CITY LIMITS: Aging Out of Foster Care Makes Eating Right a Challenge

Earlier this week, I wrote a story about nutritional deficits for young people in foster care as well as young adults aging out with limited social supports for City Limits. People who have experienced foster care speak about entering adulthood – 'the real world' – without the soft skills (cooking, hygiene, cleaning, using health insurance) that people with consistent family structures tend to take for granted. Guardians either model behaviors or remain readily available to share guidance about confusing adult topics. 

Young people who have been in the foster care system experience a higher rate of preventable health problems, like diabetes and hypertension, than their peers, even when compared to other low-income young adults who did not spend time in foster care. 

There are some supportive housing sites for young people who have aged out of foster care. They also receive priority for NYCHA vacancies. But many fall through the cracks, either neglected by foster agencies or eager to leave the system and never look back. That means people who spent time in the foster care system have a higher risk of becoming homeless and thus a higher risk for the related health problems.

Queens Council Candidates Talk Homelessness

On Thursday, I covered the annual City Council Candidates' forum at St. John's University for City Limits.  The event gives Queens councilmembers and their primary challengers a chance to share their positions on a range of hot topics, including homelessness. Sixteen council candidates (including five incumbents) attended the event and each demonstrated

Anti-homeless policies (not necessarily anti-homelessness policies) appeal to a lot of voters, especially in the suburban, upper middle class districts near Long Island. For those candidates, it's not 'How will you address homelessness?' It's 'How will you keep homeless people out of our district'.

Here's an excerpt on homelessness from my article:

All candidates addressed the impact of homelessness in their districts, but few provided specific proposals for addressing the housing crisis. Instead, their responses contained varying shades of “NIMBY-ism” regarding shelter placement: few were willing to welcome shelters, though only District 32 overlaps with a community district that ranks among those with the highest ratio of shelter beds to population.

During the second session, Councilman Barry Grodenchik and challenger Concannon from District 23, candidate Anthony Rivers from District 27, candidates Mike Scala and William Ruiz from District 32 and candidates Adrienne Adams, Hettie Powell and Richard David from District 28 – a seat vacated by Ruben Wills’ corruption conviction – said new shelters shouldn’t be built in their home districts.

“We have been the dumping ground for everything that every other community does not want,” said Adams from District 28, which includes parts of Jamaica and South Ozone Park. “We continue to fight for equity. Everybody needs to bear this burden – not just Southeast Queens.”

Vallone, whose district spans Northeast Queens neighborhoods like Bayside and Little Neck, said he and other shelter opponents are not “bad guys” – their opposition reflects the need for more community participation in deciding where to place new shelters.

“We want to have a say in the process,” he said. “We’ve stopped every attempt to put them in our district because it doesn’t make sense. Make sure there’s input from everybody before you just stick one in our backyard.”

Graziano, the primary challenger, also said he opposed any shelters in District 19 and called Holden – president of the vocal Juniper Park Civic Association – a “hero” for confronting the mayor’s shelter expansion plan.

“Our area shouldn’t have any homeless shelters because there’s about forty homeless families in all the 19th Council District,” he said. “We need homeless shelters and we need affordable housing in the places that need them.” (The mayor has also expressed interest in siting shelters near to the places where homeless families live before becoming homeless.)

Meanwhile, Crowley and Holden each claimed responsibility for rejecting the use of a hotel to house homeless families in Maspeth, a flashpoint in the debate over housing homeless New Yorkers in commercial hotels and opening shelters in middle-income communities.

“We were out there every night protesting,” Holden said, as a small band of his supporters cheered. “We stopped that Holiday Inn.”

After moderators prompted candidates about what to do with vacant NYCHA units, Ruiz suggested filling the vacancies with homeless families.

“If we have a huge problem with the homeless and we have all these empty apartments, let’s fill them,” he said. “Instead of paying thousands of dollars to landlords, let’s fill in NYCHA.”

(NYCHA, according to a 2015 report, has a very low, one percent vacancy rate. The authority has committed to providing at least 1,500 units to homeless families each year through 2020, though some advocates would like to see even more given to homeless families.)

Data obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request suggests less than 5% of shelter population from out-of-town

Shelter population data obtained from the New York City Department of Homeless Services through a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request demonstrates that less than 5% of the city shelter population provided a most recent zip code outside New York City on February 28, 2017.

Nearly as many people provided the Bronx zip code of 10456 (2,252) – which includes parts of Morrisania and Claremont Village – and the Brooklyn zip code of 11207 (1,910) – which covers parts of Bushwick, East New York and Brownsville – as provided 'No Verifiable Associated NYC Address' (2,278).

There’s a work requirement for the right to the opportunity to access your rights

We’re discerning with our rights here in the United States. Critics might call it stingy, but that’s because they’re extravagant suckers, handing out rights to everyone and their immigrant mother.

You have to earn your rights here in this country.

You don’t have a right to your rights. Rights are a privilege and we’re teaching you responsibility and gratitude by distributing them in increments.

I’ve read the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I know that Article 25 states:

(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

(2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

But that’s just phony universalist BS. Where’s the incentive to work if food, clothing, housing, medical care and social services are all guaranteed??? Whenever my kid tells me he's hungry, I'll just tell him to go into the kitchen, grab a red pen and punch up the verbs on his resume.

I concede that some rights are sacred. Like the right to a work requirement. We are, of course, bestowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty and a work requirement to access a basic standard of living. What does that work requirement mean in practice? Who the fuck knows? Citizens have debated it since the nation's founding.

I think it means that if you find yourself homeless, you gotta be a cashier at a Dollar Tree to get a studio apartment. Or maybe that, if you can't afford healthcare for your children, you have to fold Little Caesars pizza boxes for at least 35 hours a week to enable them to see a pediatrician. Something like that. Who cares. WORK REQUIREMENT. Just flows off the tongue all easy and memorable the way the Framers intended. 

Now, if you're asking about an individual's right to work, you're asking the wrong question (again, we don’t just give out rights all willy-nilly).

Right to Work actually refers to the unalienable right of employers to erode the workers' rights that don't really apply anymore. Like the right to organize. Or to receive compensation when your hand gets crushed by a pallet of Ragu jars.

Still confused? I recently came across this opinion piece in the New York Times by Howie Husock, vice president of the  Manhattan Institute, a think tank that pumps out vital policy papers about why basic human rights are dependent on low-wage work at corporate behemoths.

Husock captures how this notion of a "right to housing" actually harms homeless kids and inspires them to be unemployed and pregnant later in life:

“For the families with children — many headed by single parents who had been doubled-up with family but were not literally on the street -- our strategies [for housing] should not be the same [as with single adults with mental illness]. We must acknowledge the risk that offering housing units will increase demand and even the formation of more such households, which are often homes to children who will face toughest type of poverty and greatest economic disadvantage. In other words, the “homeless” family problem is actually a subset of our challenge in assisting low-income, single-parent families without encouraging their formation.

Indeed, we must take care to avoid the risk that expanded government benefit programs—such as housing based on the combination of low-income and the presence of dependent children—may discourage the steps that will help improve a household’s long-term economic condition. As the University of Maryland poverty researcher Douglas Besharov observed in 2013 Congressional testimony, “Means-tested benefit programs undermine much of the good they do because their very structure creates substantial disincentives to work and marriage.”

This guy gets it. If a four-year-old had a job, she wouldn't be homeless. These kids needs to learn that there’s a work requirement for the right to the opportunity to access your rights. It just makes sense.

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.  

 

Othello: The Remix

I drew some social media content for Othello: The Remix, the Q Brothers' awesome and funny hip hop adaption of Shakespeare's Othello. This play was definitely near and dear to my heart (since I love Shakespeare X Rap fusion) and I enjoyed watching it, learning about the cast and then drawing them. 

Here are three pieces I contributed: 

The New York Post loves homelessness

The New York Post loves homelessness. The paper uses stock images of disheveled men with matted beards and old sneakers shuffling along the sidewalk as a weapon against the leaders, laws and causes they oppose. Look at their Rotting Apple coverage. It's basically a series of photographs of adults in dirty clothes napping in uncomfortable positions with some unflattering photos of Bill de Blasio at press conferences mixed in. Homeless person - de Blasio. HomelesspersondeBlasioHomelesspersondeBlasioHomelessdeBlasio. Get it? 

Even stories that seem like red meat for scandalized conservatives immediately adapt an unexpected anti-de Blasio bent. In December, cops cleared a group of men from the area beneath the MetroNorth tracks on Park Ave. in East Harlem. After sanitation workers threw out their possessions, including vital documents, the men sued the city. The city, meanwhile, claimed the men had slept on school grounds, which created an unsafe environment for kids.

In that case, I would expect the Post to just hammer the quality-of-life angle: homeless men are invading our children's schools??? Rotting Apple indeed! Instead, they ignored that easy narrative in favor of another. Here's the very first quote from the story: 

“I’m praying to God because I don’t believe in Mayor de Blasio,” said Jesus Morales, 42, who has lived on the street since 1999.

Morales became homeless when Guiliani was in office? He was homeless through all three of Bloomberg's terms? The Post exploits homelessness to stoke anger among their small-minded audience?

It's almost like they have an agenda. 

Earlier this week, the city agreed to pay the men $1,515. The short Post story features a large picture of a homeless stereotype above a few words. 

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. 

"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.

Demonstrating to put Trump and his enablers on notice

Conservative Republicans continue to call themselves the Silent Majority. That's fine.

Meanwhile, those representing the actual majority — the Americans who delivered Hillary Clinton a +2 million popular vote victory — have been gathering across the country to declare they will not tolerate Trump stoking hatred and exploiting prejudices to enact discriminatory policies. I joined Sunday's huge demonstration between Columbus Circle and Trump Tower and wrote about it for The Progressive and The Indypendent. I found that few attendees seemed to condemn the legitimacy of the presidential election, a notion critics (including liberals) have hammered to invalidate and diminish such events.

Such demonstrations are important because they A) assert our Constitutional right to assembly, a fundamental feature of our democracy B) affirm love and support for immigrants, Muslims, Latinos, women and other groups targeted by Trump and his enablers C) inform the rest of the world that most of us are unhappy with and indeed stunned by the election result and D) put Trump on notice that we will not tolerate bigotry and injustice.

Keep the energy up. Keep it moving. 

"We Never Had A Choice"

In 2015, the owner of CABS Nursing Home -- a 157-unit facility on the corner of DeKalb Avenue and Kosciuszko Street in Bed-Stuy -- sold the property to a developer who drafted plans for a seven-story condo. 

This past summer, WNYC investigated the sale of CABS as well as the conversion of a Lower East Side nursing home into a luxury housing complex. The sales reflect true Monty Burns-level scheming: residents were hastily discharged or moved to other locations without a discharge plan. Families were not notified. At least one person died. 

From the story:

At CABS nursing home in Brookyn's Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood, some family members said they were rushed into leaving before a closure plan was approved by the state in February. Rafaela Rodriguez's husband died shortly after leaving the facility. She said an investigation into her husband's discharge is a good thing. Rodriguez was the head of the nursing home's family council and said several family members with loved ones at CABS called her to complain about having to leave the facility.

CABS is pretty eery now. The four-story nursing home still stands, but the lobby is dark. As though frozen in time, signs, posters and a trophy remain as artifacts. Light construction materials lay scattered in a patch of topsoil in front of the building. 

cabs nursing home bed stuy.JPG

A handwritten message above the door reads "WE NEVER HAD A CHOICE."

cabs nursing home