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. 

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.

Vote for the city you want.

Vote for the city you want. 

That's the message on PSAs in subway tunnels and on bus stop glass as New York City prepares for next week's mayoral and council primaries. 

The author Michael Greenberg posed a similar challenge in his widely read analysis of the affordable housing crisis in the New York Review of Books last month:

To what extent should a renter who fulfills the terms of his lease be shielded from the vagaries of real estate markets with their speculative booms and busts? More broadly, what kind of city do New Yorkers want to live in? What responsibility, if any, do we bear to make sure that our most besieged citizens are not pushed out by our current urban prosperity?

Last week, I left my job in Washington Heights and jogged southeast, through the NYCHA towers toward Harlem River Drive and over a pedestrian bridge to Harlem River Park. Three people sat on a dirty futon surrounded by shopping carts and boxes at the shady and secluded end of the bridge, just before it reached the sunny grass. On the other side of the overpass, a man slept wedged, almost hidden, between large gray rocks. 

What kind of city do you want?

In a Slate interview, Greenberg summarizes the power the City and – especially – the State wield over private developers but fail to deploy in address the humanitarian crisis. It's a key point in his essay:

There’s a tremendous amount of power that the city and the state have to shape the real estate market. They have more power than the private developers, because they have zoning power, they have tax break power. They can strengthen rent laws. They can weaken them. They can put lower-paying tenants in rent-stabilized and regulated apartments in jeopardy. They can make it easier for developers and speculators to push them out in a rising market.

In the first Democratic Mayoral Primary debate, moderator Brian Lehrer asked a hypothetical question to Mayor Bill De Blasio and challenger Sal Albanese about halting for-profit development until developers created a meaningful number of affordable units. Albanese embraced the idea, but De Blasio rejected it.

"He has basically turned over the city to big developers. That's the bottom line," Albanese said during the debate. 

The next day, when Lehrer hosted his fellow moderators Errol Louis from NY1 and Laura Nahmias from Politico on his WNYC show, they discussed Lehrer's affordable housing question.

Louis said that were such a for-profit freeze to take effect, construction crews would immediately work three shifts a day, every day to build the required number of affordable housing units so that they could resume building their money-making luxury towers. 

But instead, the city has given up. The city requires virtually nothing from developers aside from a bit of affordable housing for upper-middle class people with other options – not the truly needy families making less than $40,000 a year (Not to mention that to a few million people, $40,000/year sounds like a hell of a lot of money).

Greenberg writes that, in 2016, of the 6,844 new affordable units that developers built using the 421-a tax break/giveaway, only 35 percent or fewer than 2,400, went to "households making less than $40,000, the income level that is being most relentlessly pressured with eviction from older, 'undervalued,' rent-stabilized buildings."

What kind of city do you want?

A city that evicts its low-income citizens then ships them back in every morning from Central Jersey so they can care for our elderly? Rouses them from their municipal shelter cubicles so they can wash the clothes we drop off at the laundromat in their old neighborhood?

Or a city that integrates cultures and incomes? That takes care of the engines who make it run? 

I want a city no longer beholden to real estate developers, with the capability to design its own housing laws and to resist developers' influence over upstate lawmakers abetted by DINO senators and a fauxgressive governor, led by councilors with experience advocating for tenants' rights and affordable housing. I want a city where neighbors have an apartment, not a campsite under pedestrian bridges or a narrow space between boulders. 

 

Fusing Fitness With Mental Health Treatment in Supportive Housing and Related Settings

The New Social Worker magazine published a piece I wrote last summer shortly after earning my MSW in their Summer 2017 issue [Available for Download here].

Here is an excerpt: 

Four Attributes of an Effective Program

During the past year, I have identified four core attributes of the programs that effectively foster an atmosphere of health within the community and that enable individuals to attain their physical health, mental health, and recovery goals.

First, the programs provide preventive, holistic healthcare by addressing chronic health problems proactively—a key to improving quality of life and reducing emergency room visits.

Second, the programs fuse fitness with mental health in a setting that contrasts the traditional seated, face-to-face counseling experience. The transference experience is quite different when a client and worker chat while pedaling stationary bicycles next to one another. Individuals often seem more comfortable talking while exercising and frequently share information with me that they have not yet talked about with their social workers or case managers. For example, a client recently disclosed to me how his family dynamics influence his substance use while he rested between sets of 10 push-ups. I am able to discuss such experiences with clients and encourage them to share these issues with their social workers.

Third, clinical evidence indicates that exercise serves as an effective tool in the substance abuse intervention toolkit by affecting the brain’s reward system and serving as a positive, non-drug reinforcer (Smith & Lynch, 2012). In a practical sense, exercise provides a structured alternative to substance use during the period in which one prepares for and engages in it.

Fourth, exercise programs build community among staff and tenants and promote egalitarianism in the client-worker relationship. Typical barriers disintegrate when a case manager and client try to complete one last squat or shoulder press together.

My story on NYC's protections for undocumented immigrants in DHS shelters

After about a month of reporting and researching, I wrote a piece for City Limits about New York City's protections for undocumented immigrants connected with city agencies, including the Department of Homeless Services. When Trump announced his immigration executive order threatening to defund “sanctuary city” localities that did not comply with federal government requests for information, I first wondered what would stop federal immigration forces from indiscriminately raiding homeless shelters – often barracks-style converted basketball courts that house scores, or even hundreds, of the city's most vulnerable residents.

I remember going to school in Boston during Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids on factories in New Bedford and at a supermarket in Chelsea. And those people were workers who clearly contributed to the economy and paid taxes. Fear and suspicion pervaded immigrant communities in New England and, likely, the rest of the country. I feared the harassment of non-citizens in shelters who depend on city resources – in this case, incurring costs for housing, case management and meals.

In the past, NYPD, as well as police departments from Long Island and New Jersey, regularly accessed DHS records to identify and arrested individuals with outstanding warrants. ICE, however, cannot do the same. In fact, the federal government cannot access city records related to immigration status except for immigrants with felony convictions.

I spoke with several shelter staff, immigration advocates and legal experts. The consensus is that the city's protections remain strong for safeguarding the information of undocumented immigrants. Federal immigration law sounds scary but remains quite vague. It also lacks the power to compel cities and states to record or turn over confidential and protected information.

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. 

"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."