Is Bigger Better

The HomewardBound Shelter is filled beyond capacity every night of the year.
Now plans are underway to build a larger facillity for its residents...but
Is Bigger Better?

At 32 Vicky (not her real name) is already an old woman. Most of her teeth are missing. She seldom showers. Her sweatpants, once gray, are stained with menstrual blood. At one time Vicky was an attractive and popular young woman. But in her early 20's she began to show the signs of an increasingly severe mental illnes. Around the same time she discovered she liked Meth, and because men liked her they gave it to her and lots of it. The drugs predictablly made her even more unstable, ending her long term relationship to a man she she had lived with since she was 19. By her mid-20's Vicky was a homeless, mentally ill, drug addicted, and a prostitute.
Vicky's not on drugs anymore. I'm told she hasn't been for a couple of years. One story goes that she quit after a dope dealer suspicious that she was co-operating with the Meth task force poisoned her with a shot of Draino. Whatever happened she quit dope, doesn't even smoke cigarettes now. If that's a major improvement I can't tell. She still sees people who aren't there, hears voices no one else can, has whole conversations with the empty air. She's lost two children to the government so far. There's no chance she will ever be able regain custody of them.
By all rights Vicky should be recieving Social Security disability benifits and be in an assited living program for people with major mental health issues. The fact that she is not illustrates what is wrong with a "one size fits all" approach to homeless services that warehouses the homeless in shelters for a fixed period of time after which they are expected to have achieved self-sufficiency. The most vulnerable of the homeless will never achieve self-sufficiency. In an economy where the congress has been forced to repeatedly extend unemployment benifits for up to 2 full years you don't need to be as disfunctional as Vicky to remain homeless for an extended period time either.
Here in Grand Junction the HomewardBound shelter is without a doubt one of the nicer facallities of its kind in the United States. Many of our nation's shelters are crowded, filithy, and dangerous places. By contrast HomewardBound facillity is clean and safe. While many shelters offer residents services for an extremely limited period of time (in Durango it's 14 days), HomewardBound offers its services to residents for a full 180 days and provides year round services. HomewardBound offers a full range of services as well from case management, to storage for people's belongings, to boarding for your dog. The food is good too. residents frequently dine in the evenings on such delicacies as broiled fish with shrimp, roasted pork loin, and cheesecake. They also do a very nice breakfast. The only problem is that many of the same people take up the beds year after year, going back to live in the bushes, the jail, or the prison after their 6 months are up.

 

The federal government has acknowledged the problem and is increasingly focused on addressing the issue of what Housing and Urban Developement calls "chronic homelessness". But the scope of the problem itself is the result of public policy choices spanning the past 30 years that have resulted in millions of Americans living in the street. Policy decisions from the push to "get tough on crime" that resulted in a 546% increase in the number of drug offenders imprisoned in the US between 1985-2000 (Mauer, "Race to Incarcerate"), to the deinstitutionalization of large numbers of severly mentally ill people unable to care for themselves into the street under Regan, to "welfare reform", a euphenism for the federal government ending 61 years of cash assistance to the poor, under Clinton, all contributed to large numbers of people being left without a place to live. During the 90's the federal government also ended prisoners access to higher education while in custody, banned convicted felons from public housing, barred ex-convicts convicted of drug offenses from recieving food stamps. The list goes on...and on.
The fact is that whether policy makers build housing or build prisons poverty costs money. Of those who are, like Vicky, chronically homeless HUD in its 2007 report on issue (Toward Understanding Homelessness: The 2007 National Symposium on Homelessness Research) estimates as many as 60% may be mentally ill. As many as 80% have had lifelong drug and alcohol problems. Three out of four are men, and many are veterans. HUD found an astounding 82% of homeless men and 52% of homeless women are ex-offenders. One in four ex-offenders in Colorado will parole homeless, many after serving long sentences, and most will return to custody repeatedly at ennormous cost to the taxpayers. Simply building more and larger shelters in order to warehouse ever more people can only serve to manage a crisis that has been ongoing for 30 years. In fact the shelter system itself may perpetuate the very problem it was created to address.

In a piece in the New York Times entitled "What’s Wrong With Homeless Shelters" (NYT June 8, 2009) qoutes an essay by online columnist SlumJack Homeless, a former property manager. In his essay "Why I Choose Streets Over Shelter" SlumJack argues that homeless shelters hinder everyone housed there in an effort to curb substance abusers and criminals, so they are a waste of time for people trying to network a way out of their predicament. “SlumJack” writes that shelters force residents to follow early-evening curfews and thus waste many hours unproductively (“imprisonment with some of the worst people”) when they could otherwise be networking outside“going around the corner for a coffee in a cafe and looking for work or some other way to earn money using the Wi-Fi.” He concludes that “The ‘solution’ IS the ‘problem,’ it's a familar refrain. Even the nicest shelter is still a form of low-intensity incarceration, and many aren't very nice at all. As far back as the 1980's popular mass movements formed in cities accross the country to sieze and occupy abandoned buildings for similar reasons. We would do well to ask ourselves, "if the existing system niether meets the needs of people like SlumJack who are high functioning, nor people like Vicky who are not, what needs to change?"

 

 


 

good article

This is what I've been saying for a long time.  Shelters are a form of incarceration.  To make it worse, most of the people who work in the shelters also appear to see it that way.  They act like prison guards and treat homeless people like criminals.  I never went to a shelter, except when the temperature was expected to drop below 20 degrees, and when my car broke down.

What homeless people need are HOMES.  It's that simple.

Given how many houses sit

Given how many houses sit empty, I don't even know if homes are what they need as much as a police force that won't try to arrest them for taking the already vacant ones.

RE: Why was my article removed by Indymedia?

 I posted a piece on the victimization of homelessness women and barriers to re socialization. I used a local woman who has been involved in the Occupy movement here as the basis from which to open the discussion of the relevant studies on victimization and barriers to re-entry, sent you a copy via Facebook and forwarded it to people I know across the country. As you know the elections have resulted in nationwide crackdown on unsheltered people who are demonized as causing the poverty they are in fact the victims of. Women and kids illustrate the point made by Ghandi that 'Poverty is the worse form of violence' as their wholesale victimization is completely preventable. Unlike societies wracked by civil war, the repeated sexual and physical assaults endured by the half million women and 1.6 million kids here are the result of public policy that concerns itself more with 'fairness' to the Walmart heirs than to the most vulnerable people in this society. Unfortunately I see the piece was taken down. May I ask why?

Thanks for the mention

I just ran across this piece in Search. It's interesting how much attention and how widely distributed that one piece I wrote has continued over the three years or so after I wrote it and it was published on Change.org.

The story of that publishing, and what took place subsequently, is also an ironic, interesting and revealing tale, in it's own right as well as pertinent to the topic.

However, try to find ANY of my pieces on Change.org now. Or ANY of the other homeless writers of those years. What happened?

If anyone cares...

Slum Jack

slumjack@gmail.com

Hi Jack,

I'm very glad to hear from you.  What happened is that somebody realized the story needed to be read again, by more people.  So they posted it here.  We put it on the front page, which syndicated it in Indymedia sites all over the U.S.  The story is not over with yet.  More and more people are homeless, and for the time being, that trend is likely to continue.  Too much of what is written about us is written by the profiteers, who want homelessness to get worse, so thay can make even more money off us. 

I, for one, would like very much to know the story of the original publishing of your article, and what took place afterward.  I hope you will write it, and we would be honored if you post it on Colorado Indymedia.  It will circulate better, and more people will have an opportunity to see it, if you post it as a story, rather than a comment on this story.

As for what happens to other homeless writers, we get repressed and suppressed.  We don't have the means to make ourselves heard.  When we get a format like this one, people with money and power offer to "help" us, because they think it will be easy to marginalize us and take over.  Even if we manage to fight them off, we are left without resources.  So we keep losing the race.

That's why Colorado Indymedia looks so unprofessional.  It is now run by one person (though I keep saying "we") who has no web skills, no money, no transportation, and no computer access anywhere but the public library.  I've had housing, in an isolated little town, for two years now, but it looks like I may soon be back out in the street.  Still, when I've had "help," things were much worse.  I am still trying to clean up the mess made by rich people who tried to take over Colorado Indymedia.

Despite all that, I hope you will choose to tell your story here.  It will be appreciated and accorded the proper respect.  Will you take a chance on an Indymedia site, run by a "once (actually twice) and future" homeless person?