How Should We Make Sure That Homeless People Don’t Go Hungry?

November 17, 2014

This is National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, an annual event scheduled to take advantage of the fact that we’re thinking about what we’re thankful for — and about food.

I’m going to take advantage of it here by pondering an issue that the National Coalition for the Homeless, which cosponsors the week, raises in its latest report on the “criminalization of food sharing.”

“Food sharing” refers to distributing food to homeless people, usually outdoors. A growing number of local laws “criminalize” it, NCH says, by imposing restrictions of several major sorts. They’re based on “unjust stereotypes and biases that victimize people experiencing homelessness,” it contends.

Perhaps or perhaps not, as I’ll attempt to show further on. But first a look at the number and types of restrictions NCH finds so objectionable.

Cities That Restrict Food Sharing

NCH doesn’t actually tell us how many cities restrict food sharing. It instead identifies 17 that adopted such restrictions in the last year and a half and lists 12 more that it found too late to fold into the report. Fort Lauderdale recently joined them — and promptly became notorious for acting against the 90-year-old head of a street ministry.

Community pressures “have pushed food-sharing out of populated areas,” e.g., public spaces, in at least four other cities, NCH says. So that makes a minimum of 34 cities that, in its view, have recently engaged in new hostile acts against food sharing.

Types of Food-Sharing Restrictions

NCH identifies two major types of food-sharing restrictions, not counting community pressures that programs have felt constrained to respond to.

The first type limits uses of public property, mostly by requiring permits. Some of them are dauntingly costly for individuals and groups who want to share food on a regular basis. Lots of red tape too.

The second type requires food sharers to comply with food safety regulations, e.g., to get a food handler’s certification or to prepare hot meals only in approved locations (presumably those that have passed some sort of inspection).

Arguments Against Food-Sharing Restrictions

NCH and the volunteers it quotes clearly believe that anyone should be able to feed homeless people pretty much wherever and whenever they choose. After all, homeless people need to eat. And a free meal served where they tend to congregate is a whole lot safer and healthier than dumpster diving.

Some faith-based organizations view food-sharing restrictions as a violation of their First Amendment right to freely exercise their religious duty to feed the hungry. Two courts have agreed.

Professor Baylen Linnekin, who’s also executive director of the libertarian Keep Food Legal Foundation, argues that food-sharing restrictions are discriminatory, as well as unconstitutional on other grounds because they apply only to sharing food with people who don’t sleep with a roof over their heads.

Arguments for (Some) Food-Sharing Restrictions

Cities regulate uses of public spaces for all sorts of reasons — safety, equal access, sanitation, etc. It’s not clear why food-sharing programs should get a free pass when the result can be blocked sidewalks or a park that’s littered with garbage, which serves as a feeding program of sorts for rats.

Property use rules can, of course, be targeted specifically to deter food sharing. The new Fort Lauderdale ordinance, for example, requires outdoor feeding programs to provide portable toilets and hand-washing stations. But it seems a stretch to label every new rule that affects a food-sharing program as an effort to criminalize its activities.

Ditto for requiring programs that feed homeless people to observe basic food safety precautions. Mark Horvath, the genius behind Invisible People and a formerly homeless person, argues that homeless people should have the same assurance of food that’s “healthy and inspected” as the rest of us do.

Beyond this, Horvath believes that feeding homeless people on the streets or in a park can discourage them from going to a nonprofit that will not only feed them, but provide or connect them to other services — and thus end their homelessness. He’s not the only one.

NCH calls the notion that food sharing enables homeless people to remain homeless a myth. They’re homeless, it says, for reasons that have nothing to do with choice, e.g., mental health problems, physical disabilities, lack of affordable housing and/or job opportunities.

But they’re not going to get help with any of these from an outdoor food-sharing program that’s not coordinated with anything else.

Beyond Food Sharing

Horvath suggests that those of us who want homeless people to have enough to eat should donate our time and/or money to a local service provider, though he’s willing to allow that we can feed people in a park so long as we’re also doing something to get them out of it — not, of course, by advocating for local laws that “criminalize” their being there.

NCH itself recognizes that the sort of food-sharing programs it believes local authorities are unjustly targeting don’t solve the problems of hunger and homelessness — or even hunger among homeless people.

It recommends outreach and caseworker support to help homeless people enroll in federal nutrition programs like SNAP (the food stamp program). It recommends more federal funding for them, as well as for food sharing and for organizations that provide food for homeless people in other ways (lots of luck!).

It also recommends changes in federal law to eliminate barriers to SNAP participation, i.e., work requirements, the lifetime bans some states still impose on people who’ve been convicted of drug-related felonies (lots of luck, again).

Setting aside the high improbability of friendlier federal nutrition policies, an approach that coordinates feeding with other forms of help does seem preferable to free-standing, outdoor food-sharing programs.

Yet not all homeless people want to go someplace where they can eat indoors, as NCH Director of Community Organizing Michael Stoops says. Nor apparently do they all respond to caseworkers who go to where they are.

DC Central Kitchen, whose mobile breakfast program NCH approvingly cited in its previous food-sharing report, says it’s piloting something different because “the vast majority of our clients were content to receive a free daily meal without engaging in any meaningful way with our outreach workers.”

But it hopes some other nonprofit will fill the gap. Better fed than dead of malnutrition, one might say — or than driven to desperate acts.

Hard, I think, to decide where we who worry about both hunger and homelessness should net out.

UPDATE: Shortly after I posted this, I discovered another significant voice in the food-sharing debate. It’s a fierce response by the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless to an NPR interview with a prominent consultant who opposes outdoor feeding programs. The coalition focuses specifically on church groups, but most of the issues it raises are more generally applicable.

 

 


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.