Survey Flags Unfair Treatment of Homeless Individuals in DC

April 17, 2014

Last fall, the National Coalition for the Homeless and a team of graduate students from George Washington University set out to learn “the extent to which homeless individuals in Washington, D.C. have experienced discrimination as a result of their housing status.”

They conducted a survey. And now we have a glimpse of the results. Within limits (of which more below), they indicate that many homeless people in the District have felt discriminated against — or at least, had experiences which persuaded them that others have.

The researchers wound up with usable surveys of 142 individuals — 110 men and 32 women. This is, of course, a very small fraction of the population of homeless adults in the District who have no family members with them, as last year’s one-night count indicates.

I don’t have the data to figure out whether the gender breakout — or the race/ethnicity breakouts — are reasonably representative. I rather doubt they exist. The gender breakout, however, does nearly mirror the shelter bed allocations in this year’s Winter Plan, and these are based on past demand.

The survey respondents were asked a number of questions about their experiences with private businesses, law enforcement, medical services and social services.

As the NCH website suggests, they were also asked questions about other groups, e.g., employers, landlords. But these didn’t yield statistically significant results. So they’re not in the report.

In fact, the report quantifies responses to only one question: “How often, in your experiences, did the following groups [private businesses, etc.] discriminate against people without housing?”

One could answer “often” to this on the basis of second-hand information, e.g., having been told that homeless people weren’t welcome in some McDonald’s restaurant.

Yet the survey itself included questions about direct personal experiences, especially with law enforcement. Unfortunately, as Michael Stoops at NCH confirmed, the sample was too small for statistically significant results on such important particulars.

That said, we seem to have considerable consensus that private businesses and law enforcement officers at least sometimes treat homeless people unfairly — 70.4% of affirmative responses for the former and 66.6% for the latter.*

Nearly 50% perceived discrimination by medical services and 43.7% by social services. For the former, the report includes two very disturbing anecdotal fragments.

A woman said she was refused care by local health care providers because “the staff thought she was faking it to get inside.” Another respondent said, “When I got stabbed, the paramedic said there was nothing wrong with me …. [H]e said I just wanted to get out of the rain.”

I’m frankly disappointed in this report because I’m sure as can be that people who are identifiably homeless are treated differently from thee and me — and in ways that are consequentially harmful.

The fact, sad as it is, that passersby make them feel “disconnected from the world,” as one respondent said, isn’t as harmful as getting rousted by the cops — or worse. And it’s far less harmful than being denied medical care.

These aren’t just perceptions of differential treatment. And I wish the report had provided more of them, even anecdotally, because, to me, they’re compelling evidence of a serious social problem — and one that’s reflected in a host of policy choices.

The report is nevertheless one of the first of its kind. And it’s only one portion of a campaign that NCH is waging — a complement of sorts to its annual reports on hate crimes against homeless people.

Here in the District, as elsewhere, NCH seeks to have a bill of rights for homeless people enacted. Three states and Puerto Rico already have such bills.

Alternatively, Stoops suggested, the District could amend its Human Rights Act to prohibit discrimination based on housing status.

Either action would provide a basis for legal claims against public or private entities that deny people medical care, social services and/or opportunities to work, rent, sit in a fast food restaurant, a library or a public park because they have no home of their own.

Needless to say, we wouldn’t see a flood of legal claims, though you can bet the Chamber of Commerce will claim otherwise, as it has in California.

The potential for legal action might make some difference, however. In the best of cases, it would prompt some apparently needed education in our public agencies and private-sector enterprises.

And we, as a community, would have officially recognized “the humanity of people who are homeless,” as the latest NCH hate crimes report says we must. That would prompt us to act when we perceive inhumane treatment — as it should, even without new legislation.

Surely we’d respond if our grandmother was told she was “just faking it” when she went to a healthcare clinic.

* The report collapses responses ranging from “rarely” to “very often” into a single “yes”.

 


What Do Hate Crimes Against Homeless People Show … and Not?

January 10, 2013

“Our society has learned to hate the homeless.” So tweeted Eric Sheptock, a leading “homeless homeless advocate” in the District of Columbia.

It’s easy to see why. But I don’t believe it, though we’ve got good evidence that some people do indeed harbor a virulent animus against homeless people.

Sheptock had just read a news release about a homeless woman who was set on fire as she slept on a bus bench in Los Angeles. This was the second such attack on a person sleeping outdoors in the area.

These certainly seem to be hate crimes against the homeless — the subject of a long series of annual reports by the National Coalition for the Homeless.

I say “seem to” because Neil Donovan, Executive Director of NCH, himself acknowledges that “only a disturbed mind” acts out “such an intense passion of dislike.” Disturbed enough, I think, so that we sometimes can’t fathom a motive.

In its latest report, NCH documents 105 new attacks on homeless people by people who weren’t themselves homeless — 32 of them fatal. This brings the reported 13-year total to 1,289.

As in the past, most of the attackers were young men — some of them very young indeed. We’re told, for example, of a 14-year-old and a 15-year-old who shot a homeless man in order to steal his bicycle.

And some of the attacks were shocking in their wantonness — for example, a fatal bludgeoning with a tire iron committed “just for fun.”

NCH argues that such crimes are encouraged by laws that “criminalize” homelessness. It’s referring here mainly to local laws that prohibit actions more or less necessitated by life on the streets, e.g., sitting on the sidewalk, camping in a public space.

I’ve no doubt that such laws reflect an egregious lack of sympathy — in the literal sense, i.e., feeling together with.

Perhaps codifying the otherness of homeless people does somehow affect the mindsets of youth who surely can’t (can they?) perceive their victims as human beings like themselves.

Yet our society doesn’t condone violence against homeless people. When the perps are caught, they’re prosecuted, just as they would be if they attacked model exemplars of the middle class.

And in some of the reported cases, community members intervened — or when that was too late, attended memorial services, even raised money to cover funeral costs for homeless victims.

More generally, I don’t think our communities foster an environment that breeds hate-motivated crimes against homeless people — as, for example, legally and socially-sanctioned racial prejudice in the South led to lynchings, church bombings and the like.

This isn’t to say that our popular culture doesn’t glorify violence — and more generally, macho behaviors. Or that our mental health system doesn’t let highly-disturbed people fall through the cracks.

Or that our social services fail — for want of knowledge, funds and who knows what else — to prevent young people from seeking respect and release for the energies in criminal acts.

But in communities across this country, faith-based organizations and other nonprofits have made a mission of caring for homeless people.

They feed, clothe and shelter them, provide or help them get free medical care and other services, offer them supportive and skill-building programs, advocate on their behalf and more.

We, as a society, express our support for these services. Large numbers of us donate our unpaid labor and professional expertise. Larger numbers of us donate some portion of our earnings.

And large enough numbers of us support public funding for the services to have kept them an item in government budgets.

Here in the District, where Sheptock and I live, we, through our local government, have gone further.

We guarantee homeless people shelter from “severe weather conditions” that could cause them to freeze to death or collapse from heat prostration if left to fend for themselves on the streets.

We put local taxpayer dollars behind this right to shelter and related services, e.g., outreach, transportation to a shelter, blankets and a warm drink for those who refuse to go.

Is any of this enough? Of course not.

Do we care enough to adequately fund homeless services — and other programs that could ultimately end the need for them? Not apparently if the money would come out of our very own wallets.

But, at the same time, enough of us donate our time and/or money to keep the community-based services flowing.

And I believe most of us don’t want homeless services and affordable housing short-changed to help balance public budgets — let alone to ensure that the Pentagon has more money than it needs and for weapons it doesn’t want.

I’m aware that we collectively have let our elected officials get away with the short-changing. But does this mean that we as a society hate homeless people? That, I think, short-changes us.


Homeless People Die Young for Want of Housing

December 20, 2012

Tomorrow, December 21, will be the first day of winter. The longest night of the year. And the twenty-second annual National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day.

Communities around the country will sponsor events to honor homeless men and women who died this year and “to recommit to the task of ending homelessness.”

Here in the District of Columbia — and in some other communities also — there will be a reading of the names of the memorialized homeless. These obviously are people whom local service providers and other concerned community members knew.

But some of the people we’ll commemorate are anonymous. No one knew them well enough to wonder why they were missing — let alone care enough to find out they’d died. In some cases, they’re forever officially nameless.

Many of the named and nameless were probably shockingly young. Homeless people die, on average, nearly 30 years earlier than the rest of us, according to a review of the scant studies we have.

We read occasionally of homeless people freezing to death. Also of homeless people who died because they were violently attacked.

But a much larger percent of the untimely deaths are due to untreated or under-treated illnesses — both communicable diseases like HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis and others more common among the population as a whole, e.g., cancer, diabetes, heart problems and hypertension.

Homelessness itself helps explain those communicable diseases. People in shelters can easily contract them, since they’re bedded down with many others, washing up in communal bathrooms and eating shoulder to shoulder with their co-residents.

Both the sheltered and unsheltered are more susceptible to illness generally because their systems are weakened by lack of rest, hunger and/or unhealthful diets, exposure to extreme temperatures and stress.

All these conditions, of course, also tend to make diseases get worse. When we get  the flu, we stay in bed. Not an option for homeless people who live on the streets or in shelters, which often kick them out at dawn’s early light.

Not surprisingly, homeless people are more likely than others to lack health insurance — even Medicaid. At this point, those who don’t have children and haven’t been certified as severely disabled often aren’t eligible any way.

Fortunately, we have nonprofits that provide free medical care for homeless people — some of it federally funded.

A very high percent of homeless people nevertheless rely on hospital emergency rooms. They presumably get patched up, given in-patient care if needed and discharged, perhaps with a prescription.

But there’s no continuity of care. And both shelter and street living make following a doctor’s instructions difficult.

How, for example, do you store your medications “in a cool, dry place” — and protect them from theft?

How do you faithfully take one pill every four hours or check your blood sugar regularly when you’ve got to keep moving around and trying to rustle up enough money to get something to eat? How do you keep your bandaged wound sterilized?

These questions all assume you understand what you’re supposed to do — and that it’s on your mind, but just too challenging.

Probably not the case for the relatively high, though unknown numbers of homeless people who have a serious mental illness, substance abuse problem or both.*

The message here, which it’s taken me a long time to get to, is that housing is health care, as one of the cosponsors of National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day says.

And lack of housing can be a death sentence.

If you think this is overwrought, consider what will happen to the AIDS-infected client that attorney Amber Harding at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless tells us about.

Consider what would have happened if he’d gotten the affordable housing he asked for.

* Figures on the rates of these disabilities among homeless people vary widely and many are far from current. The low-end figure for mental illness is 13-15%, but at least double that for homeless individuals classified as chronically homeless.

The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness says it’s estimated that nearly half of homeless people suffer from substance abuse disorders.


Deadly Crimes Against Homeless People Hit 10-Year High

August 30, 2010

Last year was the “deadliest in a decade,” says the National Coalition for the Homeless in its latest report on hate crimes against homeless people.

Forty-three homeless people died from acts of violence committed against them by housed individuals who were biased against them and/or found them a conveniently vulnerable target for aggression.

This brought the 11-year total to 288 — more than twice as many as all other categories of fatal hate crimes combined.

An article included in the report says that the homicide figures are the best current barometer of the extent of violence against homeless people because they’re “arguably” the only type of violent victimization that gets consistently reported to the police.

The other hate crime cases NCH can document are a “microscopic though fairly representative of types of prejudice motivated offenses against the homeless.” But unless/until Congress expands the federal hate crime law, they’re the best we have. So …

All told, NCH was able to verify 117 hate crimes against homeless people in 2009, bringing the 11-year total to 1,074. Last year, incidents were reported in 21 states and the District of Columbia. For the 11-year period, in all but three states.

Beatings were the single most common type of nonfatal attack — 49 cases last year, not counting those perpetrated by police officers. Homeless people were also raped (9 cases), set on fire (6 cases), shot (another 6 cases) and brutalized by police (4 cases, not counting a rape).

These figures are obviously cause for concern, especially because they’re only cases where available information indicates a bias-related motive. But it’s the accompanying summaries that show what a sick situation we’ve got. A small sample:

  • A teenager in Florida says that he and a friend repeatedly shot at homeless people with BB and soft air guns because “there’s nothing else to do for fun.”
  • Three young men create improvised fire bombs to throw at a homeless man. One pauses to text a preview to a friend.
  • A man offers a homeless, wheelchair-bound woman a place to sleep, then rapes her because he can, he says, “get away with it…. You’re homeless? Nobody cares about you.”
  • Some pre-teens in Philadelphia make a game of attacking a stomping people they believe are homeless. One tells police, “It’s something stupid we do for fun.

NCH attributes part of the problem to the shortage of affordable housing and shelter space. And indeed fewer homeless people living on the streets would mean fewer people so vulnerable to attack.

NCH also cites the growing number of local laws that “criminalize” homelessness, e.g., prohibit sleeping, eating and even sitting or standing around in public places. These, it says, tell the public at large that “homeless people do not matter and are not worthy of living in our city.”

Public officials could do something about these contributing factors. They could also, as NCH advocates, legally classify hate crimes against homeless people as such.

But I still doubt that policy changes would get at the roots of the problem. The NCH report provides ample evidence — and not just cases like those cited above.

Like last year’s report, it calls attention to the appallingly popular Bumfight videos and the thousands of copycats teenagers have created by inducing homeless men to fight one another and perform other dangerous and/or humiliating acts.

Now there’s also an online game that challenges players to begin as a “bum” and become the most powerful person in New York City by, among other things, attacking and robbing other homeless people. Currently more than 500,000 users per month.

I can’t begin to fathom the appeal of such wanton real and simulated violence against harmless, helpless individuals — let alone imagine remedies. Don’t think NCH can either, though its reports and recommendations could make a difference.


Interagency Council Has Big Plans, Less Focus Or Funds For Ending Homelessness

July 6, 2010

The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness has now released its strategic plan. As I earlier wrote, the plan is supposed to establish priorities and strategies that the 19 agency members will jointly pursue to prevent and end homelessness within a specific timeframe.

I’ve been sitting here trying to decide what I think about it — and how I can tell you what’s in it within reasonable blog length. These two things are not unrelated.

First off, the plan is quite a piece of work — 59 pages, plus prefatory material, notes and acknowledgments. And it’s not only long, but very complex.

Four major goals, 10 objectives ranged under five major themes, 52 strategies divided among the objectives, three performance measures, tables reflecting specific agencies’ responsibilities for implementation, a review of what’s known about three major populations of homeless people and more.

This, I think, is its strength — and also its weakness.

On the positive side, it reflects a good grasp of the complexity of the problem. It’s refreshing to see a broader focus than the Bush administration’s intensive focus on chronically homeless people.

Yes, it’s got a goal to “finish the job of ending chronic homelessness in five years.” But it also sets goals and timeframes for preventing and ending homelessness among veterans and for families, youth and children. There’s also a goal sans timeframe for the unnamed populations, e.g., homeless individuals who aren’t veterans and/or classifiable as chronically homeless.

The policy shift is reflected in the acknowledgment that, for most homeless people, the problem is a gap between income and the cost of housing. Also in the themes, which include increasing both access to stable, affordable housing and economic security.

And in objectives for the latter — more “meaningful and suitable employment” for homeless people and those at high risk of homelessness and better “access to mainstream programs and services,” i.e., those not specifically targeted to homeless populations.

There’s a flip side to the reach, complexity and apparent interest in satisfying a very large and diverse group of diverse stakeholders. All aspects of the problem — and related strategies — get equal billing.

So many to-do’s for so many entities and nothing I can see to identify first-order priorities. True, the plan is supposed to be a five-year “roadmap.” But what does it provide, except for initiatives already in the President’s proposed budget, to tell agencies what they should do first and foremost?

At the same time, I see an unspoken awareness of limited federal capacities. We read a lot about interagency collaboration, better program integration and dissemination of information and best practices. The heavy lifting seems largely left to state and local public agencies and to private organizations.

Which brings me to the elephant in the room. Where’s the money for all this? Certainly not in the revenue-strapped budgets of state and local governments or in those of the nonprofits and other community organizations the President’s prefatory letter alludes to.

It’s not in his proposed budget either, notwithstanding what the plan terms its “signature initiatives” for veterans, families with children and chronically homeless people.

I found only one specific reference to new federal funding — a strategy that simply says “fund the National Housing Trust.” Perhaps this refers to the $1 billion the President is again requesting. How can it be a strategy for the ICH members?

Efforts to secure any capital funding for the Trust have thus far gone nowhere. Doubt they’re going to fare much better in a Congress that’s moving to lower the President’s ceiling on most discretionary domestic spending.

In any event, $1 billion would be a mere down payment on what would be needed to significantly increase the supply of rental housing that the target population, i.e., extremely low-income households, can afford.

Neil Donovan, Executive Director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, has expressed some cautiously-worded reservations along these lines. He welcomes the plan’s vision, overall framework and commitment to engaging all stakeholders. But he finds “many of the methods … vague and without firm commitment to allocate funds and implement strategies.”

He warns of a double standard. Federal grant applications require local communities to identify clear numeric goals, timetables, funding and implementing bodies “to ensure they move from planning to action.” Thus far, nothing comparable in the federal strategic plan.

Exactly. It’s a fine thing to have the President on record as saying that “ending homelessness in America must be a national priority.” But it will take a whole lot more than the ICH roadmap to get us there.


New Report Documents Violence Against Homeless People

August 15, 2009

Every once in awhile, we read about some act of violence against a homeless person. Young men set fire to a homeless man. A teenager beats a homeless man to death with a baseball bat. Twin brothers terrorize homeless people in a public park–a woman thrown down a flight of stairs, a sleeping man pounded with his own bicycle, another stabbed.

For 10 years now, the National Coalition for the Homeless has been issuing annual reports on crimes like these. It’s just published the latest.

As NCH readily acknowledges, its data are incomplete, based on news articles and reports from advocates, service providers and homeless and formerly homeless people themselves. But they’re still enough to give one pause.

  • In 2008 alone, 106 homeless people were subject to violent attacks, 27 of them fatal.
  • These attacks occurred in 22 states and the District of Columbia.
  • They included shootings, beatings, rapes, other assaults and at least three human torchings.
  • Victims were predominantly middle-aged and elderly. Of those whose attackers were formally accused, 17.3% were in their 50’s and 10.9% were over 60.

The NCH data are just the tip of the iceberg. Homeless people are understandably reluctant to call the police. And law enforcement authorities don’t have to keep records identifying crimes that seem motivated in whole or in part by the homelessness of the victim. But even the relatively little we know tells us there’s a serious nationwide problem.

So what’s to do? The ultimate solution, of course, is to create enough affordable and permanent supportive housing so that no one has to be homeless any more.

In the interim, we have to look for other policy solutions. One NCH recommends is legislation to make homeless people a protected class under existing hate crimes laws.

The District of Columbia has just joined a relatively small number of jurisdictions in enacting such legislation. Under the just-signed emergency crime bill, the Bias-Related Crime Act is amended to include crimes based on a prejudice against homelessness. This will allow a court to impose up to one and a half times the ordinary maximum fine or jail term if a crime against a homeless person was committed at least in part because of the victim’s homelessness.

The measure is important, I think, as an expression of our collective revulsion against senseless, hateful acts. But I doubt the tougher penalties will serve as a deterrent.

After all, crimes like those in the NCH report aren’t based on rational risk/benefit calculations. Most seem prompted by a felt need for the thrill, release and peer validation of attacking a defenseless person. Some apparently are also fueled by hatred or contempt of homeless people. In short, they’re a symptom of something profoundly wrong in our culture.

What else can we think when someone who strangled and cracked open the skull of a homeless man said, when told who the victim was, “Oh him, he’s just a beggar, a vagrant.”? Or when others arrested for similar crimes said they did it for fun or just because they could?

There’s a pathology here that’s beyond my ken. But I think NCH is right to lay part of the blame on laws that target homeless people for innocuous acts like sitting or sleeping in public places, loafing, loitering or living in cars–not to mention laws that prohibit feeding them.

So passing hate crimes laws won’t be enough. Nor, I think, will eliminating laws that criminalize homelessness or putting homeless education programs in our schools, as NCH also recommends. But these are all steps in the right direction.

Not as good as ending homelessness or the deep-seated alienation and rage of young men who get pumped up by “beat[ing] down some bums.” But positive nonetheless.


Homeless Memorial Day

December 15, 2008

On December 21, the first day of winter and the longest night of the year, the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Health Care for the Homeless Council will co-sponsor the 19th annual National Homeless Memorial Day.

Local and statewide organizations across the country will host events to mourn community members who died this year on the streets or in emergency shelters. Thousands of lives cut short because we don’t have adequate policies and programs to prevent homelessness or to provide homeless people with essential services and a safe, stable place to live.

The D.C. Homeless Memorial Day event will begin at 7:00 PM in the plaza outside Union Station. It’s an opportunity for those of us who live in the District to raise awareness of the ongoing, wasteful tragedies of homelessness in our community.

It’s also an opportunity to demonstrate support for more effective, better-funded programs to meet the immediate needs of homeless people and address the root causes of homelessness, including the affordable housing crisis. What with recent budget cuts and more on the horizon, the message couldn’t be more timely.


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