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Exposure: COVID and the long, cold winter of the American homeless

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 29/04/2022 - 1:49pm in

On a frozen winter night in a northeastern state of the United States in February 2020, four people nestled into a tent they had set up in the shrubbery behind an isolated retail building and went to sleep. They never woke up.

Their bodies were found a day or so later when friends who could not get in contact with them began to fear the worst. The gas from a propane heater they had relied on to keep warm in sub-zero temperatures had leaked overnight, creating a deadly blanket of carbon monoxide gas that had suffocated them slowly while they slept.

A few days later, the bodies and the tent had been removed, but the remnants of the homeless camp remained. Chairs were still set up around the ashes of a dug-out firepit. Empty food wrappers and beer cans were scattered to one side. A makeshift shrine had been set up to honour the dead: a rough-hewn wooden cross dug into the earth, strewn with beads and photographs, small bottles of liquor at its base. I did not know the dead intimately, but I had met them a few times at one of the local services for homeless people that I frequented as part of my work as an anthropologist. I visited the site with a friend to pay our respects, and we talked for a while with one of the other mourners who had gathered there. His eyes were bleary from crying and drinking, as he whispered in shock, ‘They were just tryna keep warm’.

A month later, in those precious early days of March 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic had been declared a public emergency, I sat and talked with another of my contacts experiencing long-term homelessness, who I will call John. We were catching up in a day shelter, a service that provides temporary refuge to people experiencing housing insecurity. Open for specific hours of the day, these services combine temporary shelter with access to resources, including hot meals, ‘go’ bags containing transportable packaged food, hygiene items, and casework support.

Although some people came to the day shelter when they were on the precipice of eviction to seek emergency assistance, most of the ‘regulars’ were experiencing what is defined by the US Housing and Urban Development [HUD] agency as ‘chronic homelessness’, which describes the plight of a person who has been without shelter for at least a year, or cyclically over four years. The HUD definition emphasises that people experiencing chronic homelessness often have other debilitating conditions, such as serious mental illness or substance-use disorders. The irony is that most of the housing assistance available in the northeast of the United States excludes those with active dependency disorders, and mandates that those receiving assistance participate in self-sufficiency programs, which people experiencing or recovering from those conditions often struggle to complete. The result is that some of the most vulnerable people in US society are those most likely to be navigating chronic homelessness.

Since most of the regulars attending the day shelter were disqualified for one reason or another from receiving housing assistance, they mostly came for a few hours of respite from the elements, some warm food, and to socialise with other people in situations resembling their own. They were not aiming to resolve their situation, only to survive it.

Although the early-spring air on this day was still bitter with cold, the mood inside the shelter was frenetic as most of us scrambled to discuss the news that had been slowly building over recent weeks: the news of a virus that was spreading worldwide, the coronavirus, or what would eventually become known as COVID-19. John, sitting beside me, ignored the topic until I directly asked him whether he was worried about the virus. At that time, no cases had been reported in our state, yet increasingly it seemed it was only a matter of time. In fact, the first two cases in our state were announced that afternoon.

John chuckled in response to my question, and clandestinely pulled open one side of his black leather jacket and pointed at a small pocket in the lining. There, I saw a small bottle of clear liquor. ‘Why would I worry about getting sick?’, he explained, grinning slyly. ‘I’m already dead.’

I asked John what he meant. His eyes narrowed cynically and with a sweeping movement of his arm he gestured towards himself and the people around the room where we were sitting. ‘Do you think any of us have any real life? Sleeping outside on stoops and sidewalks? Hiding at night? Ain’t no virus gonna kill me more than all that does every single day.’

Many of us have felt the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak most directly in terms of the biopolitical response of our governments. In an attempt to limit the spread of the virus, governments around the world have imposed various limits on public interaction that have disrupted everyday life for many—forcing people to work from home, children to attend virtual learning, and populations that once enjoyed relative freedom of movement to be simultaneously kept in and kept out by geopolitical borders. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, governments and individuals alike have put significant energy into managing one thing: exposure.

But what John’s perspective on the relativity of exposure and the risks he and other unhoused people navigate daily focuses attention not specifically on the biopolitics of pandemic management but rather the more persistent necropolitics of societal organisation. If biopolitics is power that is realised through the organisation of how people live, then necropolitical power is realised through dictating the limits of who gets to live and who dies. As Achille Mbembe writes, necropolitics are those that consider ‘under what practical conditions is the right to kill, to allow to live, or to expose to death exercised’. Exposure to conditions that produce premature death is not evenly distributed, and the chronically homeless are exposed to myriad threats to health and safety, even without a global pandemic. They are trying to avoid life-threatening bacterial infections from wearing unwashed socks and underwear day after day. They are trying to avoid being detected when they sleep in public lest they become the target of assault. They are ‘just tryna keep warm’—or cool—against the elements. That it was a propane heater that took more lives of the unhoused people I knew in 2020 than the rampant COVID-19 virus alerts us to the cruel necropolitics of exposure.

While the biopolitics of the pandemic disrupted and rearranged the lives of people worldwide as governments attempted to mitigate exposure to the virus, those whose lives were already exposed to death simply incorporated this new risk into the layers they already had to manage as part of daily life. The biopolitical management of the pandemic was felt most acutely by those for whom relative security was already assumed. For people like John, however, who exist in the nebulous space of social abandonment in which they are ‘already dead’, COVID-19 was first interpreted as just another layer of insecurity in a life already exposed to so many vectors of risk, not as a force of rupture.

That was until the situation of unsheltered people emerged as a focal point of pandemic management. No longer simply embodying individualised risk, unhoused people themselves came to be seen as significantly at risk of COVID-19 infection and, as a result, a significant potential source of public exposure.

The price of freedom

In the United States, the breathtaking spread of the virus in 2020 paralleled the rising political tensions leading up to the presidential election held that same year. The virus—and the methods introduced to limit exposure, such as social distancing and mask mandates—became heavily politicised; framed in conservative media discourses less in terms of public health risk and more in terms of an assault on American values of freedom. From the beginning, infection-mitigation efforts were delegated to the discretion of local officials, except in cases where soaring infection numbers forced state leaders to declare a ‘state of emergency’. But even when state mask mandates were in place, these were rarely enforced, and by the middle of 2020 in many parts of the United States it felt as if life were continuing as normal, even as hospitals overflowed with COVID-19 patients.

By the autumn of 2020 in the town where I was living, primary and secondary schools resumed face-to-face classes and by the autumn of 2021 even the mask mandate in schools was lifted, with no vaccine requirement for either students or staff in that state, just as the Delta variant swept across the country. While these kinds of COVID-19 mitigation policies varied in restrictiveness from state to state and locality to locality, ultimately it seemed as if there were one overriding strategy for collectively managing exposure to the virus: personal responsibility. The outcome has been catastrophic. As I write, the death toll from COVID-19 in the United States stands at over 850,000 people. Hundreds of thousands more have been debilitated by the virus, with long-term health and economic effects in a country where access to healthcare is exclusionary and expensive. The organising logic of life in the United States is now, as it long has been, ‘live freely, but at your own risk’.

Except that the relative freedoms of personal responsibility during the pandemic were primarily enjoyed by populations whose freedom was already assumed: namely, the mostly white and middle- to upper-income households, many of whom were working in white-collar industries that could transition to work-from-home settings for the protection of employees. The demand to resume a ‘normal’ lifestyle—that is, one revolving around public-facing consumption activities—was most vocally driven by these populations, whose racial and class privileges also worked to shield them from bearing most of the risk of resuming normality in the midst of a deadly pandemic.

For those who have historically had their freedom limited and constrained, the demand for resuming the freedoms of pre-pandemic life meant, conversely, an active threat to their own lives and well-being, since so much of the workforce called upon to do the retail, service, agricultural and logistics work necessary to maintain public consumption is disproportionately made up of people from low-income households, and with immigrant backgrounds, or people of colour more generally. With so much low-income service work re-classified as ‘essential’, many people from these backgrounds had few or no options to quit those jobs with highest exposure to the virus. With unemployment benefits only being available to those furloughed or laid off—even under the CARES Act, a policy introduced by the federal government to bolster unemployment accessibility—most of those whose ‘essential’ work put them into direct contact with the public could not voluntarily leave their job, else they would be ineligible for unemployment benefits and, essentially, living without income. The freedom they had to contend with was the ‘choice’ of whether to expose themselves to a deadly virus to pay the rent, or limit exposure but risk being unable to pay the rent.

While in the United States the collective management of COVID-19 exposure was mostly relegated to personal responsibility to preserve the ‘freedoms’ of the dominant classes, there was another group of people whose experiences were almost the direct inverse. Far from having their freedoms pandered to during the pandemic, people experiencing chronic homelessness ironically found themselves in the position of having their lives become a site of increased intervention, control and containment.

Restrictions and interventions are not new for people in situations of chronic homelessness who primarily sleep unsheltered. ‘Private’ space, their personal lives are carefully navigated within the less noticeable cracks of public space. Restrictions on public behaviour and the constant threat of policing dictate the decisions that unhoused people must make as to where to sleep without disturbance, where to seek water, bathroom and washing facilities, and overall how not to draw undue attention to oneself. When the call to ‘shelter-in-place’ early in the pandemic put the situation of chronic homelessness under the spotlight for state policy-makers, the response was to introduce new forms of homelessness management that sought to prevent exposure, even though the homeless had been managing exposure to other life-threatening insecurities—weather, bacteria, assaults—long before the pandemic.

*                                            *                                          *

It was almost a year after the first cases had been detected in the United States before I was able to reconnect with the ‘regulars’ I knew from the day shelter. I had attempted to keep in contact by phone and email in those early months of the pandemic, but without people’s usual access to libraries and cafes for public internet, and phones often getting misplaced, my contact with them was sporadic and vague. It was not until I got back to the day shelter in person that I was able to really catch up on their experiences. I was terrified about what I would learn. Was everyone okay? Had everyone ‘made it’?

It felt uncanny when I returned to the shelter to find that, aside from its physical location shifting from indoors to a better ventilated outdoor space, life pretty much resembled what it had been pre-pandemic. Food was still being served, only now in individually wrapped packages, and casework services were still being offered, only now through individual appointments, with everyone required to be masked. Outside the building, I found a group of people I had not seen since the start of the pandemic, including John, sitting together on a park bench.

I was surprised, and thankful, to learn from them that no one had been infected by the virus, and that most knew this for certain because they had been getting tested regularly through a free service. What was even more surprising, however, was that some of the regulars had been moved out of their encampments and placed into medium-term accommodation in a hotel. With the travel industry decimated by the pandemic, and conventional homeless night shelters operating at half capacity, the number of people needing access to emergency housing had increased and hotels were looking for occupants. In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and homelessness advocacy groups recognised that traditional night shelters were particularly risky in terms of exposure to COVID-19. As a result, local government had partnered with one of the dormant hotels to set up an emergency housing option for those sleeping unsheltered—a site where they could be isolated within individual hotel rooms rather than congregating in public. Billed as a protective measure to prevent homeless people being exposed to the virus, the experience of staying in the hotel felt less caring for some of those who took up the opportunity.

‘John’s been living it up in the Marriot’, someone joked, while jostling John, who glared back. ‘Well, only for one night!’, someone else chuckled, as the whole story was eventually revealed. John had been invited to move in by the social workers overseeing the hotel program because of his increased risk of complications from COVID-19 infection. He was over 60 and had underlying health problems. But John had been unceremoniously kicked out after staying only one night, after a random room search by a hotel attendant revealed a bottle of alcohol in John’s room. He was asked to leave, and even when a social worker tried to convince him to return some time after, John told them that he wouldn’t. He didn’t think the intrusion on his privacy was worth it, an irony I found troubling given his alternative sleeping arrangement was a sleeping bag in a public park.

On the face of it, an initiative to house the unsheltered in a hotel sounds like a positive move to protect people experiencing housing insecurity. But, as they were to find out, this kind of care was conditional, requiring them to submit to strict curfews, limits on socialising, bag and pocket searches, random room checks and other kinds of behaviour monitoring. The initiative to provide shelter to the unhoused relied on patronising and humiliating them into compliance. Many, like John, chose to expose themselves to the virus and the other dangers of sleeping unsheltered rather than submit to those conditions.

But, John told me, the pressure to re-engage with the hotel and the social workers overseeing the program throughout the pandemic was overwhelming. Not only did social workers from other services, like the day shelter, frequently push him to return but also, since the pandemic, street policing for vagrancy had increased. Previously he and others had been treated as a public nuisance; now they were being treated as a threat to public health. John, immensely frustrated, had been picked up for criminal trespassing in the past month while other ‘normal’ people were openly flouting mask mandates and social-distancing rules in public without any repercussions. ‘It’s the same ol’ shit’, he told me.

John’s experiences suggest that more than just public health was at stake in these arrangements. Framed as a source of public contagion, unsheltered sleepers were increasingly subjected to forms of surveillance and policing that produced new forms of risk and trauma. The biopolitics of pandemic management and the necropolitics of exposure rendered homeless people objects of societal care and attention only when their bodies had the potential to threaten and pose a risk to others.

The irony of a global pandemic bringing attention and solutions—no matter how grim—to their need for shelter was not lost on the chronically homeless, who commented to me more than once that they could have used the hotel room twelve months ago before the deadly virus was detected. Emergency housing—which was otherwise touted as a scarce resource for homeless populations—was made available with comical rapidity when their lifestyle posed a risk to the public and not just themselves.

‘Funny…’, John noted, ‘how they can find a place for us when they are really trying, but the rest of the time—nothing!’ The people in our conversation laughed, but the laughter had a bitter edge. 

The frontlines

With the spread of the virus and attempts to prevent exposure to it disrupting so many aspects of normal societal function worldwide, many of us have understandably taken to narrating our experiences and understanding of the pandemic in terms of its exceptionality: as an event or crisis that has suspended normality. We reel from and attempt to reckon with that rupture in and across our personal and work lives. What the alternative experiences of the homeless demand from us, however, is recognition of the many ways the workings of ‘normal’ life are actually perverse. What truly differentiates ‘normal’ life from the exceptional life of the pandemic, with its risk of illness, lockdowns and mandates, is who is exposed to those risks by circumstance rather than choice.

Returning to the frame of necropolitics is helpful when attempting to make sense of these differential gradients of exposure, and the societal structures that situate people within them. War is one of the key examples that Mbembe draws on to theorise necropolitics. War suspends normal prohibitions on violence and harm, designating ‘enemies’ and granting permission to maim, even kill, them without repercussion. But the intention of the necropolitical order is not always so overt. More generally, it is, as Mbembe writes,  ‘the capacity to define who matters and who does not, who is disposable and who is not’. Citing examples of plantation slavery and apartheid South Africa, Mbembe points out that the power of necropolitics is not so much about the intentional or direct murder of individuals as about the ways that certain kinds of bodies, certain kinds of people, are exposed to death. 

That the response to the pandemic has frequently been described, globally and nationally, as a ‘battle’ and a ‘fight’—the virus is something that needs to be ‘combatted’—alerts us to how the pandemic response relies on a necropolitics. If COVID-19 is a battle, then at some point it needs to be fought, and lives will be sacrificed. ‘Effective’ management of the pandemic is already being read not only in terms of statistics and recorded deaths, but also according to what kinds of people these statistics are formed from: ‘underlying conditions’ or ‘dying with’—rather than ‘from’—COVID-19 has already begun to temper how deaths related to the virus are calculated. As more countries and states move from advising their publics to limit exposure to advising them to manage their exposure, the calculation of life has already begun spinning, prioritising freedoms for some (and economic ‘recovery’) over the potential deaths of those who are vulnerable to complications from the virus. To the horror of disability advocates, stratifications of life are coming to justify risk of exposure. If those risking death are primarily the elderly and those with underlying health conditions (which are often reduced in public media commentary to so-called lifestyle conditions, such as obesity, type-II diabetes, and others), then the pandemic is being ‘effectively’ managed. What does that say about the value of those lives?

The language of war was mobilised early in the pandemic in the United States to legitimise and naturalise a necropolitics. Those same disproportionately low-income and Black and Brown workers who were being mandated to return to ‘essential’ work during the worst peaks of the pandemic had their forced exposure to illness diminished by politicians who clamored to thank them for ‘their service’ as ‘heroes’ on the ‘frontlines’ of the pandemic—the same language used to describe military veterans—as if they had been deployed to a war zone.

When essential workers did get sick, as so many inevitably did, the repercussions were disastrous. With many low-income jobs failing to provide workers with insurance, treatment for COVID-19 became its own economic catastrophe. Those with the added misfortune of experiencing long-COVID symptoms would then have to try to navigate applying for their debilitation to be recognised as a form of disability through an arduous bureaucratic process that relies, ultimately, on discretionary evaluations. Significant evidence suggests that the disproportionate number of COVID-19 deaths of people of colour in the United States is linked to their higher representation in occupations that were classified as ‘essential’ during the pandemic.

Here again we see the co-productive workings of biopolitics and necropolitics, with the resumption of normality for some being paid for with the lives of those who are forced to a ‘frontline’ that exposes their bodies to risk and premature death.

Double exposures

As the COVID-19 pandemic promises to recede in its dominance over systems of public health worldwide, it is crucial to continue to observe these co-constitutive patterns of necro- and biopolitics, which are encompassed within the ordinary functioning of societies, not just in times of societal crisis. The lingering effects of the pandemic are to be seen not only in physically infected bodies but also in the wholly predictable political distrust and economic fallout that mismanaged responses to the pandemic have wrought.

I think a lot about homelessness, which commentators—and current housing market instabilities—suggest has likely increased in the United States since the outbreak of COVID-19, despite a federal moratorium on evictions that lasted until August 2021, and novel attempts to respond to housing insecurity during the pandemic. In 2020, homelessness rose by 2 per cent from 2019 numbers, and increased for the fourth year in a row. The biggest increase was in the rise of ‘unsheltered’ people, such as those I work with. While the pandemic prevented an organised homelessness count in 2021, those who work in these areas anecdotally report  a rise in the number of unsheltered homeless people since the beginning of the pandemic. I have observed this myself, noting the new faces seeking emergency assistance at the day shelter, including, distressingly, a number of families with children.

Now that the moratorium on evictions has ended, many of these families have been loaded with unpaid back rent and eviction notices. When I spoke with one of the new families at the shelter, the woman I talked to told me that she had been forced to quit her job to supervise her kids while they did their schooling online. Like thousands of other women, the pandemic had forced her out of the workforce. The result is likely to be catastrophic for her, as for many others.

Seeing public health through the broader lens of exposure enables us to bring light to the parallel public health crises that persist alongside and in conjunction with the pandemic: including, the impending housing crisis that has, in Australia and the United States, produced a housing market so ‘hot’ that it is inaccessible to both buyers and renters, the latter often forced to bid for the privilege of accessing shelter. There are also ongoing issues related to political instability erupting globally, not least in the United States. Most significantly, we must understand exposure as central to the impending public health crisis of climate change, as millions of people worldwide are exposed to the effects of rising sea levels, temperature increases, unseasonal weather events, and fire ‘seasons’ that now last year-round.

All of these are circumstances in which the uneven locus of exposure—operating in conjunction with pre-existing fault lines of class, nationality, race and gender—will draw more and more people into futures of chronic ill-health and premature death. Levels of exposure to these and other circumstances of risk are a measure of the necropolitics at work in our societies, a gradient for estimating how much political attention will be directed at a problem in order to decide who to safeguard, and who to let die.

How a Homeless Shelter in a School Paid Off in the Classroom

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 07/04/2022 - 6:00pm in

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

On a Friday evening in the fall of 2019, Maria Flores stood waiting with her “crazy heavy” duffel bag and her teenage son outside the office of a man whose home she cleans. A friend of hers had told him that Flores had been evicted from the apartment she had lived in for 16 years. There, the single mom had paid $700 a month in rent ever since she’d moved in eight-months pregnant. Now, one night at a motel cost as much as $250.

“Every single day I was looking for a place to live,” Flores said.

He’d offered two air mattresses, keys to his office and permission to sleep there on weekends. For the better part of a year, Flores, who asked to use only one of her two surnames, lived that way: Back and forth, spend and scrimp. But there was no shower or kitchen at the office. And on this Friday, someone was working late. Flores’ son, who asked to be referred to by his middle name, Mateo, begged to go to a motel, but Flores told him if they did, they’d have no money for food.

Still, she didn’t want to go to a shelter.

“Everything that I heard, it was something about drugs, it was something about people being in a quarrel,” Flores said.

shelterMaria Flores and her son Mateo embrace in the hallway of their new apartment building. In 2019, the two were evicted from the apartment Mateo had lived in since birth. Credit: Marissa Leshnov / The Hechinger Report

There was one other option. A few months earlier, she’d heard about a family shelter inside an elementary school gym. Every evening, after the students and teachers left, partitions were snugged to the back wall, creating three-sided squares for kids and caregivers to set up sleeping pads on the floor. Cafeteria-style tables in a connected room hosted dinner and, later, homework. Only families with a child enrolled in the San Francisco Unified School District could be admitted, and Mateo was a high school junior.

“I didn’t want to,” Flores said of calling the school-based shelter that Friday night, “but I was so tired.” Standing on the sidewalk in a neighborhood known for open-air drug dealing, with the sky growing darker, and then darker still, she decided she and Mateo didn’t have a better option. She took out her phone and dialed the number.

The idea of optimizing school district property for evening and weekend use isn’t new, but Buena Vista Horace Mann K-8 Community School (BVHM, for short) appears to be the first modern public elementary school to have hosted a long-term, overnight family shelter.

“As far as our knowledge in the entire country, we are the first people to do it,” said San Francisco City Supervisor Hillary Ronen, who was instrumental in advocating for the program.

Some objected: Shelter should not be the responsibility of a school, they argued.

And yet, “We were the folks that were willing to do it,” said Nick Chandler, the BVHM community school coordinator.

His school serves approximately 600 students in the heart of San Francisco’s Mission District, three blocks from the exclusive Adda Clevenger School and across the street from a restaurant serving a $16 roasted octopus appetizer. Just under 60 percent of the students are English language learners, and just over 60 percent have been deemed socioeconomically disadvantaged, though that’s an undercount according to the school’s staff who say many of their families are also undocumented or under-documented.

One night in 2017, a desperate parent talking to Chandler in the school’s front lobby asked: “Can we stay here?”

The answer that night was no, but the question hung in the air. The school’s wellness team had noticed more and more families in crisis. They’d try to make referrals to the city and nonprofits, but often nothing would come of it. Sometimes the waitlists were too long and sometimes it wasn’t clear what list a family should even be on.

“The process is so intense and it requires so much documentation and follow-through and systemic understanding,” said Claudia DeLarios Morán, BVHM’s principal. “So it was a frustrated group of social workers and counselors and teachers saying, ‘What happened to this child?’”

Kids without a regular place to sleep at night weren’t showing up ready to learn, Chandler added. “And how could they? Your brain is not relaxed. You’re not in learning mode, you’re in survival mode, you’re in flight or fight mode.”

BVHM’s staff had been trained in trauma-informed care, but they wanted to help kids not just to overcome, but to avoid altogether the experience of sleeping in a car, living in an overcrowded apartment, or having a parent stay in an abusive relationship to keep a roof over their heads. The staff knew the office common area couldn’t work, but the gym was a different story. Like most school gymnasiums, it has domed fluorescent lights affixed to the rafters, blue gymnastics mats cushioning the walls, and basketball hoops. The adjacent room, with those six tables and a microwave, sports a teacher-lounge vibe.

When not a single teacher objected, the BVHM team brought the idea of hosting a shelter for the school’s families to Ronen, the city supervisor, and the group then pulled in Shamann Walton, a member of the San Francisco Board of Education at the time. They were careful not to suggest having a shelter would solve everything.

“This is a band aid,” Ronen said. “This is not a root-cause fix of the problem of childhood homelessness in this country.”

shelter schoolChildren from a handful of families play together on top of one family’s bed on the floor of the gym at Buena Vista Horace Mann K-8 Community School. Credit: Marissa Leshnov / The Hechinger Report

Over the course of April and May 2018, Ronen, Walton and others fielded questions at public meetings. “We didn’t ask Claudia [DeLarios Morán] and Nick [Chandler] to take this on on their own,” Ronen said, “We stood up, and we took the heat with them.”

And there was heat. A vocal minority worried that a shelter would draw an unsavory crowd to the neighborhood, that the gym would be left smelling like urine, the playground littered with needles and cigarette butts.

School administrators took questions, submitted during the meetings and afterward, and created an FAQ document they posted online.

“How will the administration guarantee … that no drugs, alcohol, or weapons will come on to the premises?” is one. “Will people with a criminal record … [or] mental illness be allowed to sleep in our school?”

The answers reflect patience with these two questions and others laden with assumptions about who experiences homelessness and how: “The participants will be BVHM students and their immediate families. These are the same people at back to school night, performances, daily drop off and pick-up,” the BVHM team replied.

Much of the pushback centered around, “Why us?” Some commenters worried school administrators would be in over their heads running a shelter and others suggested alternatives, like transitional housing or co-living spaces. “Our program is a response to a lack of space in these,” the administrators answered, adding that a third party would manage the BVHM initiative.

Another proposal: Ask other BVHM families to open their homes instead. The school welcomed offers. They received none, Chandler said.

“The PTA meetings were hell, with this undercurrent of disliking poor people,” said Sam Murphy, a white BVHM parent, who witnessed this back-and-forth.

The school’s Spanish immersion program attracts some privileged families in a competitive lottery system, and one woman told Murphy the shelter, by then dubbed the “Stay Over Program,” would “lower the cachet of the school.”

Despite the loud objections from some, the school had, in Chandler’s words, a “real strong voice from our folks that had been there or had been in similar situations.” With the bulk of the community on board and the support of the mayor, the project moved forward.

school shelterTwo students at the shelter return extra sleeping pads to storage. Credit: Marissa Leshnov / The Hechinger Report

It started as a pilot program, funded entirely by the city, with a joint use agreement allowing a Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing program to be operated on school district property by Dolores Street Community Services, a community-based organization with experience running shelters. This kind of interagency and public-private cooperation may seem intuitive, but it can be quite a logistical feat. In this case, that included getting the approval of the fire department, planning commission, and city attorney, as well as integrating the program into the city’s preexisting web of access points and services — and, on top of that, building political alliances.

“There are a hundred ways to shut this kind of idea down,” Ronen said. But the idea persisted and turned into a plan and then a place.

The shelter soft launched in November 2018; in January 2019, after an architect from the neighborhood offered to figure out how to install showers beside the gym and a construction company did the work pro bono, the Stay Over Program at BVHM, first of its kind, officially debuted.

Before then, Chandler said, he and other school staff “knew the families, we didn’t know the services; the city knew the services, they did not know the families.” Now, that has changed.

The idea that schools can act as resource hubs for students and their families is known broadly as “community schooling” and has proven successful across the country.

“A vast body of research shows that schools and communities can mitigate the effects of poverty by providing support to children and families to address basic needs such as housing instability,” said Pedro Noguera, dean of the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education.

Students experiencing homelessness are more likely to display symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression — even behaviors that look like ADHD. “[T]he experience of homelessness is associated with difficulty with classroom task engagement and social engagement,” according to a report by the Learning Policy Institute. (Core operating support for the Learning Policy Institute is provided by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, one of the many funders of The Hechinger Report, which produced this story.)

These students are also more likely to be referred for discipline, including suspension. They are more likely to attend schools with concentrated poverty, and they score significantly lower on state testing than other economically disadvantaged students. Students grappling with homelessness are also less likely to graduate high school and less likely to attend college. They are more likely to change schools and be chronically absent.

“For English language learners experiencing homelessness,” the report concludes, “fewer than 9 percent met or achieved state standards in mathematics.”

Nationally, 37 percent of students experiencing homelessness are chronically absent, according to Barbara Duffield, executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit. That percentage is likely much higher now, she said, in light of pandemic-related barriers.

2020 report from UCLA’s Center for the Transformation of Schools, funded in part by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, found that several indicators of educational distress — including suspensions and absenteeism rates — are, on average, worse for Black, American Indian, Pacific Islander, and multiracial students experiencing homelessness. (The Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative is one of the many funders of the Hechinger Report.) Thanks to a racial knowledge gap in the data, it’s unclear whether that pattern extends to Latino students, said UCLA’s Edwin Rivera, co-author of the 2020 report.

Not enough BVHM families have used the Stay Over Program to make a dent in the school’s overall statistics, but, said DeLarios Morán, “For families that stayed there, absolutely it stabilized their attendance.”

Maribel Chávez, a first-grade teacher at BVHM, said that before one of her students started sleeping in the gym, he usually arrived late and with an empty stomach.

“Not having a specific place that they are coming from every day, there wasn’t a routine,” she said. He would miss the opening song and the preview of the day’s schedule. She’d try to give him a quick recap and “scrounge up some snack,” but it wasn’t enough. He threw objects, tried to leave the classroom, and hit other students.

school shelterThrough these doors sits a room with six cafeteria-style tables, lockers, and a storage area with sleeping mats. In the connected gym, San Francisco Unified School District families can set up beds on the floor each night, as part of the Stay Over Program. Credit: Marissa Leshnov / The Hechinger Report

For a while, his was one of several families living in a single apartment. He shared a room with his mom, Olga, who prefers to use only her first name, and his two brothers. Then other residents of the unit started to complain about his oldest brother cooking after his late shift. Little conflicts became bigger ones until Olga found herself trying to hold off using the bathroom so she wouldn’t run into anyone in the hallway. After calling the police to say she suspected one woman had intentionally left the stove on, filling the apartment with gas, she left. They stayed with a variety of family members and friends for more than a month before Olga and her two youngest sons landed in the BVHM gym.

With lights out at 9 p.m., breakfast every morning, and a transition straight to the school’s before-care program, Chávez said, she found the first grader “in my line and ready to go” at the start of each school day.”

She noticed a shift in his demeanor (“happier”) and behavior (“so much calmer”). He and the other students who have utilized the Stay Over Program “were able to come in and be present, to do their work and learn,” she said.

Soon, the benefit of small group instruction and literacy interventions kicked in. “The other day we were reading together,” Chávez said, “and I was like, ‘Wait! Wait. Wait. Did you just read that?’”

Stories like this one make DeLarios Morán feel that it is indeed her school’s responsibility to help students find safe and reliable housing.

“If the child is not stable, that’s a barrier to their education,” she said. “So that’s why we felt like as an educational institution, we had a mandate.”

But while public schools are required to offer a handful of services to students who are experiencing homelessness, the federal legislation that channels money to districts to support those services can’t be spent on housing. The available funding, known as McKinney-Vento after two U.S. Congressmen who championed the legislation, has long been grossly inadequate. That said, other federal funding streams are available to support a district-city partnership like this one, including money from FEMA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. State dollars are often at hand. And in San Francisco, a business tax passed in 2018, a 2020 health and recovery bond and private donations together provide hundreds of millions more.

Ronen, the city supervisor, acknowledged that San Francisco’s comparatively large budget for addressing homelessness has facilitated the program, and being a sanctuary city helps too. She thinks any similar program would need a principal and staff who aren’t scared of innovation, maintain a problem-solving mindset, and see basic needs as part of their mission. But none of that is specific to BVHM.

“It’s a community school mentality, and BVHM is not the only community school in the country,” she said.

She did offer a caveat to others wishing to replicate the program: “It should only happen if that is what your community is asking for,” she said. “If this was top down, if I have this idea and impose it upon the school and the school district, it would not have worked. But is San Francisco a unicorn? I don’t think so.”

DeLarios Morán was more bullish: “They just have to follow the blueprint,” she said. “We’ve done it now. So, it’s not like they have to create the wheel.”

school shelterDafne’s youngest sister pulls sleeping pads from day-time storage to the gym to help her family set up their bed for the evening. The three girls and their mother slept in their car for a month when pandemic job loss left them experiencing homelessness. Credit: Gail Cornwall / The Hechinger Report

When the shelter first launched, it was only for BVHM families, but the per-person cost to the city was too high to make fiscal sense. In March 2019, the school board voted unanimously to expand the program to include students and families from any district school. Monthly occupancy jumped approximately eight-fold: As of January 2020, more than 30 schools had referred students, rendering the program cost-effective, according to a January 2020 evaluation by the San Francisco Controller’s Office.

Dafne is a junior in high school. Her family left the city after her mother lost a catering job during the pandemic and couldn’t pay rent. They drove to Orange County to stay with her mom’s aunt, just until things got better. But a year passed, and then a few more months. When catered events resumed, her mom got her job back and an invitation to stay at a friend’s place in San Francisco until a few paychecks added up to enough for a rent deposit. But four more people turned out to be too many for the friend’s husband, leaving Dafne, her mom, and two sisters sleeping in their car.

Dafne said an elementary school gym isn’t an ideal place to sleep either. At BVHM, she was regularly woken up by a shelter monitor walking by at night and the persistent banging of the old building’s heating system, a sound like a baseball bat colliding with an iron pipe. It punctuated conversation at 2- to 20-second intervals one rainy night this winter. But space heaters, or even white noise machines, aren’t an option because of old electrical wiring.

Moving away meant Dafne lost her spot at the selective high school she’d gotten into, but as a student at a different city high school now, her plans remain ambitious. She wants to go to college and ultimately “focus on real estate and flipping houses.” One of her sisters hopes to be a lawyer. The other, a teacher. At BVHM, the three girls spread out across the tables to do homework, much better than using flashlights in a crowded car, Dafne said.

And the gym felt much safer than the car had, with people peering in the windows at all hours. “We would try to cover it, but it was still scary,” Dafne said.

One of the program’s core components is to do more than shelter families like Dafne’s; walking through the door brings with it entry into a case management system that guides them through the complicated process of finding affordable housing.

Back when she’d been evicted, Flores had connected with a few housing programs, but “[t]hey just were talking about shelters,” she said. When she and Mateo first arrived at BVHM in fall 2019, she brushed off case management attempts because she didn’t want to hear more of the same.

Still, she appreciated having a reliable place to stay. “I cannot complain, being in a shelter,” she said, “At least you don’t feel so lonely.” Headaches she experienced while looking for housing every day started to subside. She was sleeping again. “We were making jokes,” she said, “We had that community.”

Many participants credit that atmosphere to Jacqui Portillo, the program director from Dolores Street Community Services.

“The way she talks,” Flores said, “that’s what convinced me that I can trust her. Jacqui is like an angel for me.”

school shelterJacqui Portillo (left), from Dolores Street Community Services, is the program director for the Stay Over Program. She works closely with Claudia DeLarios Morán (right), the principal of Buena Vista Horace Mann K-8 Community School. Credit: Marissa Leshnov / The Hechinger Report

Portillo grew up in El Salvador and went to six years of medical school there, stopping shy of a degree. Instead, she became a nurse and helped run her husband’s business. Their children lived a middle-class existence with swimming lessons and their own rooms until the couple separated. That’s when Portillo headed to the U.S. with her daughters, the oldest of whom was 8. They stayed, for years, in one half of a garage.

“When I came to this country, my life changed,” she said, “I didn’t have language. I didn’t have money.”

She bought her children their first computer with singles, tips from a waitressing gig. Now in their twenties, the oldest went to Wellesley, the middle to Vassar, and “my baby,” she said, to U.C. Berkeley. Portillo wants the kids in the Stay Over Program to have the same level of success.

Once she has a family in the gym, Portillo calls her contacts and asks them to reach out. “If the family doesn’t answer calls from those contacts, she said, “I ask them, ‘What’s happened? Jorge is calling you!’” She keeps gently pestering until the connection is made: “We work with the social worker from the school. We work with the immigration office. We work with everybody,” she said.

For newcomer families especially, Portillo offers empathy, not sympathy. And empathy is what fuels her determination to make the program’s small budget stretch as far as possible. But Portillo refuses to take credit for any accomplishments, including sacrificing her own “off” hours to keep the gym open full-time over the 2021 holiday break rather than making everyone leave by 7 each morning. “God was always with me,” she said.

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Before the pandemic, experts believed a large number of students experiencing homelessness were not identified; now, the situation is likely much worse. These kids had even greater difficulties accessing online instruction than their low-income, housed peers.

And yet, at BVHM, the Stay Over Program operated 24/7 during the district’s protracted school closure. Children attended classes via Zoom in the room with those cafeteria-style tables and the help of shelter monitors and a case manager, who made sure adults stayed quiet in the gym next door. During breaks they had access to the school’s playground and garden. Over the course of 2020, the program served 146 students. When a family tested positive for Covid, they quarantined in the school’s auditorium.

“Everything was so nice,” Flores said of her time staying in the gym. She still texts with three of the women she met there. “We go and eat breakfast and stuff. So, I have good memories. Really, I do.”

At first, Flores was a newbie, and then she was one of “the old ones.” But others kept leaving, their housing success stories swirling in their wake, and Flores realized she was the last. Eventually, she decided to let Portillo help with her case management. Soon thereafter, she was placed in a residential shelter with a private room for her and Mateo. It wasn’t what she’d envisioned. “When I saw the room, it was like what’s in the military,” she said. “A small room, and it has — what do you call it? — bunk beds.”

Disappointed, she sat down and cried. So did Mateo. “I felt like I was so abandoned,” Flores said.

She had kept all her meetings, done everything right, and still had so much further to go to reclaim the type of home she’d had before being evicted. Situations like this were one of the only negative findings in the Controller’s evaluation. Participants called getting more permanent housing a “waiting game” and said “people get bounced from place to place.”

One of the best things about the Stay Over Program, educators here said, is that rather than adding a burden on educators, it has relieved one. Having a clear protocol for connecting families with case managers who specialize in housing has allowed teachers to teach and allows Chandler, the community school coordinator, to focus on mental health interventions and other areas of need.

“It let us stick to our expertise,” he said. He also noticed a higher level of trust, both from families who’d utilized the program and others who now believe he might actually have the power to help with their problems.

Part of that has to do with the Stay Over Program’s unique features. There is no limit on the number of nights families can stay, families can reserve spots rather than needing to line up for first-come-first-served entry each night, and absence for a night or two doesn’t result in removal. That was important to Flores when she first arrived. She and Mateo wanted to keep sleeping at the office a few nights a week “to be like it used to be, just the both of us,” she said.

These policies are probably also responsible for the program’s unusual continuity. The evaluation found that families stayed a median of 20 days, more than six times longer than at San Francisco’s most comparable shelter, located in a Baptist church. (It closed during the pandemic and has yet to reopen.) But it could be the site. Of the families surveyed for the controller’s report, 79 percent said it was “very important” to be able to stay somewhere familiar, like their child’s school or another school in the district.

When first asked, more than 90 percent of the survey respondents reported that Stay Over Program staff, 90 percent of whom are bilingual, treated them “excellent” or “good.” After they’d stayed two weeks or more, still close to 80 percent said the same. Nearly all said their child really liked (or felt very comfortable) staying in the gym, a number that surprised Ronen given initial concerns about students facing stigma. Duffield, the expert on national homelessness policy, found these results “remarkable.”

The positive reviews don’t mean everything is perfect. Flores said she and Mateo couldn’t take advantage of the free dinner provided, because 7 p.m. was too late for him to eat, but the Stay Over Program can’t open any earlier because BVHM’s after-school program uses the space. Families only have access to small lockers and otherwise have to carry their belongings in and out each day. Having to shower before 6:00 a.m. on the weekend was so early for Glen McCoy and the grandchild he and his wife are raising, that they would drive to a Safeway parking lot and fall back to sleep in the car. Some nights, the banging of the pipes just doesn’t let up.

And yet, Olga — the mom of the now-reading 6-year-old — described the space as “tranquilo,” calm. She stopped having panic attacks and got treatment for a urinary tract infection she’d developed trying to avoid using the bathroom in her shared apartment.

The stability and community offered by the program is temporary, and the path to stable housing provided by this district-city partnership is as long and frustrating for each individual family as the pursuit of eliminating homelessness has been for San Francisco and the nation. But it’s something. And for individual children it has been everything.

“We will not fix homelessness until the federal government believes that housing is a human right,” Ronen said. “Hopefully we will not need [a program like] this in the future, but right now we do.”

Flores and Mateo hadn’t actually been abandoned. They continued to get help from a caseworker, and they finally moved into a subsidized studio apartment in November 2021.

There’s a bathroom they can access any day, at any time. Their showers don’t have a time limit. Flores thinks it sounds silly, but of everything in that crazy-heavy duffel bag she carried around for more than two years, it was the toothbrush that weighed most heavily on her. “It’s something that is private, something that nobody wants to see you use,” she said. And now it stays at home.

They got boxes out of storage. “I have my furniture,” Flores said, “my vacuum!” All the clothes she had looked forward to wearing again no longer fit, a consequence of eating out for more than two years. But now that they have a kitchen, she’s cooking again: “We’re trying to eat some healthy things,” she said.

Mateo doesn’t have to deal with the bunk beds that creaked so loudly he worried about waking his mom, he’s not awoken by shelter monitors at night, and a bed in the apartment beats an air mattress in an office. He’s getting the sleep he needs to focus on his classes at the City College of San Francisco: math, English, and criminal investigation.

But he still doesn’t have his own room, and Flores said they won’t stay here permanently.

“It’s another stop,” she said. “We are getting closer.”

The post How a Homeless Shelter in a School Paid Off in the Classroom appeared first on Reasons to be Cheerful.

A Waterlogged Park Embraces Bangkok’s Monsoons

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 10/03/2022 - 4:26am in

Carry the water

Bangkok is a waterlogged city, built on marshes in a part of the world where monsoon season can drop over 13 inches of rain in a single month. Yet the way it has developed — rapidly and haphazardly — has made it even more prone to flooding. Now, with some major new projects, the city is breaking ground in how to live with regular inundations.

The most notable is a huge new park, the city’s first in 30 years, that opened in central Bangkok in 2017. Chulalongkorn University Centenary Park is a marvel of flooding adaptation. It embraces the city’s original, natural topography, with a green slope that allows water to tumble down to a series of wetlands. These wetlands filter the water and feed it into a retention pond. 

bangkokChulalongkorn University Centenary Park. Credit: Wikipedia

The park was designed by Landprocess, a Thai firm started by Kotchakorn Voraakhom, who cofounded the Porous City Network, which develops nature-led solutions to flooding in Southeast Asia. In an interview, Voraakhom explains how the region’s cities are leading the way in flooding adaptation, and why women are particularly adept at leveraging natural solutions to human-made problems. 

Read more at the New York Times

Air plants

In a part of the world that’s as dry as Bangkok is wet, scientists are successfully growing vegetables in the desert using moisture pulled from the atmosphere around them.

RTBC has reported on ways to extract moisture from the air before. But this effort, in Saudi Arabia, is distinctive for its focus on finding a new way to irrigate farms in arid climates. Solar panels convert the energy they collect into heat, and a hydrogel smeared onto the backs of the panels absorbs and locks in the resulting vapor. The process is surprisingly simple — desert air isn’t as dry as you think. Saudi’s humidity hovers around 40 percent during the day, and 80 percent at night.

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So far, the experiment is small — the scientists have sprouted 57 spinach seeds into seven-inch plants. And scaling up the model to support small farms will require industrial collaborators. But in principle, there’s no reason the process couldn’t be used by arid or off-grid communities as a resource that is already available in the air all around them. “For a single household living in the mountain, or a very small community living in the middle of nowhere, this system can really help get those very basic human needs,” said one of the researchers.

Read more at Fast Company

Checking in

California’s struggles with homelessness have been most evident in its cities, but unhoused folks in the rural parts of the state — often less visible than in urban areas — need assistance, too. In Del Norte County, for instance, a northern region of only 28,000, there are at least 250 people experiencing homelessness, and officials say that’s probably a drastic undercount.

del norteDel Norte County, California. Credit: David A. Hofmann / Flickr

 To assist these people, Project Homekey is turning the state’s underused hotels and motels into affordable housing. In Del Norte, a 30-room motel has been renamed the Legacy Apartments. Many of its residents are only temporary, eventually moving on to conventional housing, but others have decided to stay long-term. Some that spoke to the L.A. Times credited the accommodations with keeping them warm and safe from Covid. “If it wasn’t for this place, I would probably be dead right now,” said one. 

Soon, the state will renovate the rooms to make them more like apartments, with full kitchens and homier furnishings. Statewide, over 7,000 affordable housing units have been created this way. In January, Governor Gavin Newsom announced that the state will spend an additional $14 billion to create even more.

Read more at the Los Angeles Times

The post A Waterlogged Park Embraces Bangkok’s Monsoons appeared first on Reasons to be Cheerful.

‘Perverse’ Law Criminalising Homelessness Clings On in Northern Ireland

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 25/02/2022 - 9:51pm in

‘Perverse’ Law Criminalising Homelessness Clings On in Northern Ireland

The 200-year-old Vagrancy Act is still being used to arrest and fine people sleeping on the streets of Northern Ireland, despite it being repealed in the rest of the UK


Northern Ireland will soon be the only part of the UK still using a ‘perverse’ 200-year-old law that criminalises homelessness, despite its repeal in the rest of the country.

The UK Government is due to officially repeal the 1824 Vagrancy Act, which makes rough sleeping and begging a criminal offence in England and Wales, long after it was first repealed in Scotland in the 1980s.

However, the continued use of the Vagrancy Act in Northern Ireland has been criticised by homelessness charities, after reports showed the extent of people fined, arrested and convicted there.

Arrests had been on the rise in recent years, in contrast to most police forces in England and Wales where numbers have declined.

The practice has continued during the Coronavirus pandemic, with 21 people arrested for begging and six fines handed out from May to mid-December 2020 in Northern Ireland under the law.

At the time, the Northern Ireland Department of Justice said that Minister Naomi Long was aware of the issue and that she had “asked officials to review the use of this legislation, taking account of developments in neighbouring jurisdictions, and to advise her of their findings in the coming months”. She has indicated that she is open to repealing the outdated laws.

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However, new figures for the first six months of 2021 show that arrests and fines have continued, according to a Freedom of Information request submitted by Byline Times.

Gerry Carroll, a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly for West Belfast, said that the continued use of the Vagrancy Act was “perverse”.

“As fuel prices spike, universal credit is cut, and many face a winter of hardship without added support, these laws are a cruel punishment for people who will be pushed into poverty and desperate measures,” he told this newspaper.

“I welcome confirmation from the minister that she is planning to review this law but we cannot wait any longer. Whilst we wait on the minister to act there must be an immediate end to the use of the cruel, punishing impact of the Vagrancy Act.”

While there was only one arrest between January and May 2021, there were six in June alone. The nationalities of those arrested were listed as Irish, Northern Irish, and Romanian. There were also three fines made under the Vagrancy Act in June.

In response to the new figures, a Northern Ireland Department of Justice spokesperson said that the minister is aware of concerns expressed about continued use of the Vagrancy Acts, and that she is committed to reviewing the legislation but that this will now not take place within the current mandate.

The power-sharing administration at Stormont will be dissolved on 28 March, in preparation for a fresh election on 5 May. 

The Department spokesperson went on to say that the Minister always maintained that homelessness should never be criminalised and is “conscious of the cross-cutting nature of the underlying issues which lead to begging and rough sleeping which repeal alone will not solve. Homelessness, addiction and poor mental health are wider societal issues which require a coordinated approach across the Northern Ireland Departments.”



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Criminalising Homelessness

The use of the almost 200-year-old legislation to penalise people for begging and rough sleeping has been criticised by homeless charities including Simon Community and Shelter NI, which have called for the Vagrancy Act to be repealed.

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph last year, Shelter NI director Tony McQuillan said that it “continues to criminalise homeless people and does nothing to help resolve and tackle the root causes of homelessness”.

The law was originally introduced to make it easier for police to clear the streets of destitute soldiers returning from the Napoleonic Wars, having the full title of ‘An Act for the punishment of idle and disorderly persons, rogues and vagabonds’.

Charities say that they have long questioned how well-placed police forces are to deal with rough sleeping and begging.

Chief Superintendent Simon Walls said last year that the police consider a range of options before arrest and that the Police Service of Northern Ireland is “aconscious that issues such as begging are challenging” and that “the answer lies with wider society and policing is only one part of this”.

“Our neighbourhood policing teams work closely with a range of organisations who are seeking to find meaningful alternatives to begging and rough sleeping,” he said. “Where those people we find on the street are vulnerable and in need of help we will work with our partner agencies to help keep them safe.”




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The Hostile Environment for Rough Sleepers is Costing Lives

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 19/01/2022 - 12:31am in

The Hostile Environment for Rough Sleepers is Costing Lives

In November 2020, Priti Patel made rough sleeping grounds for deportation. Samir Jeraj spent a year with the Museum of Homelessness as part of a project to push-back against the policy


Like many migrants, Adam came to the UK to support his family – his wife, son and parents – who stayed behind in Poland. He had been working as a chef for three years when his world ended. His family, all of them, died in a car crash. Nine years on, Adam still lives with the trauma and depression from those tragic events – but that was just the start. 

“Within a few months of their deaths, I had lost everything,” he told Byline Times.

Adam’s job, money and flat evaporated in quick succession, and he started using drugs and staying on the street. “I spent my first nights on the street in Shoreditch,” he recalled. “It was absolutely horrible.”

The years after were a precarious mix of begging, eating discarded food, depression and drugs. Eventually, he was found sleeping in a bin shed by a cleaner and, when the police turned up, they said he could get help. A few days later, an outreach worker arrived with immigration enforcement officers instead.

“I remember them saying ‘we’ve got him’,” Adam said. 

The UK’s ‘hostile environment’ has targeted homeless people long before the term was coined by Theresa May in 2012. But, under the current Home Secretary, Priti Patel, the level and scope of hostility has increased exponentially.

This has led to a variety of responses, from Homeless Link’s ‘Support Not Deport’ campaign to more focused campaigning, such as Project Fortify – a year-long investigation of the hostile environment launched by the Museum of Homelessness.

Brexit has enabled the Government to pursue more extreme deportation policies, while the Coronavirus pandemic has provided political cover. Last year, Patel brought back the Rough Sleeper Support Service – part of the deportation regime that was found illegal in 2019, only for it to fall apart again as local councils and charities that had signed up quietly walked away from the scheme.

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The hostile environment was also present in efforts to coerce people into so-called ‘voluntary reconnection’ and during the first six months of the pandemic 392 rough sleepers were sent back to EU states.

In the spring of 2021, a group of Roma were living by Warren Street station in central London, camped out under an overhanging building for shelter. In the run-up to the end of the EU Settlement Scheme, the group were moved on several times by police and enforcement officers and then approached by an outreach worker, according to the Public Interest Law Centre, Streets Kitchen and the Museum of Homelessness.

The Roma understood them to be offering ‘tickets home’ instead of support to apply for settled status – something they had a right to do. Several of the group felt that they had no choice but to accept the offer. The Home Office was unable to say how many people without a permanent address had applied for status under the EU Settlement Scheme or how many had been successful. 

Far-Right Weaponisation

The hostile environment is also feeding into violent action by the far-right.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the overlap between homelessness and immigration status has been underlined as street homeless people and asylum-seekers found themselves ‘housed’ in some of the same hotels.

At the same time, the Government has fed far-right hysteria with well-publicised action against people using boats to seek asylum in the UK. It was the hotels housing both homeless people and asylum seekers that were targeted by groups such as Britain First

The far-right has long used the idea that homeless white British people, and veterans in particular, are losing out to “immigrants”. The Home Office recorded at least 70 attacks on hotels believed to be housing asylum seekers, with more happening following the UK accepting Afghan refugees.

These included incidents where they mistakenly targeted hotels housing homeless people with immigration status (including British nationals). In July 2020, and again in February 2021, a hotel in Essex was attacked by the For Britain Movement and Patriotic Alternative. One of the intimidation tactics used by the groups was to film people living there.

Jane Williams, of the Magpie Project – an organisation that supports homeless mothers and young children in east London – told Byline Times: “The video was so distressing to watch because there were just these men filming really traumatised-looking people going in and out.” One of the families the project was supporting had to be moved “in an emergency” following the video being uploaded online. “It was really, really frightening for the family involved,” Williams said.

When the Home Office began to resettle asylum seekers outside of London under ‘Operation Oak’, it ignored warnings from local councils which believed that they would be at risk of far-right violence. 

“What we see is that the hostile environment is particularly hostile to vulnerable mothers and their children,” Williams told Byline Times.

Even inside the Migrant Help housing, accommodation – which people only live in if they have been accepted on to the legal route of claiming asylum – there are signs offering to send people back. 

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Williams has come across examples of where the women that the Magpie Project supports have complained about broken windows or infestations and been told by housing managers not to complain because “you shouldn’t be here”. In one case, an asylum-seeking family were told by police not to file complaints about assaults that have taken place within Migrant Help accommodation as it “could affect their immigration application”.

Last March, Haringey Council published the results of an investigation into the deaths of three homeless EU nationals in the London borough. In all three cases, immigration policy prevented them from accessing services that could have saved their lives and put them on a path to recovery.

In Scotland, the Scottish Refugee Council found that 95 people have died since 2016 in asylum seeker accommodation commissioned by the Home Office – a number that rose from four in 2019 to 36 in 2020, and is nearly double what the Home Office had claimed. 

As the UK prepares to pass the Nationality and Borders Bill, aimed at keeping people out of the UK, it is clear that without fundamental change the situation for rough sleepers and people in temporary housing will get worse. 

“My experience with the Home Office just pushed me away from ever wanting to deal with homeless services again,” Adam told Byline Times.

It would be another three years on the street before he would trust another outreach worker and, even when that happened, it was months before he believed that applying for a passport and settled status was not the first step to deportation. Now, he is actively working on his recovery with help and support from services and hopes to use his experiences to help other people like him. 

“Despite the progress I have made, I still have a nagging feeling that it could all fall apart,” he said. “My experience with the Home Office pushed my recovery back by four years, and kept me on the streets. I wasn’t able to trust the services that were best placed to help me, so my situation just got worse.” 




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The post The Hostile Environment for Rough Sleepers is Costing Lives appeared first on Byline Times.

Lee Camp: We Know the Silver Bullet to Ending Poverty and Destitution But Choose Not to Use It

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 15/01/2022 - 2:51am in

Princeton, New Jersey (Scheerpost Here’s how the world should operate in simple terms: A certain country or region or city or township or Hobbit hole tries something in order to help their society or group or hovel — if it works, other places then do it. If it doesn’t work, other places don’t do it. It’s like when you were a kid and you saw your brother slide down the banister and rack himself on the newel post — You then thought, “Maybe that activity is not for me.” But if he didn’t nail himself in the jewels, you probably thought, “I think I’ll try that.”

That’s how the United States government should work, but it doesn’t. For-profit healthcare, corporate personhood, the drug war, funding terrorists overseas that we call “moderate rebels,” etc. — all of these things have been tried, they fuckin’ suck every time, and we keep doing them. The U.S. continually racks itself on the newel post all day long and then responds, “I think I’ll try that again.”

But the reverse should be true also — if a city or country anywhere in the world tries something and it works great, we should do it.

This brings me to Universal Basic Income: everybody receiving money from a government simply for being a citizen, no questions asked. It’s high time we try it in the U.S. and see whether it works. Oh wait, I just remembered — it’s been tried countless times and worked every damn time. How do I know that? …Reading.

As Rutger Bregman details in his book “Utopia For Realists,” UBI has been tried many times — in Canada, Alaska, Africa, the U.S., Europe, and more. Even backwards lawless lands like North Carolina have experimented with it.

There was a study in Britain where 13 men who had lived on the streets for years were given £3,000 each (about $4,500 at the time). Did they use it for hundreds of pricey almond milk lattes, or giant bags of crack, or maybe just wad it up into balls and wipe themselves with them? Nope, turns out they didn’t do any of those things. Eighteen months after receiving the money, over half were no longer homeless, and all of them had improved their lives significantly.

As Bregman noted, “Even the Economist had to conclude that ‘the most efficient way to spend money on the homeless might be to give it to them.’”

No! We can’t possibly do that! We here in the U.S. have to take the money meant to help the homeless and launder it through all kinds of plans and incentives and bureaucratic digestive tracts that result in one out of every 100 people in extreme poverty receiving a gift certificate for a free basket of breadsticks at Arby’s.

In another program Bregman describes, everybody in a village in Kenya was given $500, about a year’s wages. Several months later, the village had been completely transformed. People had better jobs, sturdier home structures, and healthier kids. “In Namibia figures for malnutrition took a nosedive (from 42% to 10%), as did those for truancy (from 40% to nothing) and crime (down by 42%),” writes Bregman.

“Four Meals from Anarchy”: Rising Food Prices Could Spark Famine, War, and Revolution in 2022

So basically there’s almost a silver bullet to ending poverty and decreasing crime. Well, we better avoid it like the plague. Let’s go back to giving homeless people a can of soup and a pair of mismatched socks. If they collect enough cans and socks, they can build a house out of them!

The point is basic income has been tested numerous times. By 2010, there were income transfer programs for 110 million families in 45 different countries. In North Carolina, in 2001 the Cherokee were getting $6,000 a year per family thanks to a casino they had built. When that started, for most of those families that money took them out of extreme poverty, and the Cherokee children saw drastic changes. Their crime rates, behavioral issues, and alcohol abuse went down significantly. The money literally changed their lives. (And sure, all casinos are based on drunk people spending money they don’t have on machines they don’t know are rigged in hopes of getting money they will never get. But you can’t get mad at the Cherokee because that’s also the basic definition of capitalism. : Drunk people spending money we don’t have on machines we don’t know are rigged in hopes of getting money we’ll never get.)

The University of Manchester summarized many UBI programs in poor African communities. They found, overall, the money was put to good use: Poverty decreased, and while the programs cost less than other so-called solutions, there were myriad long-term benefits that impacted  health and safety. How shocking! The thing we know works seems to work! (Hopefully somebody can study this a little more and find out if it works.)

Bregman then writes of NGO workers, “So why send over to Africa expensive white folks in SUVs when we can simply hand over their salaries to the poor?” Great point. At the very least, let’s give away the SUVs.

The latest basic income “test” reported on last month in Fast Company showed that it worked yet again in Hudson, NY. Despite all of these successful trials, people still argue, “We can’t have basic income because the poor will just use it for beer and cigarettes!” Well, first of all — So what? The world’s on fire. Beer and cigarettes sound like just what the doctor ordered. In fact, I think we’re at the point when we can call alcohol and tobacco survival foods. (I am a longtime supporter of Universal Basic Beer and Cigarettes.)

But perhaps more importantly, as Bregman notes, “A major study by the World Bank demonstrated that in 82% of all researched cases in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, alcohol and tobacco consumption actually declined.” Declined? Well, then I have to say these poor people have their priorities completely wrong.

Another major argument against UBI is, “It’s not fair. Giving people money for doing nothing simply isn’t fair.” My response to that is twofold. First, it actually is fair because the money would go to literally everyone. Hence the word “universal” in the name. (It would be weird to have something called “Universal Basic Income” that only went to a vintage clothing store clerk named Stanley.) Secondly, who told you fairness mattered in life? Who told you fairness has anything to do with our stupid world? There’s no fairness. In the first three seconds you come out of the womb, life is not fair. You’re covered in blood and mucus, some doctor slaps you on the ass, and you’re told your name is something you’ve never even heard before! Completely unfair. You’re just lying there going, “Chet? My name’s CHET?!

Some people are born rich as shit.

Some people are born poor as shit.

Some people are born hot as shit. (I mean, not as a baby but… later. You get the point.)

Some people are born in wealthy areas with safe streets, good schools and clean water.

Some people are born in poverty with crime-ridden streets, terrible schools, and water that has a crispy film on the top like a cancerous crème brulée.

The Great and Growing Gap Between Public Policy and Public Will

In our society, on average, men get paid more than women, white people get paid more than Black people and Native people, and most everyone gets paid more than ugly people. (I’m not even kidding — ugly people earn up to 15% less per hour in the workplace.)

Society. Is. Not. Fair.

So if I say that universal basic income would solve several of society’s problems and someone responds that UBI’s not fair, they’re being completely illogical. It’s like if I said a law against killing endangered species would save the exotic birds, and you retort, “But we can’t do that because it’s not purple.”

Besides, perhaps giving people a better shot at life, a better shot at not struggling day-in and day-out, perhaps that’s actually more fair than this shitstorm we have now.

Another argument against UBI is that it will make people lazy. And I would agree with that except… it’s not true. Studies show it doesn’t make people work less and even if it did, I would say, “GOOD!” Under capitalism you are born free, but then you spend the rest of your existence trying to rent back your life from corporate rulers. So if UBI decreases that slavery by a percentage point, that’s a good thing.

And the final argument against UBI is that we can’t afford it. Well, as Bregman notes, “Eradicating poverty in the U.S. would cost only $175 billion, less than 1% of the GDP. That’s roughly a quarter of the U.S. military spending.”

So not only do we have enough money, but we also would be saving hundreds of billions in the form of services we wouldn’t need anymore. We’d have a more physically and mentally healthy population, decreased crime and abuse, etc. All told, we would save so much more than we would lose. And even if we didn’t — I DON’T CARE! I WANT TO END POVERTY!

Anyway, it’s time for universal basic income. Technology advances exponentially. Most jobs will disappear. And instead of demanding more wage slavery, we should work less and have universal basic income. Will UBI solve all the problems of capitalism? Absolutely not. It’s the first of many steps toward helping people realize the capitalistic market economy is a guaranteed death spiral that we have the power to stop.

Feature photo | Russell Shaw Higgs | Creative Commons

Lee Camp is the host of the hit comedy news show “Redacted Tonight.” His new book “Bullet Points and Punch Lines” is available at LeeCampBook.com and his stand-up comedy special can be streamed for free at LeeCampAmerican.com.

The post Lee Camp: We Know the Silver Bullet to Ending Poverty and Destitution But Choose Not to Use It appeared first on MintPress News.

Our 5 Most Popular Stories of 2021

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 28/12/2021 - 7:00pm in

What do you like to read about? Believe it or not, we don’t always know. 

We’ve published stories that we thought would be our greatest hits, only to watch them fizzle on the fuse. Likewise, we’ve run articles that we suspected might be too weird for you, and you apparently adored them. (Our sixth-most popular story of the year, barely missing the cut here, is about human composting.) Which is to say, you’re an unpredictable, nonconformist pack of free thinkers, and we wouldn’t have you any other way. 

Here are our five most popular stories of 2021.

seagrassCredit: TNC

5. World’s Largest Seagrass Project Proves “You Can Actually Restore the Oceans”

One thing we’ve learned about you is that stories about the oceans call to you like the Sirens’ song. Maybe it’s a spiritual thing. Maybe the seas are sacrosanct. Maybe you just can’t get enough of the beach. Whatever the reason, this one struck a chord, seaweed and all.

Cool pavement LAPhoto courtesy of StreetsLA

4. L.A.’s New Reflective Streets Bounce Heat Back into Space

It’s getting hot out there. Especially in cities, summer heat is turning into a perennial health hazard. So we’re not altogether surprised that this story about heat-repelling streets got your attention. Sometimes something as simple as a coat of paint can make for the most compelling solution. Throw in an outer-space angle, and it seems you’re all ears.

homelessCredit: Peter Helm

3. Vancouver Gave Homeless People $5,800. It Changed Their Lives.

Perhaps you’ve been in a situation where a single infusion of cash could mean the difference between paying — or not paying — next month’s rent, a parking fine, a tuition bill. It’s a common dilemma, which is why perhaps so many of you were so taken by this story of transforming lives with a single boost of financial help.

officeCredit: Israel Andrade

2. Spain’s Four-Day Work Week Is a Game Changer

If you’re a former office worker turned digital nomad, you probably sense that work will never be the same. Perhaps you now have more control over when, where and how much you work. As with many societal sea changes, governments are playing catch up. But we suspect that many of you have been ready to embrace this particular change for years.

stilbruchPhoto courtesy Hamburg Sanitation Department

1. Don’t Toss It, Fix It! Europe Is Guaranteeing Citizens the “Right to Repair”

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that you, the Reasons to be Cheerful reader, would have a passion for fixing things. After all, it’s our raison d’être. But your enthusiasm for this story has revealed an even deeper affinity for mending, revamping and otherwise resurrecting apparently broken things rather than throwing up your hands and walking away. Great minds think alike.

The post Our 5 Most Popular Stories of 2021 appeared first on Reasons to be Cheerful.

Taking Therapy to the Streets

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 09/12/2021 - 2:15am in

Street therapy

Violence interruption efforts, in which community members attempt to defuse street conflicts before they start, are common in many U.S. cities. A Baltimore program takes the time-tested model and adds a twist: rather than interrupting specific violent incidents, it tries to interrupt violent mindsets. 

Volunteers for the initiative, called Roca, focus on youths who they believe are at risk of becoming either victims or perpetrators of violence, based on their own observations and conversations with community members. Then, employing principles used in cognitive behavioral therapy, they work with those youths to help them manage their traumas and regulate their responses to conflict and stress. As opposed to a typical interruption program, Roca’s interventions can take years to yield results. Often, when they engage a 16 year old, Roca’s volunteers are still working with him when he celebrates his 20th birthday.

Anecdotal evidence suggests these results do eventually come. Several youths Roca has worked with have walked away from violence and turned their lives around. “All of us at that age are not wired to think long term,” said one observer. “You need a support network that can put you in an environment that can get you through that time until you get to a point where the lightbulb comes on.”

Read more at The Trace

Down to earth

Researchers in the Congo Basin have unearthed something with huge implications: a vast peatland the size of England that’s sequestering 30 billion metric tons of carbon.

For years, the team of scientists has waded through hip-deep mud in the basin’s wetlands, surveying a hidden, seemingly endless expanse of peatland underneath. So far they’ve discovered over 56,000 square miles of it, making the peatland big enough to single-handedly play a role in controlling the earth’s climate. 

congoPeatland restoration in the Congo. Credit: CIFOR

Peat holds huge amounts of carbon — this particular peatland is sequestering about two-thirds as much CO2 as all of the trees in the Congo’s rainforest combined. By revealing its existence, the researchers have laid the groundwork for its conservation. Activists are already preparing to shield the area from gas, logging and agriculture interests, any of which could destroy the peatlands, releasing massive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere.

“I think we will only protect what is valued,” said one of the researchers, “and we need to know where these peatlands are because they are such huge stores of carbon.”

Read more at Mongabay

Spaces to breathe

People living in vehicles are the fastest growing segment of the homeless population, a trend that has only accelerated since the pandemic began. Some of these folks reside in RVs, a much more habitable space than a passenger car or a van. But even an RV requires services and a place to park.

In October, San Francisco announced the establishment of a safe, dedicated parking site for people living in RVs. Situated in Candlestick Point State Recreation Area, the site will include 150 parking spaces and offer electrical hookups, lighting, 24-hour security, bathrooms, drinking water and pumps to remove RV waste. The site also lets RV occupants live without fear of parking tickets, which often amount to a poverty tax for people who live in their vehicles.

Some residents have complained about a public park being given over to the RVs, but the site is only temporary — a factor that could potentially make the solution problematic. “I’m hopeful that they can keep it until they can get people placed in housing, because what’s the whole point of doing all this?” said one housing advocate. “Then you close it down and the people are still there?” 

Read more at Next City

The post Taking Therapy to the Streets appeared first on Reasons to be Cheerful.

Global Hungers: The Problem of Poverty in Postcolonial Literature - Part 2

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 26/07/2018 - 10:59pm in

A One-Day International Conference held at the Faculty of English, University of Oxford, on June 25, 2018. This conference showcased interdisciplinary research on poverty in the fields of postcolonial, comparative, and world literature.

Global Hungers: The Problem of Poverty in Postcolonial Literature - Part 1

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 18/07/2018 - 9:25pm in

A One-Day International Conference held at the Faculty of English, University of Oxford, on June 25, 2018. This conference showcased interdisciplinary research on poverty in the fields of postcolonial, comparative, and world literature.