Getting out the vote among the homeless

I noticed two stories about voting among the homeless this week that reminded me of my experience organizing a voter registration drive at an organization that serves homeless teenagers and young adults. The first, in City & State, asks the question "Do the Homeless Vote?" and details the various barriers – including polling site confusion and inconsistent addresses – that can prevent homeless people from heading to the polls in New York City. In the second, "I'm Homeless and I Vote" - from the Seattle magazine The Stranger - a former business owner who is now homeless in the Seattle area describes the experience of modern homelessness and the lack of response from politicians to the root causes of homelessness like poverty and limited affordable housing.

From City & State:

The homeless often move in and out of homelessness, and by definition often do not have a fixed residence, but [the National Coalition for the Homeless] estimates that only 10 percent of homeless people actually vote in a presidential election. Among the U.S. population as a whole, it’s about 60 percent.

Income statistics reveal an unsurprising trend. New Yorkers in households making less than $25,000 a year, which includes many homeless people, made up 21 percent of the state’s population in 2014, but less than 15 percent of its voters.

When I worked at a drop-in center for homeless LGBTQ teenagers and young adults in Northern Manhattan, I organized a month-long voter registration drive in Spring 2016, just in time for the New York State presidential primaries. I printed a bunch of voter registration forms and went table to table during breakfast and lunch encouraging people to sign up. I ended up registering about 25 people, including a few staff members, and I used agency postage to mail the forms before the primary deadline. It was easy to do, but it was one of the most satisfying things I've accomplished in my social service career.

Skepticism was a problem. Many of the young people parroted the familiar "What's the point? My vote doesn't matter" refrain. I couldn't blame them — they were mostly gay and trans people of color kicked out of their homes and discriminated against because of their identities. Many were skeptical that a politician would genuinely represent them.

Sometimes, however, peer pressure overwhelmed their guardedness. Excited teenagers won over those lunchtime companions who affected a hardened cynicism. 

The other, much more tangible problem was what address the young people should include on their registration form. Some stayed at the drop-in center overnight when there was space. Others lived in transitional housing or engaged in survival sex, spending the night with strangers in exchange for sex. Meanwhile, others crashed with friends or slept on the street and in the subway. Overall, few maintained consistent addresses. The City & State piece addresses this issue.

I recommended that the individuals without a stable address list the address of the drop-in center or a friend's house where they often stayed. 

One young transgender man was particularly excited to vote. For a few weeks leading up to the election, he discussed the research he was doing and the tough decision of whether to vote for Bernie or Hillary. 

Yet, on election day, he seemed reluctant to visit the polling place. I reminded him how excited he had been for weeks, but he still seemed apprehensive. It took me a little while to realize that he was nervous to vote for the first time. He wanted some support.

So I said I wanted to check out the energy near the polling place and suggested I walk over with him. He agreed to accompany me and we walked a few blocks to a school. As we approached, I told him how to check in to the table by last name and that he didn't need to show ID. I remembered the first time I voted when I was 18 — I also felt scared to try something new, to make a mistake, to be an adult. 

Finally, the young man started to walk inside and I told him I'd see him when he returned to the drop-in.

 "You're not going to wait for me?" he asked, betraying his apprehension.

"Na, you don't need me," I said. "You've already done the work getting here."  

He laughed nervously, said I was right and walked inside.

A half hour later, he returned to the drop-in center bubbling with energy. He showed off his 'I Voted' sticker and shared the experience with other clients, encouraging them to register and vote in November's general election.

It was beautiful. 

So how to replicate this experience, especially among young people and new voters?

We have to make it easier for transient individuals to update an address and we have to provide support on Election Day. Bureaucracy and governmental proceedings can be intimidating, especially for people long screwed by policy and by those in power. We always hear that we 'should' go vote, but we rarely hear about the actual (pretty simple) process. 

Here are two solutions:

1.) Make voter registration a part of the intake process at shelters, social service organizations and supportive housing sites.

2.) Go to the polls as a team.  Social service staff can rally a group of new voters to serve as a support system, arrange a time to head to the polling place and get an experienced voter to lead them. 

Improving safety without building a Shelter-to-Prison Pipeline

Department of Homeless Services security guards – called peace officers or special officers – earn a starting salary of $31,482/year to maintain order at shelters where many of the residents have severe mental illness and where everyone experiences the anxieties, agitations and heightened stress levels associated with poverty. At family shelters, young children mingle with teens and adults and domestic violence is common. So is substance use. 

Here is a list of special working conditions copy and pasted from the DHS Special Officer application:

"Some of the physical activities performed by Special Officers and environmental conditions experienced are: working outdoors in all kinds of weather; walking and/or standing in an assigned area during a tour; driving or sitting in a patrol car during a tour while remaining alert; running after a fleeing suspect; climbing up stairs; may assist in carrying an injured adult; gripping persons to prevent escape; restraining a suspect by use of handcuffs; may be required to detect odors such as those caused by smoke or gas leaks; engaging in hand to hand struggles to subdue a suspect resisting arrest; being physically active for prolonged periods of time; understanding verbal communication over a radio with background noise; reading and writing under low light conditions; carrying or wearing heavy equipment and wearing a bullet-resistant vest."

It's a demanding, physical job. As the face of authority and of the shelter itself, peace officers tend to bear the brunt of shelter residents' anger. Yet, they lack the de-escalation training of a social worker or the authority of a police officer. Social service staff and mental health workers do not spend nights at the shelters - the special officers are the only ones there. The officers deserve extensive social service training and support to better work with clients who experience emotional disturbances as well as those who need to save face and never back down from perceived challenges. Meanwhile, residents deserve compassion, patience and understanding of their day-to-day frustrations, including those that stem from discomfort, powerlessness and lack of solitude.

Two days ago, the City announced that the NYPD will broaden oversight at city shelters and assign additional cops to manage the whole force of 771 peace officers. This could be a positive development: NYPD will provide more training on working with emotionally disturbed persons (EDP) and victims of abuse. The move will likely foster more accountability.

Nevertheless, When the law enforcement presence increases, arrests increase. The new chain of command could lead to many unintended consequences.

For every 'bad apple' violent offender who makes the environment dangerous or unhealthy for everyone else, there are certainly many more low-level offenders whose minor misdeeds (open containers, sex work, marijuana use) ensnare them in the criminal justice system. That's what happens at public schools where the presence of police officers means the criminal justice system now punishes issues (like petty theft or hallway scuffles) previously handled in-house by the school. That has led to more children and young adults yoked with records that weigh them down for life, lead to more severe sentences after violations (accumulating offenses or 'strikes') and inhibit employment and housing opportunities. 

NYPD Deputy Chief Edward Thompson said the new oversight structure will promote collaboration between peace officers and police. Again, that is a mix of good and bad. 

Would police encourage peace officers to carry broken windows policing into shelters in order to make more arrests for minor quality of life violations? Would they impose a form of indiscriminate stop-and-frisk? Would police and collaborating peace officers safely and reasonably manage individuals with mental illness? Or would they try to overpower emotionally disturbed people rather than patiently work with them? 

Last year, NYPD officers, plus cops from New Jersey and Long Island, combed shelter rolls to hunt residents with outstanding warrants. Such warrants often relate to unpaid citations for quality of life violations like open containers or public urination, the violations that already disproportionately punish low-income people. Such fines also pose a more severe financial burden to the working poor or individuals on a fixed income.

Perhaps this is a smart structural change when we consider the sprawling, unsafe shelter system, but, we gotta remember, the move does not treat the core issues of an over-reliance on temporary shelters and the failure to prioritize and develop permanent supportive housing. It's just a different style of managing the warehouse.

Bottom line: However the City restructures the security system within shelters, we really, really need more supportive services to assist homeless individuals and to prevent homelessness. A smaller homeless population means fewer problems at overcrowded homeless shelters.  

 

We only have so much attention to pay and critical-thinking time to invest. How we gonna use it?

It's uncomfortable and depressing to consider the roots of a social problem because that means taking a broad view and not just defaulting to individual experiences or anecdotal information ("I knew this one guy in high school who was super lazy, dropped out and never wanted to get a job– no wonder he kept getting evicted and ended up back at his mom's house."). It's also straight-up hard. We have to devote time to learning, reading and listening; we have to challenge some of our default narratives and biases.

We only have so much capacity for compassion, so much attention to give! Digging into the complex causes of homelessness is time-consuming and confusing. It's way easier to direct our attention and outrage to the nasty symptoms of poverty, like a guy pissing on the street, or the sad consequences of poverty, like two little girls burned to death in a steam explosion. Lucky for us, that particular story has a very convenient plot line: Apparently, the girls' parents abused drugs. Therefore, we can blame them for killing their daughters because if they didn't use drugs, they wouldn't be poor. If they weren't poor, they wouldn't have had to live in a shelter. If they didn't live in a shelter, their kids wouldn't have been burned to death. If that sounds cruel, know that a lot of people hold on to that notion. We gotta blame someone and it's just so much easier to blame a specific person or family. Check out the comments on this blog post to see those thought-processes at work.

That kind of blame narrative is also very helpful for distracting us from the roots of homelessness.

It goes like this: Shelters are shitty and poor people are disgusting with no self respect. Comfortably focus your anger on that shit instead of deeper causes of homelessness.

Again, we only have so much attention to pay, so much critical thinking time to invest. Why sink it all into understanding uncomfortable, complex crap when we don't have to? It's certainly not regarded as a social responsibility. 

Growing up in a small, conservative, rural town, I was constantly exposed to those simple, convenient responses, usually presented as anger, world-weariness and superiority. From a pretty young age, I knew that blaming poor people for poverty or ranting about more superficial storylines didn't seem accurate or honest. I couldn't put my finger on it and I definitely didn't have the vocabulary to express what I sensed, but I could tell that there were structures and systems that punished, obstructed and screwed certain people while rewarding others. In order to understand better, I needed to keep questioning the simple narratives and seeking the alternative ideas and explanations. These were generally more comprehensive and certainly more accurate.

It's hard to break away from the easy-to-parrot narratives, especially if you're young and lack a foundation of knowledge.  I needed jump-off points to better understand and to express my positions. Reading the 2016 State of the Homeless report composed by the Coalition for the Homeless reminded me of my early experience with struggling to put words and arguments behind what I perceived. It is a clear and concise resource we all need.

This particular paragraph, for example, serves as a handy summation of a key cause of homelessness:  

Rents in New York City once again soared in 2015, the market continued to hemorrhage affordable units, and incomes have not kept pace with housing costs – most significantly for the lowest-income New Yorkers. Between 2010 and 2014, the median household income across New York City rose by 2 percent, while the median rents rose 14 percent. In the lowest-income neighborhoods, the median income decreased by nearly 7 percent, while rents rose by 26 percent. At the same time, the number of units renting for less than $1,000 (including both regulated and unregulated units) decreased by over 175,000. This dramatic and growing gap between incomes and rents continues to drive countless New Yorkers into financial crisis, all too often culminating in homelessness.

The bad news is, ending homelessness requires prioritizing affordable housing (attitudinal change) and then actually building and preserving an adequate amount of truly affordable permanent housing (policy and system change). That's a lot of work.

The good news is, it's possible to end homelessness because homelessness/poverty is not an inherent trait. Massive homelessness is the obvious outcome of bad housing policies and trends, which we can change.

I think those who are new to advocating against homelessness might start from those two positions and then fill in the details. 

Overpowering our convenient, default thought-processes

What did he do become homeless – What bad decisions? What drugs?

That is often still my first impulse when encountering a homeless person. I default to blaming the individual for his or her circumstances. And I’m a social worker!

I know that I’ve been conditioned to respond like that. I think we all have. It’s convenient and it offers a pat, comforting explanation for someone else’s horrible, complicated situation – They did it to themselves. Phew. Thus we cling to the easy narrative.  

It takes some education and experience to override that programming. I say “override” instead of “deprogram” because we can’t get rid of old neural pathways, we can only build newer, stronger, more appropriate ones that overpower the regressive, untenable ones.

The new, stronger pathway enables us to understand homelessness as a complex social problem that screws individuals, not an individual problem that inconveniences society.

I met a formerly homeless man the other day who told me he became homeless after years of "drinking, smoking weed and doing the wrong thing." For years, his brief, rehearsed story has likely served as a simple explanation to satisfy others.

How the hell does drinking and smoking weed explain homelessness? We all drink, smoke weed and do the wrong thing. Everyone of my friends and I would be homeless if all it took was binge-drinking. But we’re not homeless because we all have families with money [a safety net], an expectation of success [the benefit of the doubt] and a society set up to swaddle and coddle us [power].

It’s just a lot easier to tap into the narrative of ‘“irresponsibility” through substance abuse to explain homelessness. Dig a little beyond the superficial story to consider the real causes of homelessness and it gets depressing and uncomfortable.

That man could easily say, “I became homeless because society doesn’t consider housing a human right. My family was poor so I did not inherit wealth. I worked – I worked very hard for many hours – but did not earn a living wage. My income did not keep pace with my rent and the cost of living in the most expensive city in the country. When I could no longer afford to rent my apartment, I had to leave. I could not find another affordable apartment because thousands of people are trying to get the same tiny number of affordable housing units. I became homeless. I drank and smoked weed more when I became homeless because it was a cheap way to ease my anxiety and mood, which worsened because not having a home is fucking hard.”

This New Year’s Eve, I propose that we all resolve to overcome our convenient, default thought-processes when we consider homelessness. We can shake ourselves back to reality and logic when we catch ourselves tapping into the tired narratives that comfort us (“That person deserves to be homeless”).

To more easily accomplish this, we can start with the premise that housing is a human right and everyone deserves a home, regardless of their decisions (and then with the fact that we don’t even know what their decisions were).

 

"This is a home and that has to be communicated the second you walk in the door"

All new tenants at Urban Pathways supportive housing sites – including community affordable housing tenants in mixed-use buildings - move into fully furnished units that include linens, cookware, flatware, shower curtains and lamps in addition to a bed and furniture.

At other housing sites, tenants must apply for and receive a One Shot Deal from the Human Resources Administration to cover the cost of moving and furnishing an apartment beyond a a bare bed, table and chairs. Urban Pathways pays for furnishings exclusively through private donations – including from corporations that understand the economic benefits of the Housing First model. 

"This is a home and that has to be communicated the second you walk in the door," said Director of Development Nancy Olecki during a meeting this morning at a mixed-use supportive housing site in the Bronx (mixed use means supportive housing units for formerly homeless people with mental illness and "regular" affordable housing units are integrated in the same building).

We visited a tenant – a former construction worker – who moved into his apartment from the Ward's Island Shelter, a massive and notorious institution in the East River, next to the Triborough Bridge. The man said he spent the past several years moving from shelter to shelter and crashing on his brother's couch. During our conversation, he mentioned participating in a healthy cooking program, helping an elderly neighbor flee her room when the fire alarm rang and routinely checking on another neighbor who had returned from the hospital.

I asked him when he had experienced that sort of community before. 

"This is my first place," he said, holding his tiny dog against his chest. "I've never had community like this before." 

The Home Stability Support program would save people from becoming homeless

The HUD FY2016 fair market rent (FMR) for a 2-Bedroom apartment in New York City is $1,571. Yet, a 3-person family with children that earns Public Assistance only receives $400 in shelter allowance, about 1/4 of what they need. It's more or less impossible to rent an apartment for your family if you receive Public Assistance without some sort of additional (and rare) housing voucher like Section 8.

There are currently more than 80,000 people in New York State who receive PA and who pay rents 1.5x higher than their shelter allowance – including 21,000 who pay rents 2.5x higher. Home Stability Support is a statewide rental supplement that would enable New Yorkers at risk for homelessness to find an apartment and prevent eviction.

According to the Coalition for the Homeless, "HSS would cost $11,224 per year for a household of three in New York City – a mere fraction of the $43,880 it costs annually to provide temporary shelter to a homeless family."

New York State originally instituted the shelter allowance to pay the cost of housing for low-income individuals and families unable to otherwise afford rent, but the allowance has not kept up with rising rents in the past few decades since the law changed in 1975. 

Citywide, the rapid FMR increase has been significant for most people but crippling for low-income individuals. Consider Kings County (aka Brooklyn). In 1983, the FMR for a 2-BR apartment was $420 (the current shelter allowance wouldn't even cover that). Now it's $1571.  In 2008, 2-BR FMR increased by nearly 11%. In 1994, it increased by more than 20%. Last year, it rose by more than 6%. 

This problem isn't new. It's just exploding. An article in The New York Times  explored the very same issue more than 23 years ago:

Less than six weeks before Gov. Mario M. Cuomo must propose next year's state budget, his administration is considering pressing the Legislature for the first increase in rent subsidies for welfare recipients since 1988 . . .  The rent subsidy, which is known as the shelter allowance, is so low -- $286 a month for a family of three in New York City -- that many families on welfare have been forced into homelessness, lawyers and other advocates for the homeless say. The median rent in the city, according to a recent report on housing vacancies, was $475 in 1991.

Back in December 1993, when the article was written, there were  5,100 adults and 7,500 children in the city's family shelters. Today, the population has more than tripled.

Even if you typically oppose subsidies that lift low-income families with children out of homelessness and poverty, check your small-government impulses for one moment and use the other parts of your brain: New York City is already paying a billion dollars just to warehouse people in temporary, substandard municipal shelters. We would save hundreds of millions of dollars to subsidize permanent housing for families – and that's not including all the attending social benefits of housing, especially for homeless children who have zero power over or responsibility for their living situation.

HOMELE$$NE$$

Maybe it seems like homelessness is a superficial wound that affects only the very poorest people while the rest of us thrive, unscathed. But, actually, homelessness infects society to its core: 

  • It strains our economic resources (spot-treatment for homelessness is expensive).
  • It disintegrates our quality of life (it sucks to encounter the street-homeless whose very existence forces us to confront systemic failures and random inequities).
  • And it challenges our very identity as caring individuals. If we were caring people, wouldn’t we do something to end homelessness and uphold the human right of housing?

Fortunately, homelessness is preventable, treatable and curable. And ending homelessness is cost-effective.

"We can end homelessness in a matter of years, not decades," Care for the Homeless Policy Director Jeff Foreman told me. "It would cost less to end homelessness than we’re spending right now to not end homelessness."

According to the Coalition for the Homeless, more than 127,652 unique people, including more than children, slept in a New York City shelter in FY2016. The 2016 Mayor's Management Report (p. 96) found that the average cost of housing a single adult homeless person in a shelter was $94.57 in FY2016. The average daily number of homeless adults in NYC shelters  FY2016 was 12,727. That's $1,203,592.39 per day and $439,311,222.35 for the year.

The average cost of housing a family with children was $120.22 and the average number of families with children in the shelter 12,089. That's $1,453,339.58 per day and $530,468,946.70 for the year.

All together, that's about $1 billion a year to NOT provide permanent housing.

There is no free alternative, but there are ways to satisfy our humanitarian impulse to house homeless AND our straight-up financial interests at the same time. It's pretty easy: PROVIDE HOUSING TO PEOPLE WITHOUT HOUSING.

One solution is to develop more supportive housing units to provide housing for homeless people. Supportive housing is permanent housing with social service and mental health support on site.  It's not a hand-out; tenants pay rent – typically 30% of their income with Section 8 providing the additional 70%. Individuals who earn more money, pay a higher proportion of their rent. Some pay 100%. (I had a tenant who served in the military for more than thirty years. He earned more from his pension than I earned from my job. Yet he had experienced homelessness. He paid the market-rate rent, but he valued the social services and the camaraderie within the building).

An oft-cited 2014 report by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the Human Resources Administration and Office of Mental Health stated that supportive housing saves taxpayers $10,100 per person just the first year that the people are housed, which is generally the least stable year for people in permanent housing. 

That report doesn't even account for the various secondary economic benefits of supportive housing, such as how housing stability promotes employment and educational attainment or how the individuals living in permanent housing become active consumers in their neighborhoods.

Homelessness isn't just a tragedy, it's an unnecessary financial burden we can solve right now.