Hurricane Sandy and King Lear

November 1, 2012

One of the incurable symptoms of my former life as an English Lit. professor is that fragments of works I used to teach pop into my head. Mostly lines from Shakespeare — and none more frequently than passages from King Lear.

As I sat cozily inside, listening to the rain and wind Sandy had brought, I thought again about the half-mad old king out on the heath in the storm.

Brief synopsis for those whose Shakespeare is a little rusty.

Lear has given his lands — and the power that went with them — to his wicked daughters, trusting they’ll provide a home for him and the knights he’s kept as some symbolic vestige of his authority.

They’ve told him he doesn’t need the knights and has to get rid of them. So he rushes in a fury out of the gates (promptly locked behind him) and onto the open wasteland. It’s nighttime and storming.

Lear then willfully prolongs his exposure. He rants in self-pity and anger. Then comes a pivot to the passage I silently recite:

Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp,
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou may’st shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.

Lear has told his daughters that they shouldn’t be judging whether he needs his knights. “Our basest beggars are in the poorest thing superfluous,” he said.

Now he understands that he hadn’t thought about these poor people while he had more than enough wealth to feed, clothe and shelter them — and that their basic human needs are different from his wants.

I’m not suggesting that our policymakers and the vested interests they listen to should have stood outside and let Sandy pelt them.

Even a deep imaginative excursion into what the houseless experience could be cleansing psychic medicine, i.e., the “physic” Lear enjoins.

The end result would surely be an altered calculus of what we can afford — and a world that seems more just to all of us.

End of lecture. Test next Tuesday, unless you’ve already voted.

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.

More Doubling Up In Housing, Especially By Families

June 17, 2010

I recently wrote that we’ve no idea how many people are living doubled up with friends or relatives. Still true for the District of Columbia, but not for the nation as a whole.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness has issued a brief on doubling up during the 2005-8 period. Doubling up here means “living in a housing unit with extended family, friends or other non-relatives due to economic hardship,” which NAEH defines as “earning no more than 125% of the federal poverty level.” In 2008, that meant a maximum of $13,000 for a single individual and $22,000 for a family of three.

We learn some interesting things. For example, in 2008:

  • More than 4.8 million low-income people were living doubled up–5% more than in 2005.
  • Nearly three-quarters of them had incomes below the federal poverty line.
  • A third of them were in deep poverty, i.e., living at least 50% below the FPL.
  • The percent of doubled-up people who were in families had increased by 8.5%, to somewhat over 2.1 million.
  • Yet the percent of families doubled-up had increased by 3.5%–to just under 800,000. So it would seem that more family members were living together doubled up.
  • While more single individuals than families were living doubled up, the percent increase for individuals was much smaller–less than 2%.

Doubling up is certainly preferable to living on the street or in an emergency shelter. But, as NAEH says, it’s often a prelude to literal homelessness.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Annual Homelessness Assessment Report for 2008, 25.8% of single individuals and 42.3% of families who weren’t homeless before they entered a shelter or transitional housing had stayed the night before with family or friends.

Perhaps the family member or friend had agreed to house them for only a night or two. Perhaps accommodating them had become too inconvenient. Perhaps frictions arose, as they can among any people living together. Perhaps everybody got evicted.

We see some of these risks of homelessness in other NAEH figures.

  • In 2008, more than 1.7 million doubled-up people (34.6%) were in households with severe housing burdens, i.e. paying 50% or more of their income for rent.
  • Of these people, 22%–somewhat over 1.3 million–were living in over-crowded conditions.
  • Both the number with severe housing burdens and the number in over-crowded conditions were higher in 2008 than in 2005.

What I would guess these figures reflect are the combined impacts of the onset of the recession and the accelerating shortage of affordable rental housing for low-income people. If so, then we would expect more recent figures to be worse.

Last year’s HEARTH Act, which reauthorized homeless programs administered by HUD, expanded the definition of “homeless” to some doubled-up families. The NAEH brief says that communities “will now serve them through their homeless assistance programs.”

Don’t we wish. Here in the District, the homeless services program seems unable to cope even with all the families who’ve got no place to live at all. And with budget-slashing across the country, I doubt many other programs are ready to take on more.

Federal Interagency Council On Homelessness Asks What We Think

March 20, 2010

Last year’s HEARTH (Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing) Act reauthorized the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness and revised its mission, membership and duties.

The Council now brings together 13 Cabinet-level departments, plus five sub-cabinet and independent agencies and the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

The HEARTH Act charged the Council to develop a federal strategic plan to prevent and end homelessness. The plan is supposed to be submitted to Congress on May 20 and updated annually.

The Council says the plan will represent agreement among the agencies on a set of priorities and strategies they will jointly pursue over the next five years.

The plan will guide both the development of programs and agency budget proposals. So it clearly has the potential to significantly improve and better coordinate the federal government’s diverse homelessness prevention and homeless assistance programs.

The Council is proceeding from what it calls “the moral foundation” that “no one should experience homelessness–no one should be without a safe, stable place to call home.” It’s broken this aspirational goal down into four key objectives:

  • Finish the job of ending chronic homelessness
  • Prevent and end homelessness among veterans
  • Prevent and end family homelessness
  • Set a path toward ending all types of homelessness

Since it developed these, it’s apparently decided to also focus on preventing and ending youth homelessness and to explore the role of local communities, including the alignment of federal policies and funding to their homelessness prevention, emergency shelter and re-housing programs.

The Council has aimed for a transparent process, with “multiple opportunities for input, feedback and collaboration.” It seems to be doing a creditable job.

It has gathered input through six regional stakeholder meetings and several meetings during the recent conference of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Now it invites us to share our ideas and vote for ideas others have submitted.

The latter range from the very specific, i.e., provide shelters with funding for case managers, to over-arching solutions, i.e. build more affordable housing. We’ve thus got many choices and a broad field for further suggestions.

So if you want to weigh in on the federal homelessness “roadmap,” here’s your chance. But don’t dally. The deadline for public input is March 22.

Should We Have a Right To Housing?

January 30, 2010

Blogger Shannon Moriarty has come up with five reasons to feel hopeful about homelessness in 2010. Number two on her list is that homelessness will be discussed as a human rights issue.

She’s looking forward to the UN Special Rappoteur’s final report on her investigation into the housing situation here in the U.S. She expects the findings to be critical, as indeed the preliminary findings were.

But that’s not what’s got her so hopeful. It’s rather that the very fact of the report will provide an opportunity to re-frame homelessness as a human rights violation.

Echoing an earlier posting, she asserts that framing homelessness as a human right will place “a moral obligation on lawmakers and members of the community to see that all individuals are given access to something [in this case, housing] as a basic necessity.” Moreover, she says, it will “remove housing from the pool of issues fighting for priority.”

Dream on.

As Shannon notes, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which the U.S. voted for in 1948, includes a sweeping right to “a standard of living adequate for … health and well-being,” including food, clothing housing, medical care, necessary social services and security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond an individual’s control.”

Have our lawmakers felt morally obliged to provide any of this to “everyone … and his family?” What about “the right of every family to a decent home” that FDR said we’d accepted, “so to speak,” as part of a second Bill of Rights?

Surely there’s a place for appeals to morality–or moral values like compassion. But to believe that arguing from a human rights foundation will elevate housing above other issues seems to me naive. Nor am I at all sure we should want it out of the pool of related issues.

Why, after all, are people homeless? For the most part, because they can’t afford housing. Major reasons include lack of good health insurance, unemployment or under-employment, low wages and gaping holes in our safety net. Add to these community development policies that deplete the stock of low-cost housing.

So it seems to me to make more sense to integrate housing into a broad anti-poverty strategy like what Half in Ten proposes. A strategy of this sort can bring together advocates and service providers who come at the issues from various angles.

And it’s likely to win more friends in high places than a rhetoric based on rights, which after all are either empty words or enforceable by litigation. The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, which also champions a human rights approach, seems to envision the latter.

Can you imagine any legislative body agreeing to a right that might allow anyone who didn’t have a decent home to sue the government?

Shannon acknowledges that it may be impractical for homelessness advocates to adopt a human rights paradigm. If by impractical she means forfeiting results, then I think she’s right on target. And why advocate if not to get results?

National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day in Washington, DC

December 18, 2009

It’s almost December 21. The first day of winter. The longest night of the year. And for 19 years, National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day.

As in the past, local and state-level organizations across the country will sponsor events to commemorate members of their communities who died during the year because of our collective failure to end homeless.

Here in the District, the two nationwide sponsors–the National Coalition on Homelessness and the National Health Care for the Homeless Council–have joined with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless and other partners to organize a candlelight vigil.

This is more than your usual memorial event. Three and a half months into the fiscal year, the D.C. government still hasn’t found the funds–or the political will–to ensure funding for homeless services after March 31.

Nor has it come to grips with the rising tide of family homelessness. As of December 6, there were 275 homeless families on the waiting list for shelter. There would have been more than 400 had an unusually large number not found friends or relatives to double up with for awhile. Still homeless, but off the list of families awaiting help.

Looking beyond the District, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that communities need more federal funding for the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program that was created by the economic recovery act. This because the projected need was based on an expectation that the unemployment rate would peak, long about now, at 9.2%.

Yet the DC Council is poised to give away an estimated $700,000 a year in property tax revenues to a large corporation that plans to move downtown. Congress has punted jobs legislation–a potential vehicle for the HPRP funding and surely a way to prevent homelessness–into the new year.

The vigil is a way to demonstrate our concern–and our support for more enlightened priorities. You can join just by showing up at 6:00 p.m. near the bell outside the front of Union Station.

Thoughts On Home and Homelessness

November 24, 2009

Those of you who’ve been following this blog for a long time know that my husband and I became homeless, in a manner of speaking, in mid-February. I say “in a manner of speaking” because we weren’t evicted but displaced by a fire. So, thanks to insurance, we’ve had a place to stay.

After countless complications, permits and inspections, we’re finally going home. Which has got me thinking again about what it means to not have a home–no place to live that you feel is your own, a center you can come back to for as long as you want.

The definition here captures what I’ve learned first-hand. Being homeless means having no rock-bottom sense of safety and stability. And this is a basic human need.

A new brief by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network reminds us of the many lasting effects homelessness has on children. It leads off with the profound destabilizing experience of becoming homeless–the impact of “loss of community, routines, possessions, privacy, and security.”

The report goes on to detail the additional trauma children and their parents can suffer due to shelter living, the stresses of needing to reestablish a home and problems that could have precipitated their homelessness, e.g., acute poverty, parental illness.

Many studies indicate that these have serious, lifelong impacts on children. But another recent report suggests that residential instability itself plays a role, whether children spend time in a shelter or just moving from one temporary housing situation to another. The effects are greatest on very young children.

I wonder whether this doesn’t have something to do with the fact that frequent moves are more destabilizing for them. A young child, after all, doesn’t really understand what’s happening or have an adult grasp of the temporary or the future. It’s just one sudden loss after another. Consider too that the losses can include caregivers and parental attention–even loss of parents themselves.

All of which makes me doubly aware of how fortunate I’ve been–and how skewed our national priorities are when we’ve got a $3 trillion budget and well over 500,000 homeless families.