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State of the Union’s Housing Crisis

Written by Brian Davis on . Posted in Blog

Let’s Talk About Homelessness in the State of the Union 

By Brian Davis

The problem of homelessness was once a prominent part of every Presidential campaign from Nixon, Carter to Reagan each released plans to house every American. It should be understood that Reagan’s plan (the last time the President was pushed to address homelessness) was rather specious in having every church and synagogue adopt “10 welfare families” until the inflation crisis was over.  There were dramatic expansions of federal housing support from the 1960s to the mid 1980s that really made an impact. In 1984, Jesse Carpenter froze to death on a bench very near the federal agency in charge of housing and everything changed.  The Homeless Persons Survival Act was written in the offices of the National Coalition for the Homeless and was passed in 1986 and began a huge escalation in federal dollars toward the emergency needs of those on the streets. 

This resulted in a huge infusion of dollars to keep people from freezing to death, and a steady decline in the construction and repair of affordable housing.  The problem of homelessness no longer was an emergency that politicians set their hair on fire to address.  It became a routine to check people in every night, process their paperwork and have them wait in a bunk bed for a month, a year, a decade for the next available unit of affordable housing. Then it became to norm to have children skipping school because they lost their housing so we set up a program for homeless children. Every city started seeing people living in their cars, and that became a problem to overcome in the short term. Talented artists, teachers, athletes lined up for shelter and our community accepted that reality as well.  Tents popped up and instead of creating housing opportunities, cities answered with tickets and arrests.  The issue also fell off the Presidential docket except for some occasional volunteering at Thanksgiving or MLK Day.  Homelessness became routine; shelter became the response and housing grew increasingly out of reach.  

The United States is at the tail end of a crisis that caused thousands of deaths in the homeless community and did not discriminate based on your housing status or your income.  We need to come together to repair the social safety net and commit to never again keeping a segment of the population in an extended state of emergency.  The human body can only deal with so much stress; so much sleep deprivation; and only so much trauma. We have learned that stuffing as many people as possible into a gymnasium is not healthy and we know that periods of homelessness reduce the life expectancy of a segment of the population.  While the growth of shelter in the late 20th Century has saved the life of hundreds of thousands of people, it has also extended the time the average person spends without stability by months if not years.  

We need the President and Congressional leaders to regularly talk about homelessness again.  We need to get back to a time when the federal government takes the lead in providing a plan to house everyone residing in the United States.  We need to re-prioritize housing as a key piece of infrastructure in every community.  Here are some things the President could say during the State of the Union address to get back to a time when we prioritized housing for voters:

  • As I campaigned on, I want to see homelessness end in the United States. The first step down payment on that promise is universal access to a housing voucher coupled with a national prohibition on landlords not accepting the federal assistance program.  If you can’t afford housing, the federal government will provide a hand up to those struggling. 
  • With the Omicron variant on the rise in the United States, we need to recommit to safety protocols for those without safe, secure housing that offers privacy.  No city or local government should be engaged in any activities that disrupt those who are forced to live outside unless it is offering them a housing unit. Congregate shelters are not a safe alternative at this time until we have near universal vaccination rates. 
  • As we come out of the pandemic, dust ourselves off and put our minds to fixing all the holes left from this national emergency, one of the glaring issues is that the American system for meeting the emergency housing needs of the community does not work during a health emergency.  We need to completely re-think shelter in the United States and focus on healthy alternatives to meet the needs of those with long term chronic health conditions including behavioral health issues. 
  • Why does the federal government have multiple definitions for the word “homeless”?  This makes no sense and can be confusing the mom attempting to enroll her child in school and has to interact with multiple federal agencies all with a different definition of homelessness.  We need to adopt the Department of Education definition as the standard for all federal, state and local jurisdictions.  This is the easiest definition to understand and will make it a lot easier to provide services. 
  • The Housing First model is a proven success, and it needs to be adopted for every single individual seeking help with their lack of a safe place to sleep.  We should prioritize preventing homelessness with legal representation, rental assistance and mediation services.  If those fail, then how do we get the family back into housing within 24 hours of their seeking help?  This should be the standard and every community needs to construct systems to engage every level of government to make this a reality.  
  • The United States needs to value the work of every single citizen who puts in 40 hours of work so that they can afford at least a one bedroom apartment in every single community.  If a business cannot pay a living wage, then the government should provide a monthly tax credit to get the individual up to a living wage for their household.  The businesses not able to pay living wages should be asked to pay a higher tax rate to subsidize these lower wage workers.  
  • Healthcare should not be tied to a job because that disproportionately leaves out those in the service sector and those who change jobs frequently.  As I campaigned on, I want to expand Medicaid to include those who cannot find healthcare in the market.  We may not be able to move toward universal health care, but we should be taking steps toward that goal every year.  Coming out of a pandemic is the perfect time to move toward an expanded Medicaid program. 
  • If you cannot work because you are disabled in the United States that should not mean that you will live in poverty for the rest of your life.  We need to reform the disability assistance to encourage those who can contribute in a meaningful way have that opportunity, and not face penalty for receiving some limited income.  We also need to raise the standard of living of everyone on full disability so that their income translates into a living wage in the community in which they reside. 
  • Local jurisdictions are receiving millions of dollars from the federal government to serve those without housing and those with extremely low incomes, and they are turning around and harassing, arresting and threatening those very same people that the federal government is showering them with funding to serve.  This is hypocritical to take the assistance and then punish those individuals the city has pledged to help.  It stops now! If you want federal funds to feed, educate, house, and provide health care for, each city, county or local jurisdiction will have to certify that they are not using law enforcement as social workers to deal with behavioral health issues, homelessness, or poverty related complications.  

While this is broader than strictly a homeless issue, we would be negligent if we did not mention that you need to tell us how you are going to re-institute voter protections especially for those who move frequently because of poverty issues.  This is the most important issue to restore free and fair elections and remove all barriers to get every citizen to vote. We urge the President to address the path to passing the two voter protection laws that the House of Representatives already passed. 

The collapse of the Build Back Better shows that Congress is hopelessly broken and needs significant reform.  We need to tear down the current model for our democracy back to the studs and start over so that we can work together on a future national crisis and not have to lose 600,000 Americans unnecessarily.  We need to restore representative democratic principles to force more universal participation in governance.  We need to remove propaganda from tipping our governmental leaders to more authoritarian tendencies, and we need to protect a free and fair independent media.  National crisis such as the pandemic can destabilize a government and in the blink of an eye a “savior” can come to power and crush the opposition.   

National Coalition for the Homeless Opens First Field Office in Cleveland, OH

Written by Brian Davis on . Posted in Blog

The National Coalition for the Homeless officially opened the Cleveland Regional Field office on November 23 with a ribbon cutting and a forum on racial equity.  There was some confusion among local advocates about this office, and we wanted to clarify our goals and objectives since this is the first of five regional sites we intend to open. 

It is a natural fit for NCH to open our first office in Cleveland for a number of reasons.  The first is our long history of working with the local homeless Coalition and other advocacy groups in the area including the closed Cleveland Tenants Organization. NCH has strong ties to Ohio advocates across the state, including Bill Faith of COHHIO and Donald Whitehead (when he was in Cincinnati) both serving as Board Presidents. Currently, Cincinnati Coalition Director, Josh Springs is a board member, and Brian Davis, now on staff at NCH, served as Board Vice President when he was the local director of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless.  If we were going to pick one natural fit for NCH it would be either Cincinnati or Cleveland.  

Cleveland has a long history of creative and effective advocacy that were used as models for other communities in the struggle to reduce the number of homeless people. The Key vs. City of Cleveland federal court decision is one of the only federal lawsuits still in existence that protects those who stay outside from harassment by the police for sitting, sleeping, lying, or eating on the sidewalk.  The work protecting those who stayed outside during the 2016 Republican National Convention is used by other cities today when a special event comes to their town. The opening of the waiting list at CMHA to those experiencing homelessness and the attempts to deconcentrate poverty while preserving the overall number of public housing units was used by other cities as a model. Many cities are pushing for a Justice Department meeting with groups of homeless individuals while negotiating a consent decree with the police as Cleveland and Cincinnati both started years ago. The work with the local ACLU on various homeless issues in both Akron and Cleveland including the overturning of panhandling legislation has always been impressive. There are only 15 similar homeless led organizations like the Homeless Congress—a local group of homeless people who meet every month to push an advocacy agenda. One of the first six street newspapers in the country was started in Cleveland and continues to this day.  The outreach work of the local Coalition and getting individuals into hotels during the pandemic was impressive and life sustaining.  

In the long history of moving homeless legislation in Congress, Ohio has been critical to that success with Representatives like Dennis Kucinich, Stephanie Tubbs Jones, Senator Sherrod Brown and the current Secretary of HUD, Marcia Fudge, all championing the rights of people who experience homelessness. This office will be a regional office to attempt to bring current advocates together from throughout the region, to support and build stronger networks in places like Akron, Toledo and Dayton. Cleveland has a strong local commitment toward advocacy with the Poor People’s Campaign, the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, NAACP Cleveland Branch, Organize Ohio, the Homeless Congress, and the ACLU that we will continue to enhance their work.  We may be able to offer local groups input on national policies or figure out ways to influence change at the national level that benefits Cleveland, but our role will never duplicate or supplant local advocacy.  There is plenty of work to do locally with a continued rise in homelessness and the NCH field office intends to support local efforts already in place.  

The overarching goal of the regional offices is to mobilize people who experienced homeless and those currently experiencing homelessness to add their voices to an effort to create the structural changes necessary to end homeless.  Too often efforts to end homelessness fail because those efforts are conducted in silos.  The goal of Bring America Home Now is to raise the resources to the level of the needs of the people and not just to the level of need of the service sector.  There is far too much suffering for territorialism.  At NCH and through the BAHN campaign, it is our belief that the needs of the people must transcend the needs of the institutional interests.  

Cleveland has been among the top five cities for poverty for two decades now.  It is appropriate for NCH to have its first field office in one of the poorest cities in America, as so many living with low-incomes also struggle with housing stability.  The National Coalition began the process in December 2020 to open field offices, and we saw an opportunity when the previous director of NEOCH became available for our open position of Director of Grassroots Organizing.  Since we were all operating remotely, Brian Davis stayed in Cleveland to begin to make contacts out in the field.  He has regular contact with Coalitions throughout the United States especially in those communities where the rights of people who are unhoused are particularly under attack. NCH began identifying possible field sites in May 2021 with a plan for five regional sites in California, Texas or Atlanta, the Midwest, Florida and the Central Plains or Minnesota.  We announced these plans at our kickoff of the Bring America Home Now Campaign in June 2021, and promoted the idea on our website and in social media.  

Over the last year, Davis and NCH staff have been in discussion with the local Coalition and members of the Homeless Congress, collaborating on awareness events and NCH policy and organizing committees. Over the summer of 2021 NCH firmed up plans for a Cleveland regional office, reaching out to the local Coalition about collaborating. NCH staff have been meeting regularly with the leadership of the Homeless Congress, and Loh, a local advocate with homeless experience, has been on the agenda for, and participated in, several NCH online events. NCH will hope to meet with other local advocates to discuss our plans, including Organize Ohio and the local chapter of the NAACP.  We have made every effort to be transparent about our plans and goals. 

NCH’s field office in Cleveland is in no way meant to construct a new homeless advocacy organization or duplicate existing services and efforts.  We will be working with people who have experienced homelessness in the Cleveland area to setup an advisory group to provide input from those who are currently living without housing on federal policies with the CDC, HUD, and the Department of Justice. This is a natural step for a group founded on the principle of raising the voices of those without housing and being led by people who have experienced homelessness. We believe that those who have experienced homelessness have the expertise and knowledge of how we will ultimately end homelessness. We are excited to partner with advocates in Cleveland, and the larger region, to bring the ideas and direction of people who have been homeless into fruition, truly Bringing America Home and ending homelessness across the country.       

Statement against anti-camping ordinance in Kern County, CA

Written by Brian Davis on . Posted in Blog

California has been facing a homelessness crisis for years now, but that crisis is reaching new  heights in nearly every major city. As of January 2020, 72% of those without housing in  California are unsheltered. Now more than ever, investment in affordable housing is needed to  help people get off the streets. Instead Kern County has released a “comprehensive plan” that  makes it illegal to be without housing and neglects to provide safe, secure and private places to  re-establish stability while we move out of the pandemic. A “sanctioned encampment” or a  congregate living shelter is not a substitute for affordable housing. By violently disrupting  people’s lives through encampment sweeps that evict them from their tents and communities,  you are only prolonging a person’s homelessness because they are repeatedly starting over. In  keeping with CDC recommendations, the National Coalition for the Homeless strongly opposes  sweeps and displacement during a pandemic. We support utilization of the hotel program as an  alternative to expanding shelter or segregating homeless people into a section of town not of  their choice. A real plan does not involve sweeps of those without housing; it does not force  people into unsafe shelters; and it does not create a parking lot program or other places not  suitable for human habitation as a response. By moving people out of sight, you are only  exacerbating the problem and you will find that homelessness will only increase within Kern  County. 

On November 9, 2021, Kern County will hold a public hearing to discuss and potentially adopt  an anti-camping ordinance. This ordinance would outlaw camping on public land and make it  illegal to store belongings in public areas. By passing this ordinance, Kern County would  criminalize homelessness through fines and citations. While administrative citations may seem  trivial, fines serve as one more obstacle to survival among many, punishing people experiencing  homelessness simply for not having a house. This is cruel and unconscionable. Why fine people  for simply trying to survive? In addition to penalizing unhoused persons, this ordinance would  lead to a cycle of evictions for people experiencing homelessness as the county sweeps  encampments. Imagine being forced to pack up all your belongings over and over again or risk  everything you own being thrown away. These sweeps violently disrupt people’s lives and leave  them worse than before. People have lost their tents, beds, ID, medication, important documents,  and more as a result of street sweeps. This theft and destruction of people’s property alienates an already marginalized community and makes it that much harder to live. Rather than helping  those without housing, sweeps will actively harm them.  

Sweeps don’t solve the problem of homelessness; they only serve to push people out of  “desirable” or popular areas in the county. Rather than help connect people to housing and  outreach services, sweeps are an attempt to make the problem of homelessness invisible. If you can’t see people experiencing homelessness, it is much easier to ignore their existence.  Additionally, as unhoused persons are repeatedly evicted, they often lose trust in services  providers or become increasingly difficult for outreach teams to locate and help.  

Where do you expect people to go when you outlaw camping? No one forced your other  taxpayers where to live or in what section of town they were allowed to reside, but this is the  proposed policy to those who lost their housing. And while it may appear logical to expect  people experiencing homelessness to just go into shelters if they want to avoid fines, this ignores  the many reasons why people camp instead – people don’t choose to live outdoors on a whim.  People in shelters often face violence, stolen belongings, and poor living conditions. Not to  mention the serious risks during the coronavirus pandemic where shelters can put people’s health  in jeopardy and increase the spread of the virus due to large numbers of people sharing space  indoors.  

While this anti-camping ordinance would have terrible consequences if passed, the county has  also announced they will invest $8.3 million to create outreach teams for the homeless, with a  particular focus on mental health. This commitment is crucial for helping people experiencing  homelessness and deserves recognition. However, tying this funding to the anti-camping ordinance risks destroying the program’s positive impacts and harming the very community the  county is trying to help. 

So what can Kern County do to end homelessness? First, it cannot and should not try to  criminalize its way out of homelessness by banning camping. Instead, the county should invest in  affordable housing and outreach that can connect people to necessary housing with wrap around  services. The County should work to prevent any evictions that lead to homelessness. The county  must not sweep encampments to “clean” the streets, rather they should provide services such as  public toilets, showers, and trash receptacles to address cleanliness issues without evicting  people and throwing away all their possessions. Finally, they should listen to those struggling  with housing about their needs and not just the home owners who want to hide the problem.  

Passing this anti-camping ordinance will not reduce the number of homeless people in Kern County. If the county wants to truly end homelessness, they must vote against adopting this ordinance and instead listen to people with lived experience of homelessness to identify alternative solutions. Have you thought about sitting down with those who stay outside and ask  what they need to move inside? The county’s investment into building affordable housing,  improving access to mental health professionals, and substance abuse treatment will help save lives. Don’t undermine this work by criminalizing and punishing the homeless community for trying to survive.  

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