Culture

What People Get Wrong When They Try to End Homelessness

When my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2007, she asked me to promise I’d never move her into a nursing facility.  I promised, although I wasn’t sure how I’d keep my commitment.

I pulled out of a four-book editing contract and moved in with her.  I learned from a social worker that I could receive 20 hours a week of help from home health aides, as well as SNAP benefits and cash assistance to help compensate for my decreased work income.  It was enough for us to get by.

About a month after I moved in with her, we returned from grocery shopping to find a state trooper standing outside of our front door. He handed me a court summons:  My sister had sued me for custody of our mother.  She wanted to place her in a care facility.

The court denied my sister’s request and named me our mother’s legal guardian, but it appointed my sister as guardian of her property.  In 2009, when my mother passed away, my sister evicted me.

The day I was scheduled to move out, I stood in a convenience store, dazed, as I stared at microwaveable meals.  These would be my new staple when I moved into the motel room.

My phone rang—my sister.  She told me she needed me out of the house in a couple of hours—she was a real estate agent and a client wanted to see the house.

“No hard feelings,” she said.

*            *            *

I was homeless for less than six weeks, a relatively short time compared to most.

The reason I fared better than many suddenly homeless people is because I was already in the social services system in Ocean County, New Jersey due to my mother’s illness.  Social services simply reopened my case and quickly provided temporary emergency housing.

For most people, emergency housing is just a port in the storm, since it only gives you six weeks to find permanent housing. It’s not easy to find a home—most landlords don’t want to accept housing vouchers for rent—but I was fortunate.  The woman who ran my church’s homeless outreach program vouched for me, so I was able to move into an apartment before my placement at the motel expired.

After my housing was stabilized, the trauma of familial conflict, loss, and eviction pummeled me like a tsunami.

The trauma of familial conflict, loss, and eviction pummeled me like a tsunami.

I was overcome with anxiety, convinced that things would never go right again.  Every time I heard a noise at night I would jump out of bed to check on my mother—worried that she was trying to get up and go to the bathroom by herself—before I remembered she was gone. In the mornings, depression made getting out of bed a struggle. Confused, I went to my local hospital where I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  For three months, I participated in an intensive outpatient treatment program: three days a week I received cognitive mental health counseling, medication, and group therapy.

I came to understand that being solely responsible for my mother’s care for two years, combined with fighting to prevent her worst nightmare—losing her home and being forced into an institution—had been too much for me.  My brain and nervous system had been denied adequate time to recover from prolonged, severe stress.

It took me a couple of years, but I finally recovered—or at least adjusted to living with PTSD.  And I wanted to use my experience to help others going through the same thing.

*            *            *

At first I thought I could teach people how to successfully navigate the social services system like I had. But I quickly learned that my experience wasn’t necessarily transferrable to them. The fact that I had already been in the social services system, and had a key relationship through my community, made all the difference for me.

For example, someone contacted me to see if I could help find housing for a young man who was living in the woods.  When we sought emergency shelter through county social services, they turned him down because he’d been homeless for too long. They prioritized people who had been homeless for less than two weeks, and he’d been homeless for four months. Then we applied for Emergency Housing Assistance, but he couldn’t get to the mandated weekly career or substance abuse counseling. Those offices were across town, and out of reach of public transportation. Plus, the county requires documentation proving you are not currently receiving unemployment benefits and a letter from the Internal Revenue Service stating that no relatives are claiming you as a dependent—complete with a mailing address.

That young man spent another year in the woods before he was taken to a county mental health facility. Turned out he was autistic, and therefore eligible for permanent housing in a facility for persons with disabilities.  The county didn’t seem to understand the urgency of getting people housed quickly so they could begin their recovery.  There were too many pre-conditions and not enough affordable housing units to get the job done.

*            *            *

Since people clearly needed much more than the current system could offer, I explored a different avenue: Advocating for a County Homeless Trust Fund that would secure the monies needed for a shelter and real-time emergency housing assistance.

Unfortunately, advocates’ conversations with elected officials weren’t productive. In one meeting, a political representative charged with overseeing social services simply ticked off a series of negative stereotypes: “The homeless have always been here no matter how much money we spend trying to solve the problem… Nothing seems to work… I think many of them prefer to live like that.”

Clearly, she didn’t know any homeless people. In my half-dozen years working with people without homes, I’ve met very few individuals who wouldn’t prefer having a roof over their head, security, privacy, heat, running water, a toilet.  Nevertheless, this mischaracterization of the homeless is common—I’ve heard it from social workers, religious leaders, and agency heads. If you repeat a lie enough times, it gains currency.

Advocating for the Trust Fund reinforced the same feeling I had when I tried to advocate for people navigating social services: Unless policymakers and government employees enlist the involvement of people who have experienced this kind of struggle, they will not understand, support, or implement the solutions we need.

*            *            *

In one sense, I’ve now come full circle.  I’m volunteering at the same homeless outreach center that first helped me when I was evicted. We provide people with necessities like clothing, blankets, tents, heaters, and food, as well as services such as haircuts and laundry.  The center also creates a sense of community where people can lean on each other as they try to recover from trauma and find stability in their lives.

Now I’m also trying to connect our outreach community with opportunities that will help people achieve financial and housing independence.  A couple weeks ago I took a few young men and women to a farm where I used to volunteer, so they can hopefully earn some money and pick up some skills in a growing industry—vertical farming.

It was a diverse group. One woman was living in the woods and “here and there.” Another guy has emergency housing assistance and tons of energy—he skateboards everywhere—but no job. The third guy has been living without housing for more than five years and was looking for work.

They were given a tour of the operation and invited to fill out an application for a 60-hour summer work and training program. The manager also gave them her cell phone number and said to call her anytime to check on job openings.

Before we left town, we stopped at a restaurant where one of them applied for a job.  Then I took them to the beach on the other side of town—none of them had ever been there before.  For a little while at least, they were simply young people enjoying a beach, free from the burden of being labeled “disaffected homeless youths.”

These moments of normalcy—in a culture that constantly treats us as flawed and abnormal—are part of how we find our way again.

*            *            *

My experiences since my mother’s death and my eviction have taught me what we need to do to end homelessness in America.  If we simply invested in affordable housing—and committed to getting people housed quickly so they can begin their recovery—we would immediately see dramatic reductions in homelessness and an increase in people contributing to our communities.  On top of it, we know that this approach would save our nation money.

But it doesn’t matter how many studies demonstrate that this is the direction we need to go.  What is lacking, still, is political will.  And that will only change when our elected representatives begin listening to—and taking seriously—those of us who have lived this struggle.

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Media and Politics

If the Media Keeps Ignoring Health Care, We’ll Lose It

There is a giant scandal in Washington this week—and it’s not the one blaring from your television screen. Largely without media scrutiny, the United States Senate is quietly getting ready to pass their version of the House bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act. If it looks anything like the legislation the House passed last month—and by most accounts, it does—the bill could take away health care coverage from millions (the House-passed American Health Care Act would take away health insurance from 23 million people in 10 years).

The Senate’s stealth strategy here should come as no surprise: They learned from the House.  After the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) found that 24 million people would lose health care under the initial version of the AHCA bill, constituents responded by flooding House offices with phone calls. Paul Ryan and Republican leadership were forced to cancel a vote in mid-March, because the public opposition to the bill made it impossible to secure the votes they needed. The House then went back to their members and passed a new version, with no CBO score or media coverage, in order to mask the effects of their bill.

That handed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell the playbook he needs to get his bill passed.  The Senate companion to the House bill is being crafted under lock and key, foregoing committee hearings, mark-up, or any public debate. McConnell went as far as kicking all non-leadership staff out of secret discussions last month to prevent them from disclosing information about the bill to the public. Even rank-and-file GOP Senators—who control the chamber and will likely be tasked with sending the legislation to the president’s desk—claim not to know what’s in it. According to Axios, the bill will not be released publicly even once it is complete. Instead, Mitch McConnell plans to send the completed text to the Congressional Budget Office for review, without any public scrutiny.

What’s shocking is not that the Senate is attempting to pass this bill under a shroud of secrecy; it’s that the strategy is working. As Vox’s Jeff Stein has been chronicling, most mainstream media outlets have either ignored the Senate health care discussions or downplayed their urgency.

Scanning the front webpages of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and CNN on Monday revealed no mentions of the health care bill—and the same was true for much of last week. Even politics-focused outlets like Politico and the Hill have largely relegated their coverage of the health care fight to specialized newsletters or paywalled content.

Instead, lead stories focus almost exclusively on the Trump-Russia investigation. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee last week dominated national news coverage. Later in the week, news that the FBI was investigating the president himself—and the president’s histrionic response on Twitter—crowded out any discussion of the health care bill.

The media have their excuses. Without senators willing to discuss the plans publicly, reporters have found it difficult to break news on the topic. Cable news has no compelling soundbites to play for their viewers because Republican Senators are not holding public hearings, committee mark-ups, or press conferences on the bill.

There has been little public outcry because there has been little sunlight on the Senate’s process

But, as newsworthy as Russia’s interference in the 2016 election is, a bill to take away health insurance from millions is, at the very least, equally worthy of public attention. The legislation Senate Republicans are currently discussing is likely to reinstate annual and lifetime benefit limits—even for employer plans outside of the ACA exchanges. This could be a death sentence for people who get sick and require expensive care to stay alive.  Recent analysis from the Center for American Progress (full disclosure: TalkPoverty.org is a project of the Center) revealed that up to 27 million Americans could face annual limits. And the Senate is planning to go beyond repealing the Medicaid expansion—which was part of the ACA—by imposing deep cuts to the traditional Medicaid program that helps seniors, kids, and people with disabilities in every state.

What the Senate is doing is an affront to democracy, but there has been little public outcry because there has been little sunlight on the Senate’s process or underlying legislation. For the public to hold their representatives accountable, they need to have accurate—or at least basic—information on what Congress is doing. Just as dogged journalism has revealed some of most critical details of the Russia investigation, it is the responsibility of the press to draw out the contents of the Senate’s health care bill—before it is too late.

Editor’s note: For more on the healthcare news that no one is talking about, take a listen to the latest episode of CAP Action’s Off-Kilter podcast here.

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Media and Politics

Maybe This Is the Article That Will Convince You Not to Cut Medicaid

My sister Maggie’s body attacks itself.

In 2010, she went to the eye doctor for difficulties she was having with her vision. She thought she needed a new glasses prescription. Instead, she was admitted to the emergency room because the ophthalmologist thought she was having a stroke or a brain tumor.

Many appointments and tests and anxious weeks later, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). MS is an autoimmune disease in which the body attacks the membrane around its own nerve fibers, causing scar tissue. A typical diagnosis requires two to three lesions on the brain; my sister’s brain had eleven. Because MS attacks the central nervous system, symptoms vary widely, ranging from fatigue and vision problems to seizures and paralysis. The worst part about MS is its unpredictability; one day my sister can seem healthy and the next day she can be overwhelmed with nerve pains, muscle spasms, and immobility.

At the time of her diagnosis, my sister was a 25-year-old stay-at-home mom to her 3-year-old daughter. Her husband’s insurance covered her then. But within a year of her diagnosis, they filed for divorce.

This is not uncommon for women diagnosed with serious illnesses. A 2009 study published in the journal Cancer found that a married woman diagnosed with a serious disease is seven times more likely to be divorced or separated than a man with a similar diagnosis. Among study participants, the divorce rate was 21 percent for seriously ill women and 3 percent for seriously ill men.

After my sister’s diagnosis, her husband withdrew from the family. He engaged in addictive and destructive behaviors. That left my sister in a position where her access to health care was tied to a marriage that was not good for her or her daughter.

The Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, made it possible for her to live as a single mom with a chronic illness.

It qualified her for Medicaid coverage in Montana. It ensured that she would not be discriminated against in the health care market because she had a pre-existing condition. And it let her choose which treatment plan would be right for her and her body.

For six years, she experimented with different medications, starting with the cheaper ones (which cost $1,000-$3,000 a month). Her symptoms did not improve: Sometimes she relapsed, sometimes she got sicker, and sometimes she had to take drugs to deal with symptoms caused by other drugs. Still, she felt it was worth it to try to slow the progression of the disease.

It would cost her $65,000 a year without insurance

Last year, she found a treatment that works: It’s called Rituxan and it would cost her $65,000 a year without insurance. It’s part of a chemotherapy treatment she does every few months. It leaves her feeling sick and unable to work for a few days, but it works.

Last spring, Maggie graduated from Montana State with a degree in social work. She recently got a part-time job at an assisted living facility, which is funded in part by Medicaid.

It’s a good fit for her, because full-time work would be incredibly difficult with both her MS and her current treatment plan. It’s also a good fit for her because Maggie is one of the most caring people I know. She works with some of the most marginalized people in our society—elderly individuals, people with mental illness, those with severe disabilities—all unable to work or care for themselves.

The Congressional Republican health care plan could change all of that.

Under their plan, my sister could lose Medicaid because her part-time, low-wage income would disqualify her.

Under their plan, my sister could lose coverage for Rituxan, the only treatment that has worked for her so far.

Under their plan, my sister’s pre-existing condition could be used as justification to raise costs on her medical insurance.

Under their plan, my sister’s mobility and opportunity would be more limited by her economic insecurity than they are by her MS.

This is what it means to be uninsured. It means you cannot live safely and comfortably in your own body.

Maybe, if one of them is sympathetic enough, we'll be taken seriously.

It is excruciating to have to determine the trade-offs your family can make to maintain your sister’s health care. It is even worse to make those choices, knowing they would become worse under all the new iterations of the conservatives’ health care plan. But the true hell is having to have to do it all in public: To have to write articles like this with personal testimonies, create heartbreaking GoFundMe campaigns, share that video of Jimmy Kimmel talking about his baby with tears in his eyes, in the hopes that they go viral. Maybe, if one of them is sympathetic enough, someone will look my sister in the eyes and decide her pain, and her life, should be taken seriously.

At the very least, today, I will be calling undecided senators in Congress so that they can understand the impact of their vote. But let it be known that it’s only one among hundreds of efforts my family, like so many others, undertake to get access to health care for the people we love.

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Media and Politics

Mayor Bill de Blasio: How We Cut Poverty in New York City

I came into office determined to use every tool available to a Mayor of New York to fight the inequality that is threatening the city I love. There’s still much more to do, but New Yorkers should be proud that we have taken big steps forward.

Our city is now measurably fairer. By the end of the first two years of our administration, the share of New Yorkers living in or near poverty fell almost two percent. We now have the lowest share of New Yorkers living at or near poverty since the Great Recession.

This did not happen by accident. It was the result of choices we made every day. We chose working families over corporations. We chose seniors over developers. We chose neighborhoods over hedge fund billionaires. The income inequality that has been strangling us is the result of choices made by the 1 percent, for the 1 percent. We made choices for the 99 percent.

We made those choices on a massive scale. We added an entire grade to the country’s largest public school system: nearly 70,000 4-year-olds now receive free, all-day high-quality pre-K. That saves the average family $10,000 a year, and frees parents to pursue their careers and education.

We marched with workers and won a $15 minimum wage. We set a goal to build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing, the biggest program in a quarter century—and we’re ahead of schedule. We’ve seen the first rent freezes in city history, affecting 2.5 million New Yorkers. We are rewriting rules to make employment work for everyone, including guaranteeing paid sick leave and placing restrictions on potential employers inquiring about salary or criminal history.

These choices are producing results.

This is the result of choices we make every day.

Poverty is now at its lowest level since the Great Recession and a broad cross section of New Yorkers are reaping the benefits. Many groups saw significant declines in poverty or near poverty including: single parents; seniors; adults of working age; people with high school educations; blacks, Latinos, Asians and whites.

We are already five years ahead of schedule on our goal to lift 800,000 people out of poverty by 2025. We project that by the end of this year more than 280,000 men, women and children – about the population of Newark, New Jersey – will rise out of poverty or near-poverty.

Given the tired and phony arguments conservatives so often trot out to oppose policies like these, it’s important to state clearly that our decisions have helped our economy. Let me repeat that: We’ve helped working people and our economy is stronger than ever.

Employment is at a record high. Just 4.1 percent of New Yorkers were unemployed in April 2017. That means there are a quarter million more people in the workforce today than in 2013.

The jobs New Yorkers are finding are good jobs. The share of New Yorkers earning more than $50,000 a year grew to more than 48 percent in 2015. That is its highest level in a decade. Comparing 2015 to two years before, almost 125,000 more New Yorkers are earning more than $50,000 per year.

There are many reasons for Americans to be worried these days. We have a president and a Republican-controlled Congress that want to take us backwards. Their plans would give tax breaks to billionaires and corporations, let Wall Street write its own rules, and gut health care for millions to fund handouts for millionaires.

At the same time, I’m hopeful. Big, bold progressive policies are working right here in New York City and that matters now more than ever. People are watching us. They’re looking for an antidote. They’re looking for a different way forward and we are proving that an economy by, for, and of the people can be a strong and growing economy, too.

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Culture

A Year After Pulse, We Are More Than Survivors

I still remember the metallic taste in my mouth when I first heard about the Pulse night club shooting. I was sitting on my couch, hung over from DC Pride, scrolling through Twitter. My whole feed was full of AP alerts tallying the body count, of articles describing the lives lost, of members of the Orlando LGBTQ community searching for their loved ones. Almost immediately after that initial wave of nausea hit me, the tears came.

And for about 24 hours, maybe more, they didn’t stop.

Many LGBTQ people know what it’s like to feel rejected. Too many know what it’s like to be attacked. But to feel terrorized was a sensation that many of us weren’t familiar with. A year later, we are still grappling with it.

I remember reading through the last names of those who were killed and seriously injured that evening. Those last names looked just like mine, and like those of the people I love and consider my chosen family. These gorgeous Latinx people went to a club—which has always been our safe place—to celebrate their community, to dance and release their inhibitions, and to be understood. Their freedom to express who they were, their right to create space in a world that didn’t always celebrate them, was brutally stomped out. There is no reconciling that.

That morning, I called my mom, wrote a piece on Medium, and then went to church. I sat with a friend, in my usual pew at St. Augustine’s—center aisle, four rows from the back—and listened to the chorale sing about love, piety, and stewardship. After the second hymn, I felt the lump begin to form in my throat and I started to cry again. Seated in a beautiful house of worship, surrounded by stained glass and marble, I felt robbed of something sacred to me: my sense of safety. I know that many of my friends felt the same way I did, and some still do.

We gave each other what we needed

I dragged myself into the office the next day, knowing it would be painful. I didn’t get much work done that day—at least, not as it was written in my job description. Instead, I helped fill our biggest conference room with staff who needed to feel heard and safe. We shared stories about ourselves, about our families, about being survivors of other horrifying acts of gun violence, about solidarity. The raw emotion shown in that room was so powerful. We cried and held one another, and we were honest with our allies about our fears. We gave each other what we needed that day: reassurance and compassion.

In the year that has passed since the Pulse shooting, we have learned a lot about our country. We have learned that homophobic politicians will do whatever is best for them, including ignoring the identities of the people we lost that night. We have learned that the gun lobby will use any tragedy to encourage the proliferation of gun use. We have learned that it continues to be dangerous to exist in this world as Latinx and LGBTQ, let alone both. And we have learned that the pettiness of Donald Trump, who thanked people for congratulating him “for being right on radical Islamic terrorism” instead of mourning the 49 lives we lost, knows no bounds.

But the most important lesson we have learned is that the LGBTQ community is strong. We are resilient. We are beautiful. We are politically powerful. No mad man, or coalition of racists or homophobes, can take from us what we manifest in each other: unapologetic love.

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