Wednesday, October 26, 2011

HOMELESS - A Tour of Four Cities

Some of the people camped out in Occupy Wall Street have no where else to go.

As reported by Associated Press, Occupy encampments from Portland, Oregon through L.A. to Atlanta are finding homeless people moving into tent cities set up by protesters.

Some Occupy sites are finding bylaws written to send away the homeless are being used to prevent Consitutional rights to Freedom of Assembly and expression.

Polls show millions of Americans are just one paycheck away from losing their homes. Many more are already in foreclosure, being evicted, or already out on the street. Lots of us worry, could I be next? Could you handle it, the way things are now?

Maybe the rights of the homeless will matter to you, down the line.

Radio Ecoshock is going to take you on a quick tour of homelessness in North America. We'll visit New York City, where 36,000 school children have no home. San Francisco, where it is illegal to sit or lie on the sidewalk. Even in the capital, in Washington D.C. we'll find the homeless next to the limousines and lobbyists. In Canada, there is a little progress in Vancouver, with street-sleepers reduced by 80%.

There are somewhere between 600,000 and a million homeless people in America. The wild thing is: America is flooded with empty houses. One in ten homes in the United States is vacant. That's about 18 million homes.

If we guestimate there are as many as 500,000 families needing a home, there are 36 empty homes for every homeless family in America!

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, all housing was owned by the government. As Dmitry Orlov has told us on Radio Ecoshock, people just stayed where they were. So there was no wave of homelessness in Russia or it's member states.

But America is stuck. Houses sit empty. Sometimes the banks even tear them down. But people - many of them families with young children - keep getting foreclosed, evicted, kicked out into the street. Apparently Capitalism just can't handle de-growth.

As winter approaches, and the economy heads into the dumpster, homelessness is growing in New York City. The nasty surprise is that both the State and City appear to be slashing help for the homeless in their hour of greatest need.

Radio Ecoshock visits the Big Apple with Gisell Routhier, Policy Analyst for the NYC Coalition for the Homeless.

New York is setting new records for homeless people, and for homeless families. See this and this.

We talk with Jennifer Friedenbach, Executive Director of the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness. Why has this formerly welcoming city gone into a media orgy of bashing the poor?

We'll go on to Washington, D.C. to speak with Michael Ferrell, Executive Director of the District’s Coalition for the Homeless, to see what is going on there.

Our last stop is Vancouver, Canada - with famous anti-poverty activist Jean Swanson of the Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP), and author of the book "Poor Bashing: The Politics of Exclusion".

This ain't no social cause. Homelessness in a land of wealth is a national disgrace.

In San Francisco we learn the city has stopped counting the number of homeless people found dead on the streets every year. The average is at least one hundred dead. In just one city.

An estimated 37,000 homeless Americans die every year.

About 155 of them murdered, some as hate crimes, for fun or out of a desire to kill someone vulnerable.

More data here.

You won't see this on TV, but there is a National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day on December 21, 2011, to remember those victims of a system that just didn't care.

World Homeless Day this year was on October 10th. Remember that? All the news specials and coverage that got? Didn't think so.

Let's look at just a few things our guests had to say.


First of all, I ran a quick poll trying to compare the rights of the homeless in each city.

Here are the results:

Is it legal for a homeless person to sit on the sidewalk?

New York Yes, as long as not blocking traffic
San Francisco No, not between 7 a.m and 11 pm
Washington, D.C. Yes
Vancouver Yes

Is it legal for a homeless family to sleep in a public place?

New York Not in parks. Are found under bridges, in laundromats. etc
San Francisco No
Washington No
Vancouver Children would be apprehended (by social services)

Is there anywhere homeless people can legally pitch a tent to live in?

New York Not sure, but not likely. All parks have curfews.
San Francisco No
Washington No
Vancouver No

Is it legal to sleep in a car or camper in your city?

New York Yes. But finding legal parking a nightmare.
San Francisco No
Washington Camper Yes, Car No
Vancouver Probably, not sure.

Does your city have public washrooms accessible to the homeless?

New York Not asked.
San Francisco Some, very limited
Washington Yes, a few
Vancouver Very, very few

Do we know how many homeless citizens are found dead on the streets each winter?

New York Information not available
San Francisco Usually 100 or more
Washington 2 to 4 people
Vancouver At least 2 last year

Can a homeless person vote in elections?

New York Yes
San Francisco Yes
Washington Yes, but not convicted felons
Vancouver Yes, but registering difficult

On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate the city police, if 10 is where officers protect the homeless, and 1 is the homeless are generally harassed and beaten by police. Your rating of the police?

New York 5
San Francisco 3 or 4
Washington 5
Vancouver 2 or 3



The New York City Department of Homeless Services reports 8,000 school aged children have no home. The Federal government says it is more like 40,000 homeless kids.

The difference, Routhier says, comes from the way the homeless are counted. New York City only considers children actually in their shelters. The Feds look wider, at families doubled up, people who are moving around from one place to another, the couch-surfers, and so on.

Rocker Cindy Lauper has recently thrown the spotlight on the number of Lesbian, Gay, and Transgender youth on the streets of New York. Some of them were heartlessly kicked out by their parents, and now live in a risky environment. A special shelter for LGBT kids has been set up in NYC, but Routhier says they are a hard community to serve. Many kids stay out on the rough streets anyway.

Read more about the LGBT homeless problem here.

See also this article on State budget cuts and at-risk youth in New York.

And this video on homeless youth in New York City.

We'll find the same problem in San Francisco.

The New York Times reports one in five New Yorkers are living below the poverty line. Other news reports show the general welfare rate in New York City has fallen by 4 %, - but welfare numbers are skyrocketing in surrounding areas, like Long Island.

Read about the welfare surge around New York.

I wondered if NYC is exporting it's homeless to the suburbs, but Gisell Routhier doubts that is a major movement.

Read about the growing poverty in New York here.

The real place to look in New York City in my opinion is the wild growth of homeless school children there.

Gisell tells us that the homeless of New York have a special problem: their Mayor! Republican Mayor and billionaire Michael Bloomberg started turning down federal funding for supportive housing around 2005. That was free money that could have helped build more permanent homes for the city's poorest people.

Instead, Bloomberg has launched a number of City initiatives, which generally provide temporary housing, lasting up to two years. NYC is seeing a number of families homeless AGAIN after their two year limit is up. Bloomberg seems to be standing in the way of a longer term solution for these people, even though it would cost the city nothing.

Listen to the interview with Gisell Routhier. Her organization, the New York Coalition for the Homeless is one of the oldest such institutions in the country.
Again, here is their web site.


I start off asking Jennifer Friedenbach, Executive Director of the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness - about the connections between Occupy San Francisco, and homelessness. It turns out more than a few of the protesters are homeless.

That is happening to Occupy movement sites around the country. Sometimes there is a conflict between lifestyles, whethere is is alcohol or drug use.

The bottom line: the rights of the lowest 1 percent of the population are becoming the rights of all.

So... laws written against the homeless in San Francisco are being used against OccupySF as well.

Not to mention the police-state style eviction of the Occupy Oakland camp! My God, the police assembled hundreds of officers from more than a dozen jurisdictions. They stormed in with full riot gear, into the peaceful campers. Many were arrested, with some injuries.

When the crowd used social media to re-assemble later that day, the police opened fire with not just stun grenades, not just multiple blasts of tear gas - but rubber bullets! One veteran was seriously injured, with a rubber bullet to the head. Find the video, and be amazed.

It turns out the homeless have become a political football in San Francisco elections. Conservatives drive up voters with the boogeyman of pan-handling (which hasn't really increased).

San Francisco voters just passed a law to make it illegal to sit or sleep on a sidewalk in daylight hours. Imagine, some old fellow with a heart problem dares to sit down - and beep, he gets a pricey ticket. Good revenue for the city. On second offence, he or she goes to jail!

We go over the civil rights abuses, and how the very banks and real estate interests that foreclosed on so many people (making some homeless) - backed and funded more laws against the homeless.

It's a revealing interview.


Washington, the District of Columbia, is really two cities. One part is pretty wealthy, with a lot of power. The other half is broke, really poor, often homeless.

It surprises no one to find that up to 95% of the homeless in D.C. are African Americans. Nothing racist mind you. Just the millionaires are mostly white, and the homeless mostly black.

Our guide Michael Ferrell, Executive Director of the District’s Coalition for the Homeless, says the number of homeless people in the Capital hasn't really gone up much. In fact, the number of homeless single people went down, due to Federal Stimulus money creating some housing.

In their place, the number of homeless families in D.C. has gone up.

We talk about emergency medical care for homeless people, and the hypothermia vans that try to keep the street people alive for another winter night.


I had a short talk with with famous anti-poverty activist Jean Swanson of the Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP), and author of the book "Poor Bashing: The Politics of Exclusion".

There is good news and bad news.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson announced this week that the number of homeless people on the streets of Vancouver (not the suburbs, just the city of Vancouver) has gone way down: from 800 last year, to just 145 this year.

That is good news, and it shows around the city, with fewer bodies under tarps behind the trash bins.

However, Jean Swanson points out part of the "success" is providing more shelter beds, under Robertson's administration. The number of homeless people in Vancouver has actually gone up, Swanson says, but more people are in shelters.

This year Vancouver also opened three new buildings, out of a planned 14, to provide affordable housing for it's poorest citizens. There has been a bit of a fight about who should get a home first. Should it be people coming out of drug treatment programs or jail? Or people directly on the street right now. But everybody agrees more housing is good.

Jean Swanson says that program is late, with many more to build, while people wait. Plus, the City of Vancouver is supposed to buy one new property a year in the Downtown East Side, and hasn't for three years.

Swanson's group is demanding the city buy 5 properties a year for the next five years at least.

Meanwhile, the number of former hotels available for the poor (called "SRO's for Single Room Occupancy) is going down rapidly, faster than the government can build new housing. It turns out the city is also encouraging developers to upgrade properties, which are then too expensive for local residents. Gentrification threates to kill off the culture of the Downtown East Side.

One more plus for Vancouver: unlike the United States, in Canada a person does not need to have children to get welfare, including a housing allowance. The helps reduce homelessness. Others get disability pensions.

We didn't talk about harm reduction in Vancouver, such as Insite - the legal place to shoot up heroin or other injection drugs, with a medically trained person available. This helps prevent deaths from overdose, or street-drug poisoning.

It all adds up to a slight improvement in street homelessness. But the sky-rocketting prices of real estate in Vancouver, added to it's relatively warm climate (for Canada) - means the number of people without a home will continue to grow.

The Provincial government, just announced they will not fund 160 beds that were available last year. Yes, it's always good to slash social support for the poorest people, when they need it most...


I didn't have time to cover the hate affair local government have for people forced to sleep in their car, van, or old RV.

Mind you, I did ask whether sleeping in a car was legal in each of the four cities. See the results above.

But it's wild to see the last of the Middle Class demanding some of their former neighbors, foreclosed and now living in their vehicles - get out of town.

The California city of Santa Monica at least had the decency and sanity to arrange un-used parking lots for the mobile homeless overnight. You can park your whatever there, with a security guard around, but need the gas money to get out at 7 am.

Next door, Venice California is posting big signs prohibiting anyone from sleeping in a car or RV. Even across from empty lots where the economic crash prevented some new subdivision from going up.

Check out my tips for living in a car, in this Radio Ecoshock feature.

Here are some more great links to follow up on the story of homelessness in America.

HOMELESS IN AMERICA - Barbara Ehrenreich

Tent City - The Nation


more info at

To find out what homeless living is like, check out this video. Every day, approximately 10,000 people in Minnesota will sleep outside or in temporary shelter. This video allows us a chance to see the world from their eyes. For more information, please visit

If the economic situation in Europe, and America, and China is as bad as I think it is, many of us will experience at least a period of homelessness in the next few years.

It can happen quickly - maybe from a flood, storm, electrical blackout, or social unrest.

People write about being evicted with no chance to get their belongings after a marital complaint. Check out this dude's complaint, and his tips for "How to Be Homeless"

Maybe in America, it's better to say you are addicted to hard drugs, even if you are not. That might help you get shelter, the writer says.

I know an old Greek man whose little food stall in a local mall failed. He was tired, alone, 66 years old, and just went home. Two months later the mall lawyers seized his paid-off home, and all his possessions. Bingo, homeless.

In the U.S., a medical emergency can do the same thing.

We all need to pay attention to the rights and care of the homeless. That may be the bottom line of the civil rights we can expect.

"A society is ultimately judged by how it treats its weakest and most vulnerable members."

Alex Smith
Radio Ecoshock
Now broadcast by 48 radio stations.

No comments: