people sleeping on the streets and one that critics say simply criminalizes homelessness."

Critics point out that the city's shelters already are overburdened, that there is no way to house everyone living on the streets. Instead of finding ways to expand housing opportunities, the city is looking to chase the homeless from public view.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Ocean County's homeless on the move

Two small homeless encampments off Route 37 in Toms River were uprooted this week -- another example of how the lack of adequate housing and shelter space leaves too many vulnerable.

As reported by Toms River Patch, "the move was prompted by the owners of the properties where the two encampments exist — near the bus station south of Water Street and in the wooded area between James Street and Route 37 near Route 166." The camps were on private property -- unlike in Lakewood, where the camp is on publicly owned land.

Social Services was brought in to assist the homeless.

Meredith Sheehan, supervisor of social work at the Ocean County Board of Social Services, confirmed there was an outreach made to provide information about services to people who qualify. "Anyone who may have come in was seen by a worker here to determine if they were eligible for our services. If they were eligible, we have provided temporary shelter."

Those that applied for assistance were granted help in the form of housing and various programs for the duration of at least six months to one year, depending on the specific individuals circumstances, Williams said.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012


Where are they supposed to go now?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Housing money sleight-of-hand

A story in The New York Times points out that numerous states facing large deficits are raiding settlement money originally designated for at-risk homeowners. The upshot is a potential that more homeowners will lose their homes -- and put more pressure on an already burdened relief sector.

There is not enough housing for low-income people as it is, and a spike in foreclosures can only increase demand at a time when supply remains stagnant. The money should be used to keep at-risk homeowners in their homes and for states to take over toiled properties nd rent them back to those being foreclosed on -- albeit at a huge discount.

It is imperative, if we won't to maintain a functioning middle- and working-class, that we keep homeowners from being dispatched to the streets and woods.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Sunday required reading

A column by Dean Baker and Kevin Hassett in The New York Times sums up the employment crisis facing the nation -- one that is playing itself out across so many other sectors, including housing. The growing incidence of long-term unemployment, or unemployment lasting more than six months, is creating a vast pool of unemployable order. It is, they say "nothing short of a national emergency."

Millions of workers have been disconnected from the work force, and possibly even from society. If they are not reconnected, the costs to them and to society will be grim.

Tent City in Lakewood, with its mix of the unemployed and unemployable, offer a glimpse into a potential American future, one in which our land of promise slowly slides away and we more and more come to resemble out third-world neighbors.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Christie discusses new low-income housing plan

Gov. Chris Christie has not been a champion of the state's existing affordable housing regime. The governor has moved to disband the state Council on Affordable Housing, planning to hand the council's responsibilities to the state Department of Community Affairs, allow towns more freedom to develop their own plans and, bizarrely, to take the nearly quarter of a billion dollars in housing trust fund money to balance his budget.

So housing advocates can be forgiven for being cautious in their response to his comments yesterday.
The proposal, outlined today by the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, would change the way the state administers its annual $18 million federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit, a subsidy meant to encourage development of affordable rentals.

"My administration is committed to expanding housing options for our most vulnerable citizens as part of our long-term, comprehensive plan to combat homelessness," Christie said in a statement.

The agency did not release the language of the proposal, but said it would cap the cost of projects eligible for the credit, and limit construction of affordable housing in high poverty areas.

It would also award developers for building houses or apartments for families who are now homeless. Also under the plan, 40 percent of the tax credit awards would be granted in urban areas "to guarantee urban project development."
The big news, however, is the governor's stated intention to use the new rules to "give poor residents a better chance to live in towns with high performing schools."

According to a press release from the Department of Community Affairs,
The rule also proposes incentives to locate developments proximate to areas of high job growth and excellent schools.

“The changes will create opportunities for children to flourish in high achieving schools while greatly expanding parents’ ability to find employment proximate to their residence” explained Acting DCA Commissioner Richard E. Constable, III, who is Chair of the HMFA Board and Co-chair of the Interagency Council on Homelessness.
If the new rules produce housing -- which is desperately needed -- and ensures that the housing is spread fairly throughout the state, as the governor says, then kudos to him and his administration. But given the history of affordable housing in the state -- i.e., political unwillingness to allow construction of low-income and even moderate-income housing in many towns through the use of exclusionary zoning -- I'm not particularly optimistic.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Kozol still right: Too many are homeless

I am rereading Jonathan Kozol's important book on homelessness, Rachel and Her Children. It was published in 1988, during the end of the Reagan administration, before the massive dislocations caused by NAFTA and the ramp up of the so-called FIRE sector of the American economy (Finance, Insurance and Real Estate). Kozol, among many things, reminds us that quantifying the homeless problem is nearly impossible and very likely counterproductive:
Any search for the "right number" carries the assumption that we may at last arrive at an acceptable number. There is no acceptable number. Whether the number is 1 million or 4 million or the (Reagan) administration's estimate of less than a million, there are too many homeless people in America. 
This comment from Kozol, from p. 10 of the 1988 paperback, remains valid 24 years after the book's publication, a sad commentary on our society.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Little cushion

An IMF study reported on by The Huffington Post today should give all of us pause. Americans are buried in debt and, because of it, may be just one step away from financial catastrohe.

Today, Americans owe some $704 billion in credit card debt, and more than that in both auto loans and student borrowing.
Many Americans may not even realize the extent to which debt underpins their lifestyle. A number of analysts argue that many Americans who consider themselves middle class are in fact leading a precarious, over-leveraged existence, with few savings and little financial cushion in case of emergency.
Think about it. Most of us are just one health emergency -- cancer, a heart attack, some disabling injury, a lost job, a fire, etc. -- away from losing everything and ending up on a relative's couch, or in a tent in the woods.

Some perspective

The National  Coalition for the Homeless issued a report two years ago that bears some consideration. The report, Tent Cities in America: A Pacific Coast Report, looks at the tent city phenomenon on the West Coast -- outlining how the tent cities operate, the organizing efforts in the encampments and the lack of affordable housing.

According to a press release from the NCH:
Home foreclosures, unemployment, and the regional poverty rates continue to rise, as newly homelessness families see a double digit increase. 44% of people experiencing homeless in America are unsheltered (USHUD 2009). A growing number of unsheltered Americans are congregating in tent cities for safety, community and as locations of last resort.

“Tent Cities are American’s de facto waiting room for affordable and accessible housing. The idea of someone living in a tent in this country says little about the decisions made by those who dwell within and so much more about our nation’s inability to adequately respond to our fellow residents in need.”  -Neil Donovan, National Coalition for the Homeless Executive Director.
The report is now two years old, but the findings remain valid. There is not enough housing and the use of traditional shelters -- human warehouses -- does little more than demean the people seeking to put a roof over their heads.

As one Seattle tent city resident said:
“In the absence of proper shelter, it is the basic right of any living being to construct a temporary one.”

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Jail beats the streets for one homeless man

A Georgia man hurled a brick through a window because going to jail was better than remaining hungry and on the streets. According to The Huffington Post:
Faced with more nights on the street, Brown said he thought lofting the brick through the building would give him at least a few hours in a place where "someone's going to offer me a sandwich and drink."

Robert Marbut, a national homelessness consultant, said it's rare for homeless offenders to spend more than a night in two in custody, let alone almost a year. He said there needs to be more alternative sentences to teach homeless offenders about life skills, hygiene and nutrition.

"That shows you how wacky things have gotten when we don't have as a society an intermediate program," Marbut said.

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