From Homelessness to Giving Back – A Student’s Journey

On August 12, 2020, Gordon Wayne began a 16 day, 550-mile trek from Virginia to Boston College, all on foot. At first glance, Gordon may appear to be an average, middle-class college student. However, last year, Gordon was facing very different circumstances. Despite working extremely long hours and attending community college, Gordon was experiencing homelessness. With his car as his only means of shelter, Gordon applied to Boston College and was accepted with a full financial aid package which included housing. Months after, during a pandemic that caused a rise in foreclosure and evictions, Gordon took to the streets – literally – to create awareness and raise money for homelessness.

Gordon is far from alone in his experience of homeless – in Virginia alone, there are almost 6,000 people experiencing homelessness every night. Throughout the United States, the number increases to over 550,000, with about 68,000 of those individuals being college students. In fact, a recent study showed that 60% of college students had experienced food insecurity or housing insecurity within the last 30 days. The current COVID-19 pandemic has put an increased strain on the available resources for students who were already struggling. The time spent residing on campus during the semester was often a safe space for these students, who may now have to find alternate arrangements.

With many colleges now going remote, some students are left with no place to go to finish their semester. Some schools regularly have programs to address homelessness among students; for example, Kennesaw State University’s Campus Awareness, Resource & Empowerment (CARE) Services is a program that offers assistance with housing, food insecurity, and supportive services. A growing number of schools host campus food pantries, which have grown in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic. While other schools may not have ongoing dedicated programs like KSU, many are able to provide guidance to students about local resources.

Depending on the area they live in, people experiencing homelessness can face harsh weather conditions if they are unsheltered and struggle to access basic necessities like food, water, and bathrooms. Without access to bathrooms or similar facilities, it can be near-impossible to maintain a socially acceptable presence, making it even harder to find a job. On top of all of this, many people experiencing homelessness encounter high levels of violence and do not have access to adequate healthcare. The inability to access healthcare can leave many physical and mental problems untreated.

One of the most effective programs to reduce homelessness is the federal housing assistance program. While it can take time to access due to waiting lists, this is a stable solution to housing insecurity. Recent years have seen a push for a new approach using the Housing First model. Housing First means that while housing is the top priority, services are available to help in other aspects of life as well, while taking the whole person into account. Housing First takes away many of the traditional barriers to accessing housing and offers it to those who want it, not just those who have proven they are “ready” for housing by maintaining sobriety or meeting other prerequisites.

Gordon’s journey was an incredible display of both human resilience and generosity. A few strangers brought Gordon supplies during his walk and even more donated to his fundraising site. Since starting his walk, Gordon has raised over $160,000 to benefit the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

https://twitter.com/Time4Homes/status/1325801599793500167

This year, the week of November 15-22 was National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. Every year the National Coalition for the Homeless works with the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness to raise money and awareness for individuals struggling with food and housing insecurity. To make a contribution to National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, click here. For those in need of assistance with food, here is a list of food pantries.

With winter approaching and many unknowns still surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, the stressors each individual is facing are constantly changing. Until December 31, 2020, there is a national eviction moratorium, meaning you cannot be evicted from your apartment due to the nonpayment of rent or fees. In order to be protected under this moratorium, you must submit a form to your landlord. If you are in need of help with rent, there are COVID-19 rental assistance programs throughout the country. You can also find local resources by calling 211 or visiting the 211 website here.

Why There Are Better Alternatives Than Punitive Policies Targeting Homeless People

Homelessness is a pressing problem in many U.S. cities. In response, many local governments have enacted controversial measures such as restrictions on public health services or prohibitions on eating, sleeping, sitting or storing property in public spaces. Sometimes called “nuisance” or “quality of life” measures, such steps seem designed to reduce the visibility of unsheltered individuals and families; and they can be used to forcibly remove unsheltered people from parks, sidewalks, and streets.

Unfortunately, such policies do not offer meaningful solutions to homelessness, and they can actually make the problem worse – by exacerbating instabilities for those without permanent shelter. They also cause distress, stigmatize the homeless, and risk violating civil rights. Consequently, federal agencies such as the Department of Justice and the Interagency Council on Homelessness have criticized laws that criminalize “acts of living.”

How City Ordinances Targeting the Homeless Prove Counterproductive

City ordinances targeting the homeless are counterproductive in several ways:

  • By increasing financial insecurity. Economic need is a well-recognized cause of homelessness, and official citations or fines can exacerbate financial instability among those without permanent housing. What is more, when city officials enforce anti-homeless ordinances by confiscating property, already struggling households must expend scarce resources to replace food, clothing, medicines, work supplies or household goods.

  • By limiting access to jobs, services, and social support. Citations may lead to warrants or create criminal records, prompting cycles of criminalization. Moreover, studies have documented that these citations and fines can hinder access to employment and social services. Restrictions on activity in public spaces, especially in downtown areas, can prevent access to services, employment or educational opportunities. And when anti-homeless policies involve forced relocations, they can disrupt social support networks.

  • By promoting stigmatization and threatening civil liberties. Quality of life laws are often motivated by negative stereotypes and have been found to promote public stigmatization of unsheltered families. They can also heighten mistrust of public officials and service providers by people in need of their support. And in some of these laws have been found to violate constitutionally protected rights – which can lead to costly legal fees and court settlements for municipalities and their taxpayers.

The Example of Anti-Homeless Ordinances in Honolulu

The crisis of homelessness and the damaging impacts of punitive ordinances have been especially visible in Honolulu. In 2015, the state of Hawaii had the highest rate of homelessness in the United States, and Honolulu had one of the highest numbers of homeless people among in small cities. Honolulu has also become notorious for criminalizing actions including legal bans against sitting or lying on sidewalks in several districts and restrictions on storing property in spaces or living in parks. Enforcement of these city ordinances has resulted in “sweeps” or “raids” of homeless encampments in Honolulu.

Officials, business owners and members of the public are understandably concerned about ways in which visible homeless encampments could harm the city’s image, undercutting tourism, real-estate, and other commercial enterprises. But many people are unaware of the public and private costs inflicted by anti-homeless ordinances. A recent study found that the enforcement of Honolulu’s sidewalk property and nuisance ordinances, as well as sit-lie bans, has caused stress, and trauma. Respondents impacted by city ordinances and raids reported feeling violated, hurt, and ashamed — and “less than human.”

Homeless households also reported the loss of medicines, food, work supplies, children’s school materials, and official identification documents like state IDs or licenses. Such losses can create obstacles to accessing services, health care, nutritional assistance, work or income support, and employment. In Honolulu, homeless individuals have often lost their possessions or were forced either to pay up to $250 to retrieve property from a distant location or to go through a difficult and often logistically impossible waiver process.

City enforcement actions have required households to move, relocate, or lose the belongings they depend upon for basic survival. Relocation is especially burdensome for parents with children, persons with physical or mental disabilities, the sick and the elderly. Seizure of property can be traumatic, which is concerning since past experience with physical or domestic abuse is one risk factor for homelessness.

Better Solutions

Research finds that Housing First policies provide an effective solution to chronic homelessness. Such strategies couple intensive support services and outreach to homeless people with the provision of stable housing. Honolulu has made wise investments in Housing First, with positive results. However, Honolulu’s raids and sweeps on homeless households or encampments work in opposition to its positive housing initiatives, because punitive measures can create a climate of fear, mistrust, and chaos that undermines engaged public outreach to help the homeless.

In Honolulu, approximately $700,000 per year has been spent on managing and disposing of property and enforcing anti- homeless ordinances. A recent court settlement found that the city of Honolulu violated constitutional rights against seizure of property without due process, making the city and county liable for legal fees and compensation for a class of plaintiffs.

Instead of spending resources on punishment and legal cases, Honolulu and other localities could devote resources to more permanent solutions – by expanding Housing First programs and supplementing them with additional steps such as rapid-rehousing, emergency rental relief to prevent eviction, and investments to increase the availability of low-income rental housing. Honolulu, like many high cost-of-living locales, should seek to maximize investments in public housing maintenance as well as in inclusionary zoning and rental assistance and tax credit programs to encourage more construction of low-income rentals.

Read more in Jennifer Darrah-Okike, Sarah Soakai, Susan Nakaoka, Tai Dunson-Strane, and Karen Umemoto. “‘It Was Like I Lost Everything’: The Harmful Impacts of Homeless-Targeted Policies.” Housing Policy Debate, (2018).

Study Suggests Why Food Assistance for Homeless Young Adults is Inadequate

Though young homeless adults make use of available food programs, these support structures still often fail to provide reliable and consistent access to nutritious food, according to the results of a new study by a University at Buffalo social work researcher.

The findings, which fill an important gap in the research literature, can help refine policies and programs to better serve people experiencing homelessness, particularly those between the ages of 18-24.

“It may be tempting to think of food pantries, soup kitchens and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) as the solution,” says Elizabeth Bowen, an assistant professor in UB’s School of Social Work and lead author of the study with Andrew Irish, a UB graduate student in the School of Social Work, published in the journal Public Health Nutrition. But these supports are not enough. “We’re still seeing high levels of food insecurity, literal hunger, where people go a whole day without eating anything.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food insecurity as “multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.” Hunger is a “potential consequence of food insecurity [that] results in discomfort, illness, weakness or pain.” In Bowen’s study, 80 percent of participants were considered to be severely food insecure.

“There has been recent research about housing and shelter use for homeless young adults, as well as work on drug use and sexual risk behaviors for this same population, but I found that not much had been done on the issue of food access,” says Bowen. “It’s hard to even think about housing and health needs if we don’t know how people are eating, or not eating.”

It’s not surprising see a relationship between homelessness and food insecurity, but Bowen warns of oversimplifying what is in fact a more nuanced problem.

“This research is important because we’re establishing a clear indication of food insecurity in this population, which we did not previously have,” she says. “If we’re going to design programs and services that better address food insecurity, along with addressing housing, education and employment, we need to know about the access strategies: How and what are homeless young adults eating? Where are they finding food? What do they have to do to get it? And how does that affect other parts of their lives?”

For her qualitative study, Bowen conducted in-depth interviews with 30 young adults between the ages of 18-24 who were experiencing homelessness in Buffalo, New York.

“Working with this small group gives us insights into the lived experience,” says Bowen. “It’s a way of setting a knowledge foundation and understanding of the topic in the context of people’s lives, and what goes on with their health, housing, relationships, education and trying to get out of homelessness.”

In Bowen’s study, 70 percent of young adults were receiving SNAP benefits, also known as food stamps. But actually getting these benefits can be difficult.

SNAP covers dependent children under their parent’s benefits until the child’s 22nd birthday. But the program administers benefits based on the parents’ address and assumes that parents and children of a single family are living together.

“This is clearly a problem for young people experiencing homelessness since many of them are under 22 and obviously aren’t living at the same address as their parents,” says Bowen. “The young people in this case can’t get SNAP on their own because they’re already listed on their parents’ open application for those same benefits – and the burden of proof is on the young person to demonstrate they don’t live with their parents.”

Documentation is required as proof that the family is no longer together, according to Bowen, but in many cases getting the necessary paperwork is difficult because of strained family relationships.

“That’s one avenue for a policy change,” says Bowen.

But even with revised eligibility guidelines, food stamps sometimes are not enough, particularly for homeless young people who have no way to store or prepare food. Bowen notes that this problem would be greatly exacerbated by a change proposed in the 2019 federal budget to convert part of a household’s SNAP benefits from electronic benefits to a box of canned goods and other commodities.

Homeless young adults’ food access challenges are further compounded by the fact that young people are sometimes reluctant to use resources like soup kitchens, or have trouble accessing these places due to transportation barriers and limited hours. This finding mirrors prior research showing how young adults are not comfortable in places meant for the general homeless adult population, according to Bowen.

For instance, where shelter is concerned, an 18-year-old in the city of Buffalo is considered an adult and would go to an adult shelter, which can feel discouraging and unsafe.

“What I found in this study is that people were saying the same things about places to get food. They know about these soup kitchens, but the places feel institutional and stigmatized to young people,” says Bowen. “If we want to develop food programs to be engaging to young people we have to think about breaking down some barriers. For example, because of food insecurity among students, many college campuses are now offering food pantries. I would like to think about how to integrate food pantries and other services into places where young people are going anyway.”

Empowering Homeless Women in San Francisco

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San Francisco’s overall population is about 864,816 and San Francisco has more than 7,000 homeless people of which 35% are women in the ages between 20-50 years.

With only 1,100 shelter beds available in the city, there are around 4,500 unsheltered homeless living in tents, parks and on the street.

International research on homelessness shows that the majority of homeless people can get out of homelessness through a well-targeted effort that ensures both a housing solution coupled with individual close social support.

During my interactions with the San Francisco Homeless Outreach Team and homeless people, I have witnessed how homelessness is caused by a variety of factors to include loss of stable housing, abuse and/or mental illness as well as lack of access to healthcare and mental health treatment.

Also, loneliness in a new home, lack of structure in everyday life and lack of a job are among the main risk factors for relapse into homelessness which causes a return back into their “old”  homeless environment. Studies in Denmark has shown that a consistency in support by a support person is an important aid in the work of building a new start.  

Money and building more affordable housing can not be the only answer when it comes to homelessness. Homelessness must also be accepted in society as a situation where a homeless person need a care plan which can both include support for physical or/and mental problems.

Life on the street is hard and merciless, and it takes strength to survive. Homeless people live a vulnerable life without basic protection and basic needs many of us take for granted like being able to cook a meal, go to the bathroom or have a shower. Additionally, they are also more exposed to violence, theft, assault in relation to others and are more likely to get diseases.

Small things do make a difference

I recognized that I may not be able to change the world or solve the homelessness problem, but I felt that I needed to take responsible for what is happening around me. The idea for Project Blossom formed a year ago, as I was reading different articles about being homeless as a woman and the difficulties getting sanitary products during the monthly female period.

Homeless women can sometimes get sanitary products from shelters. However, many women do not have the option to reside in a shelter, and their options are limited. This is often an overlooked issue, and yet something we as women face every month. I think most women know the feeling of periods being awful, inconvenient, dirty, uncomfortable, excruciating, exhausting and a very private matter or have been in a situation where we forgot all about that time a month and get caught off guard.

The Blossom Foundation hands out sanitary bags to San Francisco homeless women to aid them in managing their monthly female menstruation. The intention is to give women a feeling of being cared for and a feeling of identity and dignity. The Blossom Foundation recognizes  these basic needs and want to increase homeless women self-worth.

At the end of September 2016, The Blossom Foundation handed out the first 300 bags filled with pads, tampons, hand sanitizer, wet wipes and water. This served as a trial and has all come together with support from the neighborhood, a few corporate donors and RETHINK water.

I am well aware that handing out sanitary products won’t solve all of the problems these women face, but I believe that even the small things do make a difference. I believe we can and should offer these women some respect and positive attention. The mission of the Blossom Foundation is to improve the lives of homeless women and help empower women with dignity and hope. 

I raise up my voice—not so I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard…Malala Yousafzai

End Homelessness Through Eviction Prevention

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Despite positive trends showing that homelessness has steadily decreased since 2007, nearly 600,000 people were homeless in the US at the beginning of 2014. In fact, two cities in the US rank in the top worldwide for cities with extremely high homeless populations. This is relatively high considering the US is the “richest nation” with 41.6 percent of total global personal wealth.

Most homeless people, defined as people sleeping outside, in an emergency shelter, or otherwise transitional housing program, don’t choose to live on the streets. Unfortunately, there are common misconceptions regarding the stereotypes and habits of homeless people, such as having mental illness or drug dependency, further tainting the image society has on this underprivileged group. However, a significant portion of these people have been reduced to homelessness by an increasingly common cause: evictions.

Evictions leading to homelessness

This demographic of the homeless are evicted tenants, often with families, who are in financial situations where they can no longer afford to live under a roof. According to HomeStart, a housing assistance program, 36 percent of eviction cases will result in the tenant being evicted, driving low-income tenants to face impending homelessness. With the minimum wage being insufficient to support a working family, affordable housing for low-income households can be scarce. In fact, in just New York City alone, around 22,000 families per year have been ordered by court to leave their housing premises.

Often those who are suddenly evicted have insufficient time to search for a new home or acquire the necessary finances for their next rental, leading to the possibility of homelessness. It is illegal for a landlord to kick a tenant out by force, without court order. Evictions, intended for legitimate reasons such as lease violations, failure to pay rent, or property damage, are increasingly being used on low-income tenants illegally or unfairly as a result of increasing gentrification in certain neighborhoods such as Brooklyn, New York City.

What are some preventive measures?

Thankfully, tenants at risk of not having a home do have legal avenues and resources to fight back. The Institute for Research of Poverty, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, states that “tenants with legal counsel are much less likely to be evicted.”

Michelle Yang, a licensed US attorney and legal counsel advises, “Knowing the law and your rights is key. Read your lease carefully and look up your state’s landlord-tenant laws. Carefully document and build your defense, and be prepared to argue your case at an eviction hearing. You can also take advantage of free legal services provided by organizations such as Legal Aid or the NY Housing Courts.”

There are also programs such as Coalition for the Homeless, whose mission is to save “households each year from the trauma of homelessness.” They can offer grants to tenants who need the funding for their current rental housing. Initiatives like these give people the chance to resolve their financial situations without having to resort to leaving their property immediately. The Institute for Research of Poverty asserts that such affordable housing initiatives can be the most powerful and effective method to reduce poverty. 

A home for every homeless

It’s important to recognize the unique story behind each homeless individual that we see. Even though society is taking action to alleviate some of the causes of homelessness, the problem can be overlooked once housing programs have been launched. Taking the steps and initiative in assisting the homeless does not mean the problem has been entirely wiped away, despite how optimistic the media may portray it. We must be aware that preventing and addressing homelessness is a continuous process.  On the other hand, identifying the roots of homelessness can inspire more people to be proactive in driving eviction prevention programs or even lawyers to volunteer to participate in housing courts to help those who may be at risk of being without a home.

While we may not always be in a position to immediately help the homeless, there are certainly programs and projects we can embark on to help minimize homelessness and make sure people are living in their homes comfortably without fearing they have to leave. Whether you are a lawyer volunteering for a housing court to help tenants, a passionate civilian willing to help out at a local housing program, or someone donating their time and energy to provide resources to the homeless, every bit of help makes a difference.

Journey through the Grief of Homelessness

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Subprime loans, adjustable rate mortgages, unregulated equity lines of credit, mentally ill, physically and verbally abused, veterans, runaway children, drug addicts, and prostitutes are all part of the collectively vulnerable voices journeying through the grief of homelessness.

Homelessness is not prejudiced it crosses socio-economic, religious, educational, mental capacity, gender, veteran status, sexual preference and racial barriers; this destitution occurs in urban, rural and suburbia. Unfortunately, homelessness is an equalizer that causes one to lose hope and pride in the American dream as it becomes more elusive to the average Joe citizen.

Statistically speaking the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans reported that last year 12% of the adult population is veterans and of that total 20% are homeless with co-occurring disabilities and severe mental illnesses. Moreover, the state of our current economic situation and housing condition within the United States has created a social epidemic and high-risk population demographic.

The Tarrant County Homeless Coalition (TCHC) of Fort Worth, Texas, was established to serve the homeless population in Tarrant and Parker Counties. This agency annually conducts a point in time count of homeless individuals. On January 23, 2014, over 2400 people including children were homeless. Moreover, a systemized national survey revealed that over 84,000 were experiencing chronic homelessness. It was 30 degrees. Homelessness is a national crisis.

The Services for Ending Long-Term Homelessness Act (H.R. 1293) was introduced to the House of Representatives on March 4, 2015, by Democratic Alcee Hastings from Florida and currently has 21 cosponsors.  As of March 6, 2015, the health subcommittee received a referral for committee consideration from the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. As of this date, H.R. 1293 has not moved any further through the legislative process.

This Act (H. R. 1293) was proposed to amend the Public Health Service Act of 1944 by establishing sponsorship for supportive services in permanent supportive housing for chronically homeless individuals and families, and for other purposes.  Moreover, organizations that receive funding must treat individuals and families that are identified as chronically homeless and provide mental health and substance abuse treatment; treatment for co-occurring disorders; education on self-sufficiency and other services aimed at eradicating chronic homelessness.

The need for H.R. 1293 to become adopted is of an urgent nature to assist in eliminating homelessness. It is vital that you write, call or visit your local political representatives to ensure that they are aware of this Act and take action to address the issue of transitioning from homelessness to mainstream society it became a never-ending cycle.

This specific legislation could complement the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act, which was the preliminary phase to eradicating homelessness in America. Although this was an attempt to address the issue it was meant for short-term use only; however, few programs did not address the issue of transitioning from homelessness to mainstream society it became a never-ending cycle. Therefore, by enacting H.R. 1293, this amendment would address the gaps in services that exist within McKinney Act. Allowing for funding for advocacy groups, national programs, nonprofit and for-profit organizations to work collectively with heightened public awareness will eventually produce solutions to this global dilemma.

Supporting a National Priority to Eliminate Homelessness stated that the persisting numbers of homeless people in America are an indictment of our collective failure to make the essential ingredients of civilized society accessible to all citizens. Having the public’s best interest in mind and limited resources elected official must focus on the vital needs affecting their communities. The voice and influence in support of H.R. 1293 must come from the public against this grievous offense of homelessness.

Call, email and write your local, state, and federal elected officials and ask why H.R. 1293 has not moved any further through the legislative process. Let them know that we this amendment passed immediately!

Protest Movement Turned Into A Commitment to the City’s Homeless

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In February 2011, thousands of concerned citizens protested with Wisconsin public employees against Governor Scott Walker and the Republican-led legislature moving to limit public employee rights to collective bargaining. These protests merged into the Occupy Madison (OM) movement, which like many other cities in America was in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Due to city and county ordinances, the OM movement had to move to a new place every night. What OM members didn’t realize at the time was that many who were moving along with them in protest were homeless individuals. The homeless population in Madison had realized that these OM encampments were a safe place where they could get food and shelter. Board member Luca Clemente said that in the beginning of the Occupy Madison movement there was conflict between the activists and the homeless. The homeless felt they were doing the real occupying because many of the activists went home at night. The homeless referred to the activists as “housies” and the activist referred to the homeless as “crashers,” he said.

The homeless realized that OM was protesting for rights that mattered to them too and OM activists realized that OM was faced with the same challenges as the homeless population. Clemente said, “It became clear that people were in real pain.” He said it wasn’t easy, but they got past their differences and worked together. During their two plus year protest, OM advocates spent time and money to build the encampments to meet local laws and city regulations and codes, but in 558 days the encampment was forced to move its location 30 times and the protestors received city and county ordinance citations.

Board member Bruce Wallbaum said, “For years many of the OM members have been fighting for equal opportunity for resources whether you’re homeless or not.” He said in response to the protests and the continued plight of the homeless population, OM became a non-profit organization in 2013. They have advocated with and for citizens in Madison who have and are currently experiencing homelessness. Wallbaum said they have worked together for more shelter space, improved shelter rules, and access to restrooms, showers, and laundry facilities.

Despite their efforts, the homeless shelters remained full and there was no movement by the local government or other non-profits to add any more shelters. According to the Tenant Resource Center, there are approximately 500 chronically homeless citizens in Madison. The coupling of rental rates in Madison at an all-time high and vacancies far and few between (2%) is a problem for many Madison residents. Having a job does not guarantee that you will be able to afford a place to live. Affordable Housing in Madison has long waiting lists (up to a year) and section 8 housing closed its waiting list years ago.

In an effort to help the homeless obtain affordable transitional housing OM became a 501 (c) (3) non-profit and started a project called OM Build. OM board member Bruce Wallbaum said they started building Tiny Houses in June 2013.  Wallbaum said, “The first three homes were built by volunteers and paid for by community donations.” He said that each home costs $5000 in materials and supplies. The houses are 99 square feet and are built on wheels so they can be moved if necessary.

Wallbaum also said due to concern for their property values and a possible increase in crime, 70% of the neighbors were against the purchase of the property for the Tiny Village. After a year of no police incidents and property values remaining stable, they have since come around. He said that Alder Larry Palm has been behind the project since the beginning and the local newspaper did interviews and made a video with the neighbors who now have no complaints.

The Village and the OM Build project is making a big impact and getting a lot of attention.  Visitors from 23 states and several countries have toured the Village in the past year. OM-Tiny Houses & More has a great website with tons of information. Wallbaum said they would love to help start Tiny Villages in other communities, but they are a small group and are 100 % funded by volunteers.

OM resident and member Russel Albers said that he became involved in 2011 because “I believe in affordable housing for all.” Albers says he was living out of his truck during the OM protests because he lost his job and was having trouble finding a new one. He said he couldn’t afford to pay rent. “Until it happens to you, it’s hard for anyone to understand how fast you can lose everything,” he said.  “If your coach surfing and have no permanent address and you’re living out of your car, employers don’t want to hire you,” he said.

Phase 1 was completed in late 2014, OM purchased an old auto body shop on Madison’s near eastside, and the OM volunteers and board members have tirelessly worked to repair and clean up the property and Phase 1.  He said phase I brought in approximately 80,000 dollars in donations and 1000 volunteer hours. Albers said the first three residents took occupancy in 2015 and Madison’s first micro village of Tiny Houses became a reality.

Albers said, The Tiny Village is now working on Phase 2, which has already seen five more houses built and two new residents. He said, “Tiny Home residents are called stewards, and can be a couple or an individual.” He said future stewards have to put in 500 hours of volunteer work on a house or in the OM store to earn stewardship and residency in the OM Village. Once a steward moves into their Tiny Home they must continue to volunteer on a monthly basis. Albers said, “We have rules that have to be followed such as no drugs or alcohol in the Village and every steward has to participate in the chore wheel.” Albers said they modeled the “sweat equity” after Habitat for Humanity and the “chore wheel” from another Tiny Village in the state of Washington.

Albers took me on a tour and I was able to see one of the unfinished houses up close and personal as well as the workshop, cooperative kitchen, three bathrooms, four large gardens, and a retail store. He showed me where the new community center and the new kitchen were planned to be built as part of Phase 2.

For those interested in duplicating their project, they recommend that you visit their web page www.occupymadisoninc.com where they give you tips on how to start a Tiny Houses Village in your community. You can also like them on Facebook at www.facebook.com/OMBuild or visit the Village in person at 304 North Third Street, Madison, WI 53704.

They encourage everyone to remember, “It takes a village to make a village.”

Starving Student Is No Longer A Euphemism But A Serious Reality

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We all have heard the term the “starving student”, but typically it’s a reference to playfully tease a student who has limited pocket money. However, the starving student is no longer a playful joke, but rather a serious reality many 20-something year old college students face. A recent study commissioned by Cal State University (CSU) Chancellor Timothy P. White reveals that one in 10 Cal State students are homeless, and one in five do not have access to sufficient food.

The findings of the study have been shocking to administrators, faculty, and the public alike. For social work students at California State University, Los Angeles (Cal State LA) this week’s breaking news comes as no surprise.

This spring, Cal State LA’s Association of Student Social Workers hosted Box City, a two-day event in which students and faculty, simulated street-dwelling by assembling boxes and tents at the university campus. Over the course of the night, they raised awareness and donations for homelessness in Los Angeles while simultaneously, gaining empathy and understanding by experiencing what it is like to be without a home for a night.

What started as an event to raise awareness on homelessness occurring in the neighboring communities turned into something much more.

As the outreach officer for ASSW, I assisted in promoting the event. As I began to reach out to more and more students about issues of homelessness and the reasons why to attend Box City, the more I began to recognize that housing and food insecurities was not unfamiliar territory for students at Cal State LA. Students began sharing with me their own personal stories of nights without a shelter, and how they would attend club meetings on campus because they were assured a free meal.

It was ironic. Here we were, venturing off to help the very issue that was right at our front door step. Homelessness was happening right in front of us, and many of us did not see it.

During the course of the Box City we invited a student to speak on his experience of being homeless. When the event concluded, a few students who have also faced housing and food insecurities privately thanked ASSW for hosting the event and showing them they were not alone and that people cared about their wellbeing.

I am going to reiterate that this event was not initially aimed for the students at Cal State LA. During the planning process of Box City we were unaware of the homeless population on campus. However, we are thankful we were able to bring awareness on this invisible issue amongst us on campus: homeless students.

I think we can all agree that with today’s fast-paced world juggling work, academics, and a personal life can make pursuing a higher degree difficult, but for one in 10 CSU students they also have to worry whether or not they will have a safe place to sleep and a nutritional meal to fuel their body.

Currently, CSU campuses have enacted their own initiatives on how to address students’ need for housing and food security; however, this is resulting in many campuses falling short from providing needed services.

To ensure that students’ needs are met, we need to advocate for a Cal State University (CSU) system wide commitment policy that addresses the housing and food insecurities, develop a program in which there is a single point of contact to facilitate connections to services on and off campus, and assign ASI and students to have a lead role in the outreach to destigmatize assistance to food and housing.

Today, many students don’t speak out about their housing and food instability because of fear of being stigmatized by peers, unaware of how to receive assistance, and the lack of assistance available. Faculty, administrators, and Social Work departments at CSUs need to work together to create solutions, and give a voice for the students at CSUs whose basic needs are not being met.

When Fathers Are Not Engaged We Miss the Bigger Picture in Child Protection

Father and son walking

Today, it is common to hear about the rise of domestic violence and children living in poverty who are raised with single mothers because the father is not around. Nearly every issue has another side to it that is often ignored. For example, responsible fathers who have been separated from their kids, are at higher risk of suicide and emotional hardship. Children growing up without their fathers in these communities have a higher dropout rate and are more likely to either become incarcerated or become young parents too early.

Even though, the federal government has recognized the importance to support responsible fathers and their active involvement in their children’s life, today’s common practice in the family courts and social services demonstrate minimal proof that they are “on-board” with the idea. Fathers often experience negative biases and inequitable treatment. They are neglected of the rights to their children, therefore, the children are neglected of the rights to their fathers.

Over my three years as a volunteer intern for Paternal Opportunities Programs and Services (POPS) in San Diego, I saw the other side of this story. I had the “eye opening” experience of meeting the fathers of these children every Wednesday. We were a very diverse talk group, no one was the same, and everyone’s situation was different. Even though we were all different, we all connected in several ways. The reason is, all these fathers shared something in common, they loved their children and wanted to be in their life.

Unfortunately, most shared the stress and agonizing suspense of not seeing their children for months and trying to resolve the conflicts with either the other parent, social services, or family courts. However, it was common for a father to be battling all of these stressors at the same time just to stay involved with their children.  After my three years of hearing the same issues, it is clear that common practices of our family court system and social services need to be monitored, revised and updated. Our children are paying the price for it.

We rarely end up living the life that we have always expected to be in. Think of the homeless man you see sleeping on the park bench, the drug addict getting picked up on the streets from the police, or the individual walking down the street carrying a child’s backpack and pushing a baby stroller with no child in it. These behaviors may seem odd to us, but these individuals have another side we do not see. There is almost always an unknown story which explains how they got there. It is a story they never expected, nor wanted and a reality they had to face.

It is important to remember that both parents love their children and are equally important in a child’s life. Lets take some extra time to get understand the bigger picture. When we open our eyes to the other side of the story, it may save a child from ending up having a life they never wanted and do not deserve.

Understanding Foster Care Youth With The Help of the Documentary Foster Care Film

feelingwanted

When I tell people I am a former foster youth they usually have a similar response (something along the lines of) “I would have never guessed that about you.” Since many people wrongfully equate the foster care system with the juvenile detention system, I usually understand the source of their surprise.

Charell-And-April-226x300
Charell and her Sister

Being a former foster care youth comes with its own set of challenges: lack of family support, lack of money, having to take care oneself from an early age. There are tons of disheartening statistics stating things like less than 50% of foster youth will graduate high school, only 3% will graduate from college and 20% will be homeless by age 18. Challenges like these make it hard for youth in foster care to believe that they’ll move past their current reality.

The truth is foster care kids are less likely to achieve the things they want most in life but that is directly proportional to the fact that they are less likely have people who support them in life. It’s much easier to write groups off as simple statistics then it is to lend a hand to ensure these youth don’t become statistics in the first place.

One way to help foster youth is to take some time to learn about their experience. Yasmin Minstry’s documentary film project – Foster Care Film offers a way for caring individuals and community members to learn more about the lives of foster youth.

Youth-Screening-Film-300x226Her first film – Feeling Wanted (of which I am the subject) – provides an honest portrayal of my journey through the system and life after foster care.

It is the first completed film of several that Minstry has in the works as part of her film project. You can order a copy or check out some powerful clips to gain some engaging insight on foster youth.

Being a former foster youth has given me a unique perspective on life, but it hasn’t made a different breed of human. The people I encountered growing up who knew that are the ones who were able to motivate me to go after what I wanted in life.

Being able to help youth in foster care starts by trying to understand who they are. Checking out Foster Care Film is a good first step in that direction. Here is the Foster Care Film – Feeling Wanted trailer:

Feeling Wanted: Trailer

3 Things to Know When Working With LGBT Clients

On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that all couples, regardless of gender, have a constitutional right to marry the person they love. After the ruling was announced, states across the nation were forced to drop their bans on same-sex marriage allowing loving gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender couples the right to marry.

The ruling marks a significant advancement for the rights of LGBT individuals, who have faced a long history of discrimination and oppression. While the ruling is a monumental victory for the rights of LGBT Americans, our LGBT brothers and sisters face challenges that extend far beyond the right to marriage.

lgbtqhomeless1_400_393_90When working with individuals in the LGBT community, we must acknowledge the ways in which societal and social influence, oppression, and discrimination impact these clients as well as the communities we serve. As social workers, we have an obligation to be culturally competent and sensitive to the unique needs of our clients.

To do so effectively, we must first understand some of the significant psychosocial stressors that may impact members of the LGBT community.

Discriminatory Policy

While LGBT individuals now have the right to marry the person they love, only 22 states in the nation protect the LGBT community from employment discrimination. This means that in over half of our nation’s states, a person could be denied employment or fired from their job for identifying as LGBT. For LGBT individuals working in these states, such policies can prevent individuals from feeling comfortable in the workplace for fear of being fired. Uncertain job stability coupled with the stress of hiding one’s identity in the workplace can lead to a variety of negative effects, such as low job satisfaction or even depression and anxiety.

Knowing the policies of your state and how these policies impact the LGBT community can help you better assess the role discrimination may be playing in the lives of your LGBT client(s). Having a good understanding of these policies also allows you to engage in meaningful conversation with clients, the community, and other stakeholders about how to best facilitate change to such policies.

Violence

Individuals within the LGBT community are at a significantly higher risk for violence. Though individuals identifying as LGBT account for only 3.8% of the U.S. population, they are the victims in 21% of reported hate crimes. Sexual violence is also a very real threat to those in the LGBT community. According to a startling report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 46.4% of lesbian women, 74.9% of bisexual women, 40.2% of gay men, and 47.4% of bisexual men report being victims of sexual violence.

As social workers, it’s not uncommon for clients to seek our help in working through issues related to sexual or physical violence and intimate partner violence. Because of the high rates of these occurrences within the LGBT community, assessing clients for a history of sexual and physical violence as well as domestic violence are critical components of a thorough assessment. Using treatment approaches that take into account the experiences of the LGBT community will enhance the therapeutic milieu for your clients and help foster healing.

Mental Health

Individuals identifying with the LGBT community have significantly higher rates of mental health conditions, substance use disorders, and suicide attempts. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) , LGBT men and women have a 2.5 times higher rate of mental illness or substance abuse than the heterosexual population. The types of mental health conditions impacting this population also differ. Gay and bisexual men are more likely to experience major depression and panic disorder than heterosexual men. Lesbian and bisexual women are more than 3 times as likely to experience generalized anxiety disorder.

In addition, the CDC reports that LGBT youth are more than twice as likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers, with as many as 25% of transgendered youth attempting suicide. This is often due, in part, to the higher rates of bullying, physical and sexual violence, and social isolation experienced within this population.

Social workers need to be aware of the disparities in mental health and substance use disorders among the LGBT population so that proper assessment and intervention can take place. Ongoing screening for suicidal ideation or behavior is also of significance, especially for LGBT youth.

As the largest providers of mental health services in the nation, social workers frequently work with individuals across the various spectrums of diversity. This requires us to be skilled in understanding how discrimination, oppression, and public policy all play roles in the lives of our clients. While this may not always be easy, by tapping into your inherent skills as a social worker you can be a champion for your LGBT clients. If you feel overwhelmed by these complexities or find it difficult to understand issues surrounding the LGBT population, start by being a genuine, accepting presence for all your clients. After all, it’s all about love, isn’t it?

LGBTI Children Have the Right to Safety and Equality

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex (LGBTI) children are often victims of bullying and violence in schools, at home and via social media. This has a serious effect on their well-being and prevents openness about their personal identity. Like all children, LGBTI [i] children are entitled to enjoy human rights and require a safe environment in order to participate fully in society.

Responses to bullying

According to a survey carried out by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), at least 60%  of LGBT respondents had personally experienced negative comments or conduct at school because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. 80% had witnessed negative comments or conduct as a result of a schoolmate being perceived as LGBT. Given the frequency of negative behaviour directed at LGBT students, it is not surprising that the survey also found that two out of three LGBT children hid their LGBT identity while at school.

gay_childThis situation is unacceptable. It puts a heavy burden on LGBTI children, many of whom are at high risk of suicidal behaviour. According to an Irish study, over half of LGBT respondents aged 25 or younger had given serious consideration to ending their lives.

It is clear that bullying affects LGBTI children’s educational achievement and impedes their right to education without discrimination, in addition to their right to enjoy the highest attainable standard of health.

School should be a safe environment for all students. The European Court of Human Rights has made it clear that homophobic speech in educational settings is not protected by the European Convention’s guarantees of free expression. Confronting homophobic and transphobic intimidation requires continuous and focused attention from schools and educational authorities. UNESCO and the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Youth and Student Organisation (IGLYO) have provided detailed guidance on effective responses. Ireland has introduced legal requirements and a mandatory policy for addressing homophobic and transphobic bullying in schools, along with a concrete action plan.

Right to information

Children have the right to receive factual information about sexuality and gender diversity. Anti-bullying efforts should be supported by education on equality, gender and sexuality. The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to education has highlighted children’s right to comprehensive sexual education without discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. It is necessary to question stereotypes about gender and sexuality in schools. The European Committee of Social Rights has found a violation of the European Social Charter with reference to teaching materials which were “manifestly biased, discriminatory and demeaning, notably in how persons of non-heterosexual orientation are described and depicted”.

The protection of children is sometimes evoked as an argument to block the availability of information about LGBTI people to children. The Venice Commission has stressed that such arguments fail to pass the essential necessity and proportionality tests required by the European Court. There is no evidence that dissemination of information advocating a positive attitude towards LGBTI people would adversely affect children. Rather, it is in the best interests of children to be informed about sexuality and gender diversity.

Family and homelessness

Many LGBTI children experience prejudice and violence within their own families. The acceptance of LGBTI children is still difficult for many parents and other family members. The FRA survey found out that 35 per cent of young adults were not open about being LGBT within their family.  In Montenegro, I visited a shelter and a social centre for LGBTI persons where I met young people who had been rejected by their families and forced to leave their homes. The NGO running the facility was engaged in mediating between the families and LGBTI persons, and had achieved family reconciliation in some cases.

When they are forced to leave their families, young LGBTI people are at high risk of becoming homeless. Research from the UK suggests that up to 25% of homeless youth are LGBT. The current economic crisis makes it even harder for homeless young people to find a job and shelter. When LGBTI youth cannot rely on the support of their families, the result can be long-term marginalisation with a high cost to individual health and well-being. The Albert Kennedy Trust in the UK runs both temporary shelters and more permanent accommodation options for young LGBTI persons along with social and vocational support. Municipal and state-funded services for homeless people should also strive to welcome homeless LGBTI youth.

Right to self-determination

Trans and intersex children encounter specific obstacles when exercising their right to self-determination. As minors, trans adolescents can find it difficult to access trans-specific health and support services while intersex children are often subjected to irreversible “normalising” treatments soon after birth without their consent. The legal recognition of trans and intersex children’s sex or gender remains a huge hurdle in most countries. Children are rights-holders and they must be listened to in decision-making that concerns them. Sex or gender assigning treatment should be based on fully informed consent.

LGBTI children share many common problems. In their “Vision for 2020, trans and intersex youth in Finland gave high priority to the right to grow up in a safe environment, as well as the right to information. They also stressed “the right to a legally secured life as an equal member of society” and called for inclusive equal treatment legislation.

Empowerment and protection

This vision for the future should be today’s reality. Governments already have a duty to empower and protect LGBTI children. Respect for children’s views and the protection of the best interests of the child are clearly laid out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Human rights apply equally to LGBTI children without discrimination.

LGBTI children should be able to exercise their participatory rights in all areas of life. Access to information is a basic condition enabling participation and decision-making. At the same time, LGBTI children must be protected from violence and bullying at home, in schools, on the internet, in sports and in public spaces. Child protection services, children’s ombudspersons and the police should make particular efforts to include LGBTI children in their outreach. Governments need to take systematic action to improve the safety and equality of LGBTI children.


[i] This Human Rights Comment is inclusive of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex (LGBTI) children under 18 years of age. The acronym “LGBT” is used when reference is made to research which does not explicitly include intersex people.

Assemblymember Tony Thurmond: From Social Worker to Lawmaker

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California Assemblymember Tony Thurmond (D)

You only need to take a look at the committees California Assemblymember Tony Thurmond (D) requested to be on in order to get a sense of his top priorities.  When he took office in January, he sought to contribute on Education, Health, Human Services, and the Select Committee on Homelessness.

“That’s exactly where I would expect him to be, knowing him,” said Carroll Schroeder, executive director of the California Alliance of Child and Family Services.

After a couple of decades working with nonprofits serving children and youth, as well as stints on the West Contra Costa County school board and the Richmond City Council, Thurmond says that in his new role as Assemblymember for District 15, he is “advocating for those who have the greatest needs.”

“I’m here for the least of us,” he told an audience at a Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California meeting on a recent Wednesday in Sacramento.

In his first months in office, Thurmond has proposed legislation to establish school-based mental health services and to address chronic absenteeism of children in grades K-3.

He is a bright star for children’s advocates and the service providers he worked alongside, most recently as senior director of community and government relations at Lincoln Child Center in Oakland.

Thurmond has emerged as a leader for the youth services field in what some youth advocates in California see as an era of austerity and erosion of the social safety net under Governors Schwarzenegger and Brown.

“There’s been a disinvestment in children’s services,” says Patrick Gardner, executive director of the Young Minds Advocacy Project. “During the recession, people assumed children were doing all right and there were other areas that needed more attention, and I think the result has been that children have suffered…We need a champion for children, and I think Tony has both the background and the heart to do it.”

Thurmond, who chairs the Budget Subcommittee on Health and Human Services, said he supports the Continuum of Care Reform Plan (CCR) developed over the past three years by the California Department of Social Services, providers, and advocates.

“The result will be better outcomes for kids,” Thurmond said.

The CCR report presented by CDSS to the legislature in January outlines 19 recommendations for transforming the delivery of child welfare services, including the establishment of a Core Practice Model to create consistency throughout the state.

“I came this close to being in foster care,” he said, holding his finger and thumb nearly together. After his mother died when he was six, he was sent to Philadelphia to live with a cousin he’d never met. “It was kinship care but we didn’t call it that back then.”

After getting his bachelor’s degree in psychology from Temple University, Thurmond got his first job as a social worker in Philadelphia.  “All I ever wanted to do was be a helping professional.”

But that first job seemed to him like putting a “Band-aid” on bigger underlying issues facing the clients he served, such as long-term poverty, substance abuse, and lack of access to education.

“I wanted to learn how to work to change systems,” he said, so he completed dual Masters Degrees in Law and Social Policy and Social Work at Bryn Mawr College.

At a recent briefing in Sacramento held by the California Program on Access to Care (CPAC) at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, Thurmond expressed his support for the restoration of cuts to MediCal benefits and rates. He described his proposed Assembly Bill 1025, which would establish school-based mental health programs that would largely be funded by MediCal.

AB 1025 would establish 30 pilot programs providing school-based mental health services throughout the state. The legislation calls for mental health support to be offered in schools to students who have experienced trauma or other challenges.

Naming education his highest priority, Thurmond has also proposed AB 1014, a truancy prevention bill to address chronic absenteeism for kids in grades K-3 by funding outreach workers who would do home visits and work with families to address whatever is keeping children from going to school.

“Education is my top issue,” he said. “We want to help those kids get back in school so they learn to read by third grade so they don’t drop out and enter the juvenile justice system.”

“From my perspective based on my experience at Lincoln Child Center, home visiting is one of the most effective ways to get kids back in school.”

Reductions to the state’s safety net are a continuing concern for Thurmond. In his remarks to CPAC, he noted that despite acknowledging recent improvements to the state’s fiscal situation, Governor Brown “has talked as a consistent theme about our need to prepare for the future and to save money.”

“We all know,” said Thurmond, “that we have been for the last decade dealing with the great recession and tough cuts…and tightening our belts.”

He recalled the night in 2008 when he was sworn in as a member of the school board.  Despite his “excitement to help kids,” the first decision he was called upon to make just moments after being sworn in was “a vote to close ten schools because the state budget was so bad.”

“And that has been the climate and the culture,” he added, “in every single sector including our health safety net and our social services safety net. Now is the time to make restorations.”

“Everybody’s telling us what can’t be done, and that’s been the narrative for way too long,” Thurmond said in the Planned Parenthood meeting. “What is the cost we pay if we don’t take this action?”

Noting his choice of committees, not the most sought after by new members, Thurmond said simply, “I came up here to do work.”

Online Toolkit for Social Workers to Help Pet Owners in Crisis

Comprehensive guide from the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals covers topics including domestic violence, homelessness, hoarding, illness, among others. 

A mentally challenged woman is evicted from her apartment but refuses to enter a shelter because it won’t allow her three cats. An elderly man refuses urgent medical care because he has no one to look after his dog. A domestic violence victim returns to her abuser because he threatens to kill the family pet if she does not.

pets-domestic-violenceThese are just a few of the many heartbreaking and complex situations faced by New York’s pet owners and by the social workers and human services organizations that help them.

Today, the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals, a coalition of more than 150 New York City non-profit animal shelters and rescue groups, has launched the Helping People and Pets in Crisis Toolkit, a first-of-its-kind online resource for these front-line professionals.

Divided into six sections covering domestic violence, illness and hospitalization, homelessness, animal hoarding, pet relinquishment and animal-assisted therapy, the Toolkit offers a comprehensive set of resources, assessment tools and promising intervention techniques for virtually every type of crisis involving pets and their owners.

The Toolkit is an outgrowth of the Alliance’s Helping Pets and People in Crisis program, spearheaded by social worker Jenny Coffey, LMSW. Created in 2008, the program has helped in more than 1,000 individual cases in which New Yorkers faced life-challenging situations involving pets. Coffey assembled the Toolkit from her years of experience combining animal welfare and human welfare in New York City.

“This one-of-a-kind initiative extends the reach of one of the Alliance’s flagship programs,” said Jane Hoffman, President of the Alliance. “Every year, the number of calls we get about pet owners in crisis has grown exponentially, and we don’t foresee any let-up. With the launch of the Helping Pets and People in Crisis Toolkit, we’re able to share what we’ve learned, through our collaboration with dozens of other dedicated animal and human services organizations, about how to help pet owners deal with difficult and often unforeseen circumstances.”

In the Helping People and Pets in Crisis Toolkit, human services professionals will find a wide range of suggestions, intervention strategies and resources to help them assist pet owners in crisis. Each section identifies a problem, explains how to recognize it and suggests ways to address it:

Domestic Violence and Pets – Describes the role pets play in such situations and how to extricate domestic violence victims and their pets from them. Special Features: How to help clients develop a pet-safety plan, request an order of protection, or petition to have a pet registered as a therapy animal.

Homelessness and Pets – Explains how to assist the 5 to 10 percent of homeless people who own pets and who are precluded from entering homeless shelters because of the prohibitions against them. Special Features: Links to helpful organizations like the Animal Relief Fund, Feeding Pets of the Homeless, Seer Farms and Collide; information on Americans with Disabilities Act regulations and on New York City housing programs that allow pets.

Hospitalization, Illness and Pets – Explains how to arrange temporary or permanent care of pets for infirm or elderly patients without family or friends. Special Features: Information about temporary care, “re-homing” and requesting help from Animal Care & Control of NYC.

Animal Hoarding – Explains how to recognize and address animal hoarding. Special Features:  Animal Hoarding Assessment tool.

Pet Relinquishment – Explains how to help clients deal with life events that may require giving up a pet. Special Features:Tips on “re-homing” animals.

Animal-Assisted Therapy – Explains how to identify situations in which pets might play a therapeutic role, helping clients improve their physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. Special Features: An explanation of the differences among Service, Assistance and Therapy Animals; links to animal-therapy organizations.

Resources – Provides a recap of all of the resources mentioned throughout the site. Special Features: Hyperlinks and complete contact information.

Tips & Tools – Provides suggestions for social workers preparing to meet with individuals and families with pets, including tips on how pets can be used to engage otherwise reluctant clients, and what can be learned about an owner’s situation based on the condition of her pets.  Special Features:  Colorful, easy-to-read charts; links to local pet services for every possible need.

The Helping People and Pets in Crisis Toolkit is just one of the many resources available through the Alliance. To see all of them, visit www.AnimalAllianceNYC.org.

Growing Number of Homeless Children is Shameful

A troubling new report released recently by the National Center on Family Homelessness at the American Institutes for Research documents the growing distress among the nation’s children. More children are sliding further into poverty and experiencing homelessness. Using data from the Department of Education and the Census Department—researchers led by Ellen Bassuk found that one in 30—or 2.5 million American children—were homeless at some point last year. That represents an eight percent increase nationally from 2012. They found child homelessness increased in 31 states and the District of Columbia and that the problem exists in every state, every city and every county in America. We know that outcomes for children experiencing homelessness are disastrous. We know that this growing problem does not get solved by the mothers of these children just doing the right thing.

Posters-on-the-Ground-03-685x438Childhood homelessness is a self-perpetuating cycle of despair. Many of the mothers of today’s homeless children were homeless when they were children. There are high rates of sexual and physical abuse among these mothers. Many were raised in unstable families which often moved from place to place disrupting any possibility of their getting adequate education. Before they realized what was happening, they found themselves advancing into adulthood with little or no skills and very little chance of finding meaningful employment. The men in their lives often left them battered, bruised and pregnant. And somehow they were expected to be responsible, caring mothers and provide for their children. The very people who would judge and condemn them most voraciously are the ones who would deny them family planning services.

Dr. Bassuk has been researching this problem for more than 25 years and still the problem not only persists but is growing according to this latest study. Back in 1988 she estimated that homeless families accounted for approximately one-third of the total homeless population. They now represent 37 percent of the homeless population and growing. Her research has documented that many mothers heading homeless families are overwhelmed by their circumstances. They suffer from high rates of post-traumatic symptoms, major depressive disorder, and high anxiety, greatly reducing their ability to provide proper parenting for their children.

Research has found that homeless children are four times as likely to develop respiratory infections and suffer with asthma as children in stable housing. They have limited access to quality food and nutrition, are often targets of neglect and abuse, live in neighborhoods where there is greater likelihood of being exposed to violence, are more likely to live in households with higher rates of divorce and substance abuse, experience social stigma, and have disrupted relationships with family, friends and teachers. In addition to suffering from a number of well-documented traumatic problems, children in homeless families are less likely to receive quality treatment for their problems as are children in stable housing. Homeless children often receive services in cramped, crowded and otherwise hostile environments, which reinforce the trauma and stigma they are already suffering.

One reason many children experience homelessness is due to the lack of cooperation between housing agencies and child welfare systems. Deborah S. Harburger, director of Fiscal Strategy at the University of Maryland’s School of Social Work’s Institute for Innovation and Implementation, in a 2004 article in Child Welfare, estimated about 30 percent of children in child welfare systems are there because of housing instability and that cooperation between the two systems could save about $1.94 billion annually and provide stable housing for thousands of displaced children.

The United States is the richest nation on the planet yet we rank 34th out of the richest 35 countries in child poverty. It is estimated that child poverty costs the nation $500 billion annually. Like most social problems, just rescuing these young victims will not solve the problem. More shelters and social services will barely keep them alive. What is needed is more long range planning to reduce poverty and prevent children from experiencing homelessness. We know what it takes to solve the problem of homeless children. The country needs an adequate supply of safe affordable housing—something the free market will not provide. Unless we as a society concede that some children are expendable, we need to do more to reduce current levels of homeless families with children and find ways to give every child a chance to succeed regardless of the circumstances in which they are born.

Helping the Homeless on Skid Row: SRO Housing Celebrates 30 Years of Service

As Single Room Occupancy Housing (SRO) celebrates its 30 years of service, I had the pleasure of speaking with Mr. Ervin R. Munro, M.S., the Director of Social Services, for the organization. Mr. Munro immediately exuded the warmth, intelligence, and passion that have allowed him to have a long and inspirational career serving others. This has also contributed to SRO Housing’s continued growth and position as the largest provider of affordable housing for homeless and low-income individuals in the Western United States.

SRO Housing provides homes for the homeless in the section of downtown Los Angeles most commonly known as “Skid Row”, and they are the only organization in Los Angeles that offers a complete range of housing from emergency to permanent as well as significant supportive SROservices. As the man in charge of the Social Services Division of SRO Housing, Mr. Munro has a long history of working in the social services field. His professional journey began with a Bachelor’s degree in Education and a Master’s degree in School Psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.

He has worked for over 30 years in a variety of social service positions, including as a licensed school psychologist, educator, director of social services, case manager, operations manager, and private consultant and trainer. He has also worked in a variety of settings with diverse populations including homeless, elderly, immigrants, runaway/throwaway youth, substance users/abusers, people with mental illnesses, and persons affected by HIV/AIDS. Some of his accomplishments during this time include Co-founder and first Acting Executive Director of AIDS Project Los Angeles as well as Co-founder and Co-chair of the Case Management Task Force of Los Angeles County.

His responsibilities include overseeing and directing the daily operations and management of all supportive housing social services programs. These programs include case management for homeless and low-income individuals who reside in SRO Housing’s 29 properties throughout the Skid Row area, as well as special services for those individuals with disabilities, HIV/AIDS, veterans, individuals with mental illnesses and/or substance issues, and the elderly. Some of these services include congregate meals and home-delivered meals, transportation, money management, socialization/recreational activities, special events, community activities, and more.

Mr. Munro has been responsible for the development of many programs, trainings, and workshops during his illustrious career, one of which he was kind enough to share with me called “Basic Communication Skills and Problem-Solving Techniques”. It was developed for and is required to be completed by all employees of SRO Housing before beginning work. The basic premise of which is to learn to communicate and problem solve effectively with others so they’ll best be able to serve the individuals they’ll work with. SRO encourages all of its employees to remain open-minded and discover what their clients need rather than make assumptions. This training has been so effective within the organization that Mr. Munro is often asked by outside organizations to train their employees in it.

This program is just one example of the ways in which Mr. Munro and the rest of SRO Housing strive to be a model for client-centered services. They truly understand what their community needs and are responsive to those needs. As a part of this integration into the community, SRO Housing does its best to hire individuals who may have been in SRO Housing’s programs and/or are directly from the community. A college degree is required for most positions within the Social Services Division.

Employees are highly supportive of their clients’ goals and work hard with them to turn dreams into reality. It is this effort to immerse themselves into the community and look for holistic solutions to issues to homelessness which makes this program an exemplar model. On a personal level, there are not enough words to express the admiration I have for and the inspiration gained from having interacted with Mr. Munro and SRO Housing.

Ms. Anita U. Nelson, MBA, SRO Housing’s CEO, had this to say about Mr. Munro, “Erv has a wealth of knowledge and experience that has significantly contributed to SRO Housing’s development and to Skid Row as a whole. He touches everyone’s area; he’s a true team player and clients are always at the forefront. He’s committed and it’s a part of him. He loves his job so much I feel funny calling it a job. He’ll be difficult to replace.”

As we wish a happy 30th Anniversary to SRO Housing and many more years of service, we’d also like to wish the same to Mr. Munro, along with much joy and success in his next venture, which happens to be retirement.

Nick Hedges Photographs of Poor Housing in Britain: Make Life Worth Living

‘Make Life Worth Living’, a photography exhibition by Nick Hedges, is currently on display at the Science Museum in London. It was commissioned by Shelter, a charity working against homelessness to raise consciousness about the poor living conditions many Britons experience. The photographs were taken between 1968 and 1972 and are an intimate glimpse in to the human cost of bad housing.

Make Life Worth Living 3For all the poetry and romantic imagery about the concept of “home”, there are two ideals that it incorporates which are essential for human prosperity: those ideals are safety and stability. The importance of cerebral discussions about these two topics becomes ever clearer when we consider the corporeal fragility of homeless human beings.

What does it mean to have a home? Have you ever really thought about it or have you ever really needed to think about it? ‘Home’ is a much discussed term, not only in literature, but in the fields of sociology, anthropology, psychology and many others. It is a multidimensional concept most commonly associated with the ideas of a house, family, a haven, travelling and a sense of self. When we think of “home”, some of us think of a place, or many places, others think of a feeling, some think of people or practices. Laura Ingalls Wilder once said, “Home is the nicest word there is.”

We know that without a safe and stable living situation, adults and children alike are at a much increased risk of developing mental health problems, long-term physical health problems, drink addictions, drug addictions and are much more likely to be victims of physical assault, sexual assault and an early death. Having worked with homeless young people for many years, I know first-hand that safety and stability does not simply equate to owning a bricks and mortar building. It requires adequate space, clean living conditions and an environment in which one can really feel the value of their human worth.

Make Life Worth Living 1“The thing about people living in slum housing,” Nick Hedges’ states, “is that there is no drama… it’s about the absolute wearing down of people’s morale in a quiet and undemonstrative way.” It is that quiet wearing away of hope that these photographs capture so brilliantly. Living in the UK where homelessness is currently dramatically increasing and housing stability decreasing, this exhibition is more poignant than ever.

Last year, United Nations rapporteur, Rachel Rolnik, reported that whilst Britain has previously been a powerful inspiration when it comes to housing, the progress made is now being eroded and British people “appear to be facing difficulties in accessing adequate, affordable, well-located and secure housing.”

To look at Nick Hedges’ photographs is to remind ourselves of why good, affordable housing is a human right and what we stand to lose if we do not fight for it. “Home” is an active state of being in the world and we must ensure that we do not allow our fellow citizens to sink any further in to the depths of hopelessness. In 2014, we want all human beings to be filled with the sense that life is worth living which starts at home.

‘Make Life Worth Living’ is at the Science Museum until 18th January 2015.

Is Politics Failing Social Work or is Social Work Failing at Politics?

Mahatma-Gandhi-Politic-Quotes

Current news events seem to be rife with stories relevant to social work while continuing to highlight our lack of presence in those conversations. Suicide, police shootings, more school shootings, corporal punishment, and domestic violence are issues that stick out on a very long list . Various articles on this website have challenged us to think about social worker’s role in these mainstream stories.

The ultimate gauntlet was thrown by Dr. Steven Perry and his speech on C-SPAN that we are “too silent” on issues of access and social justice.  We are in the trenches on the frontline, and we need to increase public awareness on the efforts of social workers in order to affect public policy making decisions.

Prior to listening to Dr. Perry’s speech, I honestly thought the answer to this question was that politics has been failing social workers, but Dr. Perry calls us out on how we can do more and should be doing a lot more. As social workers, we are interested in making a change, but it is how we go about it that is coming into question. What the above speech and article do (excellently) is get us to think about where and how we want to be involved. Social Workers need to be involved more in politics.

Where I struggle with politics is the much talked about notion of “Policy to Practice”. As people in the helping profession, we all have a notion of what helping others entails. We have the power to help heal individuals, families, schools, and communities yet our voice is not always heard by policy makers. Similar to Dr. Perry, I wondered why our expertise and knowledge continues to not inform policy. What gets in the way?

Social work is becoming more and more about the bottom line. We get messages to use programs that are “evidence based”, “increase productivity”, and “reduce cost”. Interventions that accomplishes all three of these things may get the funding or not. However, despite meeting this criterion, these programs don’t always appear to “make the cut.”  Here are some examples to illustrate this further.

First, lumping together both foster care and juvenile justice together to discuss prevention programs and increasing outcomes. There appears to be a lot of concern about the money we are spending on foster care, out of home placement, and juvenile justice centers. As someone who coordinates care with young people who are at risk for out of home placement, there is a lack of intensive preventive services. There are huge waiting lists for the small amount of slots available. We know prevention services work, however my observation is that these programs are actually getting cut. Are politicians aware of this?

Another example of failed policies and lack of evidence based interventions being funded can be seen in how homelessness is being addressed. According to a press release by The U.S. Housing and Urban development in 2010,

“When an individual or a family becomes homeless for the first time, the cost of providing them housing and services can vary widely, from $581 a month for an individual’s stay in an emergency shelter in Des Moines, Iowa to as much as $3,530 for a family’s monthly stay in emergency shelter in Washington, D.C. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development today released three studies on the cost of ‘first-time’ homelessness; life after transitional housing for homeless families; and strategies for improving access to mainstream benefits programs”

Services to prevent homelessness seem few and far between. For a homeless family, $3,000 per month can go a long way to finding someone permanent, stable housing. Social Workers are on the frontline, and we see what works as well as what our clients need. We apparently need to demonstrate to policy makers that what we do has “return on investment.”  Investing $3,000 a month to teach families to be more self-sufficient, knock down barriers to unemployment, and access to substance abuse and/or mental health treatment will save more money so individuals and families don’t need to become homeless in order to get services.

Are we ensuring policy makers know that we are fighting for the poor, marginalized, and oppressed on a daily basis to help improve their quality of life and to reduce dependency on government services? This is the challenge that we need to take head on, and Dr. Perry reminds us of how powerful social workers can be at the policy making level. To truly serve our clients, we have to address and engage on a policy level because helping one client at a time is only temporary fix which may be impeded further without proper funding.

To truly serve our clients, we have to address and engage on a policy level because helping one client at a time is only a temporary fix which may be impeded further without proper funding. Social Work has power and let’s take up the challenge to find new ways to use it. Dr. Perry has called us out and please find your way to answer the call.

Connecticut Raises Minimum Wage and Provokes Conversations on Homelessness and Affordable Housing

This week, Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy signed a law that will bring about the highest minimum wage of any U.S. state, and the bill raises the state’s minimum hourly rate to $10.10 per hour. Earlier this year, President Obama raised the federal minimum wage for all federal employees and contractors by executive order, and he is asking Congress to act by raising the minimum wage on for all hourly workers across the nation. However, until Congress is willing to raise the minimum wage, President Obama has called on individual states to act independently and not wait for Congress. Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York State was one of the first governors to respond by cutting a deal to raise the minimum wage to $9.00 per hour.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures,

  • ctmirrorAs of March 24, 38 states considered minimum wage bills during the 2014 session; 34 states are considering increases to the state minimum wage.
  • Connecticut, Delaware and D.C. have enacted increases so far in 2014.
  • As of Jan. 1, 2014, 21 states and D.C. have minimum wages above the federal minimum wage.
  • 19 states, GU, PR and VI have minimum wages the same as the federal minimum wage of $7.25.
  • 4 states and AS have minimum wages below the federal minimum wage (the federal minimum thus applies).
  • 1 state, New Hampshire, repealed their state minimum wage in 2011, but left the reference to the federal minimum wage.
  • 5 states have not established a state minimum wage.

Lets take a look at The Cost of Living in America. The North Carolina Justice Center conducted a study on this issue back in 2010. The Living Income Standard finds that the North Carolina family of two adults and two children must earn $48,814 annually to afford the actual costs of seven essential expenses: housing, food, childcare, health care, transportation, taxes and other necessities to include clothing, personal care items, household supplies, school supplies and local telephone service. To meet the level, adults in the average four-person family would need to earn a combined $23.47 per hour and work 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year.

These rates are for NC and not some of the other states with higher cost of living rates such as New York or California. Imagine if this was a family was a single parent household (one parent, one child), the living income standard is estimated to be $11.73 per hour 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year.

Due to the federal minimum wage being $7.25 per hours, many families fall below the living wage standard, and affordable housing has become another huge issue in today’s society.  While interning at The Carying Place, a transitional housing non-profit organization for homeless families, I encounter families struggling to make ends meet on a day-to-day basis. These people are working full time jobs making $7-$9 dollars an hour because their income is so low, they cannot afford housing let alone, food, clothing, daycare/school expenses for their children and other basic necessities.

Families are being forced to choose between paying a bill or providing a meal for themselves and their children to keep from starving. These are the harsh realities people are dealing with daily. Until some type of change is made, whether it be the raising of minimum wage or the establishment of more Affordable Housing, the struggle will continue.

Communities Build Tiny Homes for the Homeless

pods

In the city of Austin Texas, a group of people have come together and begun to build small mini pod homes for homelessness individuals in the city which has been deemed the Tiny House Movement. There are also homes that have even been called “Dignity Roller Pods” that were built by Gary Pickering, a man who was once homeless himself.

Around the world, there have been other cities that have taken homelessness into their own hands by creating these mini homes. Some of those places include Florida and Utah. These homes, which require volunteer effort, community support, and donations are being coined as the cheapest and fastest way to temporarily end homelessness.

According to The National Coalition for The Homeless 

  • The number of homeless families with children has increased significantly over the past decade.  Families with children are among the fastest growing segments of the homeless population. In its 2007 survey of 23 American cities, the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that families with children comprised 23% of the homeless population
  • On an average night in the 23 cities surveyed, 94 percent of people living on the streets were single adults, 4 percent were part of families and 2 percent were unaccompanied minors.
  • Seventy percent of those in emergency shelters were single adults, 29 percent were part of families and 1 percent were unaccompanied minors.  Of those in transitional housing, 43 percent were single adults, 56 percent were part of families, and 1 percent were unaccompanied minors.

I applaud this movement and the efforts put forth by this group of people. I love this idea and it’s extremely creative. However, I am also saddened. Is this the best America can do collectively to help provide shelter to the millions of homeless citizens within our borders? There are numerous services the homeless can benefit from, but due to the abundance of people who are in need, communities are having to take matters into their own hands to see a real change.

These small pods may help some homeless individuals, but what about food, clothing, warmth, being able to take care of their hygiene, or being able to cook healthy meals? What about the homeless families in need that may have more than just one person who yearns for shelter? They may have young babies or newborns that cannot fit in a small pod altogether. It takes more than just a temporary fix, and more Affordable Housing and Transitional Housing Programs are needed.

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