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From Congressional Staff to Bringing America Home NOW

Written by admin on . Posted in Blog

By Zach Bernstein

Joel Segal has spent the last several decades answering a question that plagues activist organizations while he worked on Capital Hill as well as out in the field—how do we get things done? His vast wealth of experience with outreach, activism, and policymaking at every level of government has allowed him to gain a thorough understanding of how to make change actually happen. Segal is a problem-solver, utilizing a systemic understanding of issues to craft policy solutions to resolve those problems with a conviction that we can overcome barriers facing the voters through collaboration and setting a goal to make change happen. Segal was recently hired to take on the campaign of the National Coalition for the Homeless “Bring America Home Now“—a comprehensive strategy to end homelessness in the United States. 

Show them how to solve it, and how to pay for it,” he said. “Get experts together and write bills—but do it with the people impacted. Then you’ve got to pass the bill.” Segal’s intense focus on helping those experiencing oppression is what sets him apart from most other policymakers in DC. “We can’t dance around be nice to the system,” he said. “You’ve got to shine a big mirror, show them this is what you’re doing to people.” Making people aware of the struggles of others and amplifying the voices of the oppressed is a major part of Segal’s strategy, one which lends itself to a model of social justice which is intent on making things happen.

One of Segal’s major achievements has been as a pioneer of the universal healthcare movement and as a co-writer of the original Medicare for All Bill as a staffer for Rep. John Conyers, introduced in Congress in 2003. Segal’s fight for Medicare for All began when he was kicked out of George Washington University Hospital for being uninsured. After the experience he promised himself he would start a universal healthcare movement—and he did just that. He began by meeting and getting to know other uninsured people online, then he began attending meetings of the Gray Panthers, an activist group, with whom he discussed the possibility of fighting for universal healthcare. He started holding town hall meetings on the issue, and eventually launched his campaign with a speech on the steps of the Capitol with Rep. Barney Frank and then-Rep. Bernie Sanders. 

Four weeks later, Segal was hired to the staff of Rep. Conyers, with whom he traveled to congressional districts around the country, holding town halls to promote the cause of universal healthcare. He brought together people who were uninsured, activists, and members of Congress. Segal firmly believes in the power of town hall meetings—they “take the emotion and anger and frustration, and bring it right to the doorstep of elected officials and civil society leaders,” he says. More importantly, town halls transform people’s feelings. “People aren’t going to talk to homeless people,” he remarked. “You have to bring the pain and suffering to them.” Segal also advocated for a systemic approach: “Always try to show how structural deficits create an amazing amount of trauma and pain that is immoral. Just because you have a system that’s in place doesn’t mean that it’s a moral system.” 

The next step is to organize around policies, says Segal. Mobilize in the streets, and then pass reforms, he says. Segal is insistent that legislation should be the most important goal of the movement, saying that while suburban activists may deny the importance of policy, legislation has the power to make a real difference to the lives of people living in shelters or on the street. Always tie your activism to legislation, always march with a purpose, he said. That’s how you create a movement.

Segal centers his activism around building passionate communities. In order to build a movement, “you’ve got to find the right people,” he believes. Building communities and families with similar interests, compassionate hearts and sometimes a little humor is the key to successful organizing. Segal cites his Jewish heritage and upbringing as a major inspiration for this philosophy. For thousands of years, he explained, the Jewish people survived by laughing, by caring for each other, and by enjoying life—even in the face of great adversity. This is the sort of community Segal seeks to emulate in the movements he creates. “You don’t build a community by being corporate,” he said. Building a community by fashioning relationships with one another is how you create a successful movement. And, he pointed out, by building those relationships, people who aren’t necessarily invested in the specific issue will offer support if they like the person pitching their support and if they have developed a connection. 

But it’s not always such smooth sailing for Segal—he is as aware as anyone that the work of an activist can be discouraging. But, he said, “righteous indignation will keep you going.” He recalled some work he did in Congress, when he and others plastered the halls with a laminated picture of an uninsured family. That’s what keeps him going, Segal reflected. There are poor people, sick people, and seniors in this country with no rights to healthcare or housing—“and those are things they can’t live without,” he said. “We’re the richest country in the world, so we’ve got to figure this out.” “Go where the pain is, keep with those people, walk with them,” he said. Doing that, seeing and understanding the hardships they are going through, should get you through any discouragement.

It’s important to Segal that he always walks with the people he’s trying to help, never above them. He always is sure to organize “the people at the tip of the oppression” first in order to build communities based on love and care. In one story he told, Segal started up an emergency winter shelter by taking over a park with about 120 people from a shelter, promising the people living in tents they wouldn’t be left out in the cold. The key, Segal recalled, was going directly to the people in the tents and teaching them how to organize, how to do TV interviews and other such skills. Segal is well-practiced in building bridges, especially with people with whom he, or the organization he is working with, might have little in common. “Respect the person when you first meet them and ask them what they are working on,” he said. The most important thing, he advised, is to ensure “everyone benefits from the work you are doing. That’s how you build a coalition.”  He will work to organize diverse communities to put in place legislation that fundamentally changes the injustice that every unhoused person in America understands and has to overcome with BAHN.

“The problem with this country is we evolved into a Reagan nation,” Segal said—a nation where you look out for yourself and no one else. “How do we get people to care about each other again?” Segal wondered. “How do we get that back, just caring about each other?” That, Segal emphasized, is the crucial work of any activist but especially those working on behalf of a traditionally marginalized group. Not only must we fight for our political goals, but to do that we need to build coalitions, build power and in the end build families. By creating families of people dedicated to a cause, we can get things done. We can bring the pain of the people to the doorsteps of the powerful; we can get people to understand that pain; and most importantly we can write bills and pass laws to alleviate that suffering. Segal firmly believes that we can make the world a better place by working with one another. “There’s nothing more powerful than caring about each other,” he said as he begins his journey to Bring America Home. 

Taking Fire From All Sides

Written by Brian Davis on . Posted in Blog

The picture is of a dumpster corral in Des Moines Iowa near one of the universities in a suburban community and the home to a gentleman who could not find housing.  Not the kind of neighborhood most people would think of a man experiencing homeless squatting in a dumpster corral.  Homeless outreach has already been out and the individual is a veteran, but resistant to services.  There are mental health issues, and he does not want to leave. 

Working to reduce poverty is one of the hardest jobs in the United States, and in communities that add politics and culture war obstacles to the mix makes the job nearly impossible. That is the best summary of doing social justice work to eliminate poverty in Iowa.  A community organizer (or the less political charged word of advocate) has to overcome the difficulties of working to build a community that are all heading in the same direction, but then there are these unbelievably backward state government in Des Moines who only seem to add roadblocks.  Two recent example of unnecessary roadblocks and frankly just stupidity is the signing into law a bill that ended the ability for a local community to pass laws preventing discriminatory advertising and the cancellation of extended unemployment while we are still suffering the effects of a pandemic.  

Three larger communities passed laws consistent with the Fair Housing Act that prevented landlords from using the phrase “No Section 8” or more accurately “No Housing Choice Voucher holders accepted” in their advertising for potential renters. It is an attack on home rule in the three communities who had previously passed a ban on landlords using the racist “No Section 8” language in their advertising.  The law is racist because it stigmatizes those with low incomes from certain housing, and minority populations are disproportionately low income when measured against the total population.  The other extremely harmful government action is the cancelling of federal extended unemployment early as passed by the American Rescue Act in March 2021. Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds has decided, without any factual data, that generous unemployment benefits are keeping her constituents from seeking gainful employment.  She has cut off the federal additional unemployment compensation in June while half of the surrounding states will receive those funds through September.  The New York Times reviewed data from Missouri and found that ending unemployment early does not lead to large scale returns to low wage jobs.

There are so many strategies to reduce poverty including expanding public benefits or providing a universal basic wage or a negative earned income tax credit or adding entitlements, and it takes all ones energy to get community leaders and those living in poverty to focus on any strategy.  Then to have government show up and additional barriers to the struggle like racist policies or fact-free policy decision or government acting as unforgiving punisher for bad behavior just makes the job of working on solutions that much more difficult.   It is taxing to have to fight for justice against what seems like the whole world.  It is tough to organize people who are struggling with basic life sustaining functions like housing, food and sleep while the government is passing laws or changing policy that harms low income people. Then getting everyone on the same page for a goal, only to find out that there is an even bigger struggle against government officials operating in an unscientific and damaging manner can seem like the advocates are taking fire from all sides.  These are intelligent well educated people who are acting purely out of self-interest to reinforce and amplify fears that exist in society.  The only reason for acting against the interest of your own citizens is to appeal to a fringe element of the voters who come out for a primary.  They seem to have no concern for the good of the community or the majority of the population who either do not vote or voted for the other side.  Every day is trench warfare sticking it to the other side when it is often hard to figure out friend or foe. 

Everyone knows that landlords use the “No Section 8” phrase to discriminate against potential tenants. Source of income discrimination strikes at the heart of the Fair Housing Act, and will surely draw lawsuits from the fair housing community and hopefully from the federal government.  What possible justification can someone have for rejecting a federal housing program? In fact, many landlords are thanking their stars that they have a tenant with a guaranteed source of rent during a pandemic.  There are so many who lost their jobs and cannot afford the rent. They cannot be evicted due to CDC guidance and common sense.  The Section 8 landlords receives the federal portion of the rent like clockwork at the beginning of every month no matter what the state of the economy, and if the tenant loses their job the landlord gets more of the rent from the feds.

The extended unemployment is entirely paid by the American Rescue Act out of federal coffers so why is Iowa and 24 other state officials rejecting these funds? How are Iowans going to feel when their neighbors in surrounding states will still be eligible for extended unemployment but because of a decision by a group of vindictive governors they will not get those added benefits?  How will the worker who specialized in event planning or a travel related business and saw their business disappear last year feel when their governor decided that they do not deserve extended federal unemployment because they have not found a job yet? The pandemic is not over and only 43.7% of the residents of Iowa are fully vaccinated causing many to fear for their safety if they return to work, which dropped 32% over the last few weeks. It does not help the 30,000 Iowans currently unemployed and the thousands of others who have given up finding work to say that unemployment is “low.” Studies have shown that being on unemployment assistance does not discourage work and even encourages people to take jobs that pay less than they received in the past.  

Other stupid examples of government acting against its own taxpayers in Iowa include the new voting restrictions signed into law by Governor Kim Reynolds which shortens the early voting period for Iowa and the sudden dropping of COVID restrictions in early February well before the rests of the country.  Reynolds never acted in a leadership capacity against COVID which placed Iowa regularly in the top 20 states with regard to cases and deaths when adjusted for population.  This February the dropping of all COVID restrictions took everyone by surprise especially those serving the elderly and fragile populations like homeless people because it came without much guidance or planning. Early February was well before most of the population even the frail were even offered a vaccine.  The state also adopted something called “Constitutional carry” which eliminated most restrictions on carrying a concealed weapon. This of course is exactly what we need in the middle of a pandemic, while there is a near total shut down of the mental health system and the economy teetering is the best time ever to allow concealed firearms. Iowa elected officials decided this was the perfect time to allow a bunch of masked people suffering PTSD from the horrific last year to freely carry weapons in their coats with bank tellers and 7-Eleven clerks worried what they will face at work everyday.

So maybe they have run out of things to govern because Iowa is a hidden oasis of rainbows and peaceful co-existence. It might be exactly like the Field of Dreams and people are flocking there from miles around because they “built it” (whatever that means). Well, 11.2% of the population lives below the poverty level and none of the bills passed or restrictions removed are going to help the impoverished. There are still people sleeping rough in tents in the larger metropolitan areas and they are not doing that willingly in order to be first in line for the limited seating ball park to watch the ghosts playing baseball.  Iowa has a relatively low unemployment rate, but the pandemic did expose the horrible working conditions in Iowa for the meat processing plant workers.  Still no legislation improving the working conditions in one of Iowa’s largest industries. There are still around 150,000 Iowans without health insurance or about 4.7% of the population, and one in four women in Iowa are previous victim of domestic violence.  So it seems like there are plenty of problems to address while the legislature and executive branch are distracted with solving problems that do not exist.  

There Are Some Good Ideas Coming Out of Iowa

One of the advancements in Iowa that could be replicated throughout the United States is their policies and practices in Des Moines around getting the long term homeless into housing and keeping them there.  The Department of Housing and Urban Development has over the last 12 years forced the local communities to go to a Central Intake model and prioritize those who have many barriers to housing.  They have focused resources on Permanent Supportive Housing which in many communities is neither permanent nor in many communities is it supportive.  There is very little guidance on how to make these programs successful and not turn into a revolving door for the most difficult to serve.  Some communities have constructed housing blacklists of people who they evicted and have no possibility of returning to supportive housing or they make the screening criteria so difficult that Dick Van Dyke and Michelle Obama are pretty much the only people who qualify.  Des Moines has completely revamped its system to strip away all barriers to entry into their housing with services programs.   Any program that wants public, and some private, funding must agree to accept clients only through the centralized intake.

The most important innovation is the desire to keep people in the housing so they do not show back up in the system a couple of months down the line.  The Continuum of Care wants to significantly reduce evictions and the quiet eviction of just forcing residents to leave these programs.  They have worked with all the groups to go through a restorative justice type approach to infractions of the rules.  Instead of using the codes of conduct included in leases as a way to discharge someone from housing, they work with the individual to show them the consequences of their actions. Programs are required to have operating policies that recognize relapse is part of recovery and cannot make the punishment for working through the behavioral health issues associated with addiction being forced to live on the streets for a time. Des Moines continuum has put in place a policy that requires providers to allow a household facing expulsion from the housing program to appeal the decision to someone other than their case manager.  It is meant to be such a high bar that very few providers will option for that course of action, and it has been remarkably successful. Anawim Housing, the continuum’s permanent supportive housing provider, incorporates into their appeal process a volunteer moderator from outside the agency.  They use the appeal process as an opportunity to “reset” not to evict. They also bring together on a weekly basis, the program residents to learn from each other.  For example, they show that having a guest over has an impact with noise and other problems for their immediate next door neighbor. They are one of the few communities to dramatically reduce the recidivism rate among those who have long histories of homelessness.  

It takes a toll on an advocate’s mental well-being when they work every day to try to provide a hand up to those struggling in a conservative state and there is someone from government working to beat people with a stick.  At the end of the day, this only creates new avenues for people to fall further away from the American dream. It is tough going to into the ornate state capitals to talk about solutions to poverty and all the person across the table wants to talk about is punishing people for bad behavior.   When did solving problems drop out of the description of any legislator and instead they are solely focused on raising campaign dollars? What are they campaigning for except to keep a job?  It is sad when an advocate puts in long hours getting proof of housing to funders and they meet with an elected official who have these glazed look in their eyes when as the advocates begin talking about housing or poverty.  They seem to be responsive to those who can deliver campaign cash and everyone else is just there for the show. It just makes the advocate feel like they are taking fire from all sides and have a mountain to overcome. 

No Return to Large Congregate Shelters in America

Written by Brian Davis on . Posted in Action Alert

National Coalition for the Homeless Action Alert
Date: April 15, 2021
WHO: Local Continuum of Care Collaborative, Balance of State Coordinators, and HUD officials
WHAT: No Return to Large Congregate Shelters in America

As we come out of the pandemic and the emergency protocols put in place, we need to learn from our past as we rebuild the system for a homeless safety net.  The virus has devastated our community with job losses, evictions, outbreaks and loss of life.  It has also provided an opportunity to start over and learn from our mistakes of the past.  We cannot provide the least expensive large congregate shelters as the only choice for housing in a community.  With so many under threat of eviction, we need to implement bold plans to avoid a second national disaster of a wave of homelessness.  The hotel/motel program was a success in many cities and provided a dignified platform to begin building trust and finding long term alternatives.  The National Coalition for the Homeless is calling on all advocates to push for creating alternatives to large shelters that often strip people of their dignity.  

There are millions of dollars coming into the community provided by the American Rescue Plan, and the local community will need to implement plans to prevent evictions and provide housing to all those in need.  NCH is asking that the 2020 health crisis prompt a larger look at shelters and housing for those experiencing homelessness to transform them back to short emergency services and not long term housing solutions.  We hope that you will look at the entire system to make dramatic changes so that anyone entering the shelter system is brief and provides a path back to housing. NCH is urging that we offer people assistance tailored to their needs and no longer force them to bend to the one size fits all approach of the past.  The most important recommendation is to end the gymnasium size congregate living shelters without privacy and with all the problems that occur when we stuff too many people into a confined space. 

Other recommendations for local or state Continuum of Care Committees:

  • Build into the contacts an incentive system to move people into housing within 30 days of presenting.
  • Limit intake restrictions so that the process is simple and speedy without barriers to access or a long questionnaire that includes a detailed history, and there should be many points of access.
  • Work with local advocates to implement a city wide ban on government funded institutions discharging anyone into a shelter. 
  • Increase all local housing subsidies so that the family/individual can afford housing at the market rate and not be stuck in housing that pays the landlord less than market rates. 
  • Reduce hostile discharges from the smaller shelter system.  The discharge policies for homeless social services should be focused on restorative justice model and not a punitive system that results in a high number of evictions.  Force a high bar with much bureaucracy and greater transparency with the goal of moving people into a better situation instead of so many lateral moves or discharges onto the streets. 
  • Work with local groups with leaders who have experienced homelessness to collect and report feedback from those using the homeless social service that would result in meaningful oversight. We are not asking for token input of 1 or 2 homeless individuals but real empowerment of leadership groups to provide real involvement by those who have experienced homelessness. This entity needs to be staffed by those who have experienced homelessness and supported by public funding.  This so called “homeless ombudsman’s office” should be visible within the social service system to accept complaints and have the authority to act on those complaints.  
  • A comprehensive review of all agencies policies and procedures to assure that there are tough standards against harassment of clients or staff.  There are good models available and every social service provider should have strong policies with clear consequences for those who violate these standards. No need to contract with a consultant.  We are asking for common sense protections to be put in place for every group receiving public money.
  • A new project to hire currently homeless individuals as so called “mystery shoppers” to report directly back to the Continuum boards on the facilities and care that residents or clients are receiving. 
  • Once a problem is discovered there is due process for the agency, but the investigation and adjudication must be swift and consequential.  We believe these new policies should be published and that complaint process be transparent with the specific names withheld but all other information be released to the public. 
  • Again work with grassroots leadership development groups such as the Homeless Unions or those homeless led groups to provide current and formerly homeless individuals a meaningful role in deciding on local priorities for funding. These community leaders with lived experience should be consulted on how resources are divided within the community.  They should have a bigger role than the other communities of interest such as other homeless service providers, government or housing providers. It is our experience that when consulting people who have utilized the shelter system, the reliance on congregate living facilities is greatly reduced.  No one wants to have to sleep on a cot in a gymnasium without privacy because it only adds to the trauma of homelessness and strips a person of their dignity. 
  • NCH always recommends the importance of peer networks to ending homelessness.  We believe that for a large metropolitan area there should be a safe place for people currently experiencing homelessness can go to learn from those who lived through the trauma of homelessness.  We believe that there is no greater use of public resources than a mentoring network of trained individuals with lived experience who can help people who have recently lost their housing navigate the complicated system and can help to avoid the pitfalls or dead ends that often slow a person’s ability to find stability.  

Planning is already underway. Make your voice heard that Big Shelters with endless rows of bunk beds are fine for military boot camps, but we are the most advanced society on the planet and need to treat those living within our borders with dignity and respect.  Large congregate living shelters did not work and we should never go back to those days of addressing homelessness.  Let us know if you find success with this message in your local community.

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