This NFL Star is Tackling Period Stigma — And Helping Homeless Women

As an offensive lineman for the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers, Joshua Garnett excels in one of the most macho cultures in the US, but he’s using his platform to tackle an issue long treated as too gross or too uncomfortable for men to talk about — periods and menstrual hygiene.

Garnett has teamed up with his sister Rachel’s organization Kitty Packs to help homeless women who experience “free bleeding,” which is what happens when a woman is unable to access expensive sanitary pads or tampons to manage her period.

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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. 

An oz. of prevention more realistic than a lb. of cure in our weak welfare state

The City, State and Federal Government, in descending order, do a very poor job of helping those who experience homelessness get a home. Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers contend with an insane rent burden (>50% of income on rent) and there's little relief in sight. The State has not fulfilled its commitment to affordable housing – a commitment announced to much fanfare by Gov. Cuomo in January 2016 – while the City has faced huge opposition from neighborhoods wary of any rezoning plan, even if creates affordable housing.

Yesterday, Dr. Kim Hopper – Columbia professor, cofounder of the National Coalition for the Homeless and an eminent activist-scholar on homelessness and homeless policy – wrote a CityViews editorial in which he summarized the seemingly intractable systemic roots of homelessness and expressed some cautious optimism about the efforts of the DeBlasio administration and some State lawmakers at homelessness PREVENTION:

Advocates argue that shelter should be a buffer, a last dignity-shielding redoubt, not a degrading penalty for failure to plan or cope. In a weak welfare state, it will probably never be that. But we can commit to making it a decent way-station, not a grim terminus. Better still would be targeting resources where they can do the most good—in prevention.

Unfortunately, because of out-of-control rent and little commitment to affordable housing development, shelters will remain an important part of dealing with the homelessness crisis, Hopper continued.

So there’s no evading this awkward truth: Whether as prevention, deterrence or respite, the shelter system will continue to anchor and belay the housing struggles of low-income New Yorkers. What was once a rude salvage operation targeting the disreputable poor is now an integral part of how those disfavored by fortune get by.

In such an environment, it’s folly to subscribe to “disparate missions” for housing and homelessness divisions within city government. It’s cynical for the state to play coy. Intensified preventive efforts and set-asides in existing housing will surely help; so would more rational institutional placement. But without a serious reckoning with what it will take to integrate affordable housing and shelter policy in the long run—and a significantly greater commitment from the city and state to creating housing affordable for those earning 30 percent of area median income or less—the specter of enduring mass homelessness will continue to haunt New York.

But if we can’t “build our way out of” this crisis, there is promising news on a parallel front. The “Housing Stability Support” policy being developed by State Assemblymember Andrew Hevesi draws upon the demonstrable success of a host of targeted (if often time-limited) rental subsidy programs, programs that have operated at varying degrees of visibility. Left to its own devices, of course, the private market is an inconstant partner. But the focus on enhanced demand (rental subsidies to be used in existing housing), in addition to expanded supply (developing affordable units as contingent “set asides”), is a welcome one. The devil, as always, will reside in the details.

2017 National Health Care for the Homeless Coalition Conference

In June, my supervisor and I will discuss our work integrating fitness and health counseling services at supportive housing and affordable housing sites at the NHCHC Conference and Policy Symposium in Washington, D.C. We have titled our presentation Move Toward Wellness: Integrating access to exercise in programs serving individuals impacted by homelessness.

People who have experienced homelessness die, on average, 15-20 years earlier than the general population. Individuals with severe mental illness–a significant proportion of the homeless population– die, on average, 25 years earlier than the general population. In order to most effectively implement preventive health programs for low-income individuals and people who have experienced or currently experience homelessness, we need to bring the programs to them - the places they live and frequent. 

In social work, we often say we need to "meet people where they're at." Usually, it's metaphorical. For example, if a woman uses heroin, we need to consider the physical, mental and social factors that influence her getting high and support her without expecting her to immediately cease abusing drugs. We also can't expect individuals from diverse backgrounds and complex experiences to conform to our standards of behavior and ways of thinking. 

But in the case of preventive health strategies, like fitness programs and health counseling, we need to literally meet people where they're at by doing the work in their buildings' community rooms, lobbies, patios or dining rooms. 

The presentation will share experiences and ideas for implementing such programs at sites with significant resources (like NYC's HIV/Aids Services Administration-funded supportive housing sites, which tend to receive more funding than most other supportive housing facilities) as well as the typical mixed-use supportive/affordable housing site that tends to operate with sparse funding and few frills. 

Come check us out if you plan to attend the conference in late-June.