Humanizing homelessness in Long Beach

Joel Roberts’ LA’s Homeless Blog ran a series of posts on the effort last week in Long Beach to survey chronically homeless persons living on the streets, part of the Long Beach Connections Initiative. The goal of the survey was to identify the most vulnerable people living on the streets as part of a community-wide effort to help move them into housing. It is an approach that communities around Los Angeles and the country are employing to help the most needy – and most costly to society – and initial results from these efforts are promising. An important byproduct of the efforts is that residents are engaged as volunteers and learn first-hand about the struggles of people who are living on the streets.

In a July 21 post, Joel Roberts explains how pleasantly surprised he was at the response to a volunteer training session:

Clearly, leaders of this initiative were nervous, worried about low attendance. A small number of volunteers would’ve meant the community was not interested in addressing homelessness.

But by five minutes after the starting hour, the room was packed. Over 100 local volunteers were there—from faith groups, the local university, service agencies, businesses, and the community as a whole. There was clearly an excited buzz during the meeting.

Volunteer Richard Hackett blogged in a July 24 post how participating in the effort had changed his perspective:

The variety of circumstances surrounding the reason for each individual’s homelessness varied. I encountered those that were mentally ill, the extremely intelligent who had earned a college degree, drug and alcohol abusers, displaced family units, and those running from the law.

I found myself reflecting after a days worth of surveys, that all of these transgressions (whether their own or those against them) as bad as they might seem, are no different than some of the sins I have committed in my life. There is goodness in each of the people I met this week. I saw that during the interviews I conducted.

And in a July 26 post, Patricia Loughrey blogged how the people she met are ready for a place to live.

But Juan is ready. He is in perfect position. Slip a house around Juan and he’ll fit right in. Put an address on his front porch and he’ll be ready to wake up and walk into a new day. Juan is ready.

And Carla is ready. And Byron, and Pops, Gerald, and Peanut, Patrice and Clyde. They’re all ready. And so are the other 350 people sleeping outside this week in central Long Beach: they are ready.

Inequality and insecurity, Latin American style

I am currently visiting family and friends in Ecuador, where I cannot help but be confronted daily with poverty and inequality. Having lived here in the early 1990s and returning at least every couple years since then, I’ve been able to observe the changes occurring – some positive but many negative – in this country I love, and which are indicative of trends in Latin America and other parts of the developing world. Unfortunately, one area that I’ve witnessed deteriorate over the years is the level of security and safety, and I can’t help but think this has something to do with the extreme levels of social and economic inequality.

Latin America has some of the highest levels of inequality in the world. According to the 2007/2008 Human Development Report, the ratio of income controlled by the richest 10% to the poorest 10% in the U.S. is 15.9 (in Japan it is 4.5 and in Finland 5.6). In contrast, in Ecuador it is 44.9, in Brazil it is 51.3, Colombia 63.8, and Bolivia a whopping 168.1. With such high levels of unequal distribution of income, it isn’t surprising that crime is also on the rise.

Without a recent history of civil war or military oppression as in other Latin American countries, Ecuador was previously seen as an oasis of relative tranquility. When I lived here in the early 1990s, I travelled throughout the capital city and the country on bus and on foot, and was never robbed or really even felt insecure, though I did take common sense precautions because I knew that petty crimes were somewhat common. Each time I come back, however, I hear stories of increasing insecurity and even violent crime.

Several years ago, I was stunned by the explosion of fancy shopping malls in Quito, with prices at or higher than those in the U.S., and I couldn’t help but wonder what would be the psychological effects of a globalized consumerism out of the reach of the masses would be on society. Having access to better goods and services is a good thing, but in this case having all the latest toys and luxury items thrown in your face but without the educational and economic opportunities to afford them could only lead to problems, I reasoned.

On one of our first days here, I got to experience these contradictions first hand. Due to the vision of some dedicated municipal leaders and transportation planners, Quito has made some positive improvements in public transit, namely the electric Trolebus, which runs from the north to the south of the city and gets about 200,000 riders everyday. It’s a convenient way to get through the increasingly congested city, and we decided to take it to a new children’s museum (El Museo Interactivo de Ciencia). The museum was wonderful, engaging for both our 6 and 9 year old, another example of many of the positive artistic and cultural developments in Quito in recent years. On the trip back, however, my sister-in-law had her wallet taken from her purse in the crowded Trole, putting a damper on the day. We were conscious of the risk and careful but were not able to avoid this unfortunately common occurrence.

These problems are not unique to Ecuador or Latin America, of course (and shouldn’t discourage anyone from visiting them because there are so many wonderful places and things to experience). But they should also provide caution to societies like the U.S. that are experiencing growing social and economic disparities. Inequality may be good for a few for awhile, but the social disintegration that will likely prevail eventually isn’t good for anyone.

Vulnerability and hope for foster children

Kids in the child welfare system are among the most vulnerable people in our society.  The educational and socio-economic outcomes for foster youth are staggeringly abysmal.  According to the Child Welfare League of America:

  • There are more than 500,000 in foster care in the U.S., at an average age of 10 years and an average stay of 28 months.
  • About 20,000 youth “age out” of foster care each year.  Only half of these young people graduate from high school, and only 2 out of 100 will graduate from college.  A quarter will become homeless and almost a third will have no health insurance.  A third to half will be unemployed.

A number of years ago, I worked in a school for kids who had been removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect.  Nearly all of the young people were very behind academically and had severe emotional and social problems.  Apathy and violence coexisted in these kids and could be manifested almost simultaneously.  One of the most wrenching things I’ve ever had to do was physically restrain a 6 year old kid because he was a danger to himself and others. It happened regularly that year that I worked at the school, a year in which I saw little, if any, progress in the kids.

More recently, I visited a project at a state university that provides scholarships and other support to young people who were previously in the foster care system.  Sitting down with several students, I got to witness living success stories.  Wounds and challenges were still evident; eye contact with them was difficult to achieve.  However, against all odds – without parents to send money or cookies, without a home to got back to over Christmas break – these young people are making it and have dreams for career and family.  It gave me hope that I hadn’t been able to feel during my work at the school.

I just got finished reading a book by someone who is an authority on foster care, in more ways than one.  Andrew Bridge’s book, Hope’s Boy, recounts his personal story from growing up in the foster care system in Los Angeles to graduating from Harvard Law School and having a successful career as an attorney and advocate for child welfare reform.  Having gotten to know Andrew personally over the last year, I was prepared to be touched by the details of his story.  I was less prepared, however, for the exquisite quality of his writing and ability to convey the strength of ties between a mother and her son, no matter the circumstances.

Andrew’s mother suffered from severe mental illness and was unable to care for him, leading him to be in the foster care system from age seven until graduating from high school.  The book doesn’t provide any easy answers as to why and how Andrew overcame the odds to become more than just a sad statistic.  He didn’t have a particularly supportive foster family, nor was there one mentor who steered him down the right path.  In many ways, his is a story of self-reliance, which he attributes largely to his mother.  Therapists working with children who have experienced abuse even from their own parents say that no matter the extent of their abuse, these kids always want to go back home.

After many years of faulting on the side of removing kids from their homes at the slightest sign of neglect, child welfare agencies more recently have explicit policies of “family preservation and reunification,” and foster care rolls are on the decline across the country.  This is overall a positive trend, as ultimately it is clearly better for kids to be with family than in foster care.  However, unless there are sufficient supports – from health and mental health to educational and economic – for these kids and their families, it could be simply another example of shifting the burden of a safety net from society to individuals.

If you are interested in learning more about the facts of foster care and how to improve outcomes for youth, check out website of Casey Family Programs, an operating foundation working to reduce the number of kids in foster care and improve outcomes for those who remain in care.

Steep rise in mass layoffs

Analysis by researchers at the Economic Policy Institute clearly shows the extent to which the economy is losing jobs. Mass layoffs – defined as letting go of 50 or more people by a single employer – have doubled over the last couple years and are at their highest level in the last 15 years. In May there were almost 3,000 mass layoffs in the country (accounting for more than 300,000 lost jobs).

While any job loss is tragic, layoffs at this scale can also be traumatic for entire communities: “the closing of a plant or several mass layoffs in the same area also erode the community’s tax base, resulting in a ripple effect, such as decreased funding for schools or falling property values.”

Humanizing homelessness

The Los Angeles Times is largely a shell of its former self, part of an overall downturn in the quantity and quality of newspapers. However, the paper is developing quite a niche in reporting on homelessness (which I guess makes sense because Los Angeles is home to more homeless persons than any other city in the nation). Thankfully, these columns tend to not focus on the negative, but rather uncover the personal stories of people struggling against the odds to overcome homelessness and poverty.

The most familiar of these stories is the extensive reporting by Steve Lopez on Skid Row and his friendship with Nathaniel Ayers, which resulted in “The Soloist” book and movie. Other recent stories may not be as well-known but are just as compelling.

Esmeralda Bermudez wrote about Khadijah Williams, an 18 year old who has long been homeless but is going to Harvard this year. Sandy Banks has written about Eddie Dotson, a man who created his own home in tight spaces near LA freeways and who was reconnected with his children through the columns. Banks’ most recent column highlights how Dotson “captured a community,” and she makes the important point that overcoming the odds wasn’t just a matter of personal will. Each of these special people received help from someone.

We should be inspired by these personal stories of triumph, while remembering that it is up to us to make sure that all the Nathaniels, Khadijahs, and Eddies out there have the opportunity experience similar victories.

California Parolees Have a High Need for Health Services; Accessing Services Is a Challenge

By Lois Davis, RAND Corporation

As California continues to release more prisoners, most will return to California communities, bringing with them a host of health and social needs. This raises key public health challenges, especially because ex-prisoners are returning to communities whose safety nets have already been severely strained. The RAND Corporation has just released a report to help California policymakers better understand the health care needs of those returning from prison to communities, which communities are disproportionately impacted by reentry, and the capacity of the health care safety net in those communities to handle them.

The full report and a press release are available, but several key findings emerge:

  • California inmates bear a high burden of chronic diseases like asthma and hypertension and infectious diseases like hepatitis and tuberculosis—conditions that require regular use of healthcare for effective management—and their drug treatment and mental health care needs are even more pronounced.
  • Certain counties and communities within California are disproportionately affected by reentry, which has implications in terms of targeting reentry resources to these areas.
  • Most parolees—and, in particular, African-American and Latino parolees—return to disadvantaged communities where their needs for healthcare, housing, and employment, among other services, will be harder to meet.
  • There are important gaps in the safety nets in those communities to meet parolee health care, drug treatment, and mental health care needs.
  • Safety net providers, especially community clinics, are an important component of the safety net for parolees.
  • Funding more clinics may help fill in geographic gaps in services.
  • There is a need to better integrate the different treatment networks that provide services to the parolee population, particularly those for mental health, alcohol, and drug treatment.

Trends in LA and CA over the next few years

A common problem in trying to discern trends in poverty and inequality is that the data that we often have at hand are usually not particularly recent. The lag between when data are collected and publicly available can be significant, especially in a rapidly changing economy like we’ve been in over last several months. Also, to be really helpful, data would tell us as much as where we’re going as well as where we’ve been.

A new report from the LA-based Economic Roundtable attempts to meet those needs by providing a wealth of the most recent data on how the current recession is affecting everything from employment, income, housing, poverty and health in Los Angeles and the state. Using historical data on recessions and employment projections from respected forecasters, the report produces estimates for how residents will fare over the coming years. If you are interested in where we’ve been and could be going, check out Ebbing Tides in the Golden State: Impacts of the 2008 Recession on California and Los Angeles County.

In general, the report sees conditions continuing to worsen over the next year but then starting to improve steadily by 2011 or 2012. It even provides estimates of how much poverty and homelessness will increase or decrease. Are these accurate? Of course there is no way to know. As the Nobel Prize laureate physicist Niels Bohr said, “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.” At the very least, Ebbing Tides in the Golden State provides an important overall understanding of how deep the recession is affecting us.

The New and Already Poor

Barbara Ehrenreich is perhaps the best popular writer on issues of poverty, inequality and increasing financial insecurity in the U.S.,  chiefly through books such as Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America and Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream. In a recent New York Times op-ed, “Too Poor to Make the News,” Ehrenreich astutely observes that with all of the attention to the “Nouveau Poor” resulting from the current recession, the plight of those who were already poor has been largely ignored in the mainstream media.  Revisiting some of the people she profiled in Nickel and Dimed and groups working with the long-term poor, she worries that the current crisis will only make conditions worse for them.

The deprivations of the formerly affluent Nouveau Poor are real enough, but the situation of the already poor suggests that they do not necessarily presage a greener, more harmonious future with a flatter distribution of wealth. There are no data yet on the effects of the recession on measures of inequality, but historically the effect of downturns is to increase, not decrease, class polarization.

The recession of the ’80s transformed the working class into the working poor, as manufacturing jobs fled to the third world, forcing American workers into the low-paying service and retail sector. The current recession is knocking the working poor down another notch — from low-wage employment and inadequate housing toward erratic employment and no housing at all. Comfortable people have long imagined that American poverty is far more luxurious than the third world variety, but the difference is rapidly narrowing.

We shouldn’t discount the negative effects the current crisis is having on a wide range of families who make up the newly poor; but neither should we forget the long-term poor, who will be less likely to bounce back once the crisis turns.

Giving was down in 2008; Human service organizations hit hard

The Chronicle of Philanthropy reports that according to Giving USA’s report findings released today, charitable donations fell by nearly 6% in 2008, the sharpest drop in 53 years. Americans gave over $300 billion to nonprofit organizations in 2008, amounting to about 2% of the gross domestic product. As the article points out, the decline from the previous year was not as stark as some expected, due to the fact that the crisis deepened during the second half of last year.

The full report is not available yet, but according the the report press release there were several sobering findings for groups that serve the poor:

• Compared with 2007, 54 percent of human services charities saw an increase in need for their services in 2008; 30 percent saw little change in need; and 16 percent saw a decline;
• For 2009, 60 percent of the surveyed human services organizations were cutting expenses, including cutting services or staff, due to funding shortages;
• The type of human service agency most likely to be underfunded was youth development/serving children and youth. Of this type of group in the study, 74 percent said they are underfunded or severely underfunded, meaning that current available funding was insufficient to meet current demand; and
• Among organizations working to meet people’s basic needs (food, shelter, clothing, etc.), more than half (53 percent) said they are underfunded or severely underfunded for 2009.

The high cost of poverty

The Washington Post ran an article by DeNeen Brown last month that began with the seemingly contradictory statement, “you have to be rich to be poor.” How can that be? As the article explains, the poor often pay higher prices for goods and services in their neighborhoods, and, perhaps more importantly, they pay much more in time and hassle:

“Prices in urban corner stores are almost always higher, economists say. And sometimes, prices in supermarkets in poorer neighborhoods are higher”

“Time is money, they say, and the poor pay more in time, too. When you are poor, you don’t have the luxury of throwing a load in to the washing machine and then taking your morning jog while it cycles.”

“The poor pay more in hassle: the calls from the bill collectors, the landlord, the utility company.”

“The rich have direct deposit for their paychecks. The poor have check-cashing and payday loan joints, which cost time and money.”

The article contains lessons from several “guest lecturers,” the poor themselves. Take a look and learn from their stories. Many of the things that most of us take for granted – shopping for fresh fruits and vegetables, paying bills and borrowing a little money, finding decent childcare – are infinitely more difficult for the poor.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation has been at the forefront of identifying the high cost of poverty, both for individuals and society. For example, see the essay on “The High Cost of Being Poor” in their 2003 edition of the Kids Count Report, as well as a Resource Kit with strategies for helping people overcome the high cost of poverty.