Cody at Stewpot

Cody, a junior political science major, received a public service internship award from the Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility this summer. She will be working with the Stewpot in downtown Dallas. She plans to attend several City Council meetings and to learn about the public policy of homelessness and how it is changing in Dallas, with the opening of the new and nontraditional Bridge Homeless Assistance Center. She hopes to help the Stewpot understand the attitude of the city toward the homeless population and the reflections of that attitude in city policy.

Election ’08 and homelessness

The following is an article Cody wrote for Street Zine, a newspaper for the benefit of people living in poverty:

How important is the upcoming election for those who are homeless or on the brink of homelessness? Where do the candidates stand on issues relevant to homelessness? Some online research reveals that most of the campaign dialogue about homelessness focuses on veterans’ issues.

In 2007, Barack Obama introduced the Veterans Homeless Prevention Act in the U.S. Senate, which would provide measures for pairing housing with vets and veteran families at risk of homelessness. It seems that this bill is stuck somewhere in the middle in the Senate, although it has been passed in the House. On Obama’s official website, he lists his goal to “combat homelessness among our nation’s veterans” by providing housing and creating a more effective health care system. In the U.S. Senate, he served on the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

On the Democratic support website ActBlue.com there is a page titled Homeless Vietnam Veterans for Barack Obama, and there is even a blog titled Homeless for Obama, which seems to be written by a homeless woman from Long Beach, California. In her profile, her occupation is listed as “survival.” The blog shares the opinion that support for Obama is imperative to the homeless community in the United States. Another message from this blog, which is simple but so important, is that “homeless can vote.” These blog websites generally discuss Obama’s legislation on and commitments to veterans’ affairs and more accessible healthcare as reason to support him. While they are not sources of concrete research, they reflect a unique aspect of support that exists for Obama in the homeless community.

There is not quite so much enthusiasm evident online with regard to John McCain’s campaign, but as a veteran of the Vietnam War he does hold a certain amount of authority on veterans’ issues. Like Obama, he makes a commitment to homeless veterans on his official campaign website. He claims to have supported bills that lend aid to veterans in need, but does not list any specifics. The website OnTheIssues.org lists extensive commitments to reduce homelessness from McCain, but they are cited from 1998 and 2000 and there is no mention of similar commitments in his current campaign material.

Ultimately, both candidates make similar promises with regard to homeless veterans. However, there are countless other issues to base a decision of preference on. Check out the websites, and while you’re online request a voter registration form if you haven’t already. And remember to stay informed about local races, as well!

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Appearances and homelessness

I visited the Bridge Homeless Assistance Center last week for a meeting with the chief executive officer of Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance (MDHA). MDHA manages the Bridge and is the “regional authority” on homelessness. At least that is what I am told each time I contact the city with a question about its policy toward the homeless. Anyhow, I visited the Bridge, which was interesting but not quite satisfying as the chief executive officer wasn’t there. His secretary promised to call to reschedule (again) but I have yet to hear from her. However, I realize that he is incredibly busy.

Visiting the Bridge, I stood in line at a side entrance (I am not sure if it is the only entrance) with a handful of apparently homeless people. The security person was checking inside everyone’s bags and using a wand to swipe people, but he did not follow any of these steps with me. On a similar note, I was out of town for the opening of the Bridge, but I was told that security was checking homeless people based on appearances, letting some people through and making others wait in line. However, I must add that another person who was present said that wasn’t true. Nonetheless, I think it is worth noting that apparently some people do not need to be checked at security based on appearances.

The Bridge was remarkably calm. When told that the MDHA chief wasn’t able to meet with me, I even used the library computers to check my email to pass time before heading to my next appointment. I did note, however, that a large number of people were lined up waiting for lunch, so this might have attributed to the tranquil atmosphere.

Chronic homelessness

I was able to speak with my supervisor at the Stewpot about the way that we are dealing with homelessness as a nation/state/city. At all levels, we focus on chronic homelessness, as explained in my previous post. The reasoning is that these are the people who need help the most (see definitions below). So focusing on the chronically homeless is supposed to be the compassionate way to go. It can also be framed as the most logical way to deal with homelessness from a financial aspect.

The chronically homeless place a larger burden on services that are funded by taxpayers – they frequent the ER, for example, because they often have health problem and are homeless for long and/or recurring amounts of time.

Temporarily homeless - persons who experience only one spell of homelessness, usually short, and who are not seen again by the homeless assistance system;

Episodically homeless – those who use the system with intermittent frequency, but usually for short periods; and

Chronically homeless – those with a protracted homeless experience, often a year or longer, or whose spells in the homeless assistance system are both frequent and long. Problems associated with chronic homelessness include disability, heavy use of services (homeless assistance system, health and social services), engagement with treatments (that have not helped), and multiple problems.

This information taken from U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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Chronic homelessness: What about the other 5,000?

In 2001 there was a national call to end chronic homelessness. Basically, President Bush and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development told cities they needed to develop 10-year plans to end chronic homelessness. Mayor Laura Miller got the ball rolling, and a 10-year plan was developed and finished in 2003. Apparently, cities across the country have these plans to end chronic homelessness.

But what I want to know is, why do we focus exclusively on chronic homelessness? A person is defined as chronically homeless if they have been homeless for a long time (a year or more) and suffer from something that prevents them from becoming un-homeless (mental illness, chemical dependency, disability, etc.).

But get this – when MDHA did its point-in-time homeless count in 2008, only 611 of 5,869 were chronically homeless. The percentage was similar last year. I am sure there is some reasoning, but I am going to ask Mike Faenza about it because I find it a little puzzling (my last week’s meeting was rescheduled to this week). Maybe ending all homelessness is just too big of a task?

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Every vote counts

Monitoring City Council meetings has turned out to be a little slower/less exciting than expected. It seems that the City is letting the Bridge run for a while before addressing more homeless issues. Furthermore, because Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance (MDHA) is the official authority on homelessness, the Department of Environmental and Health Services, which usually deals with homelessness, has little information to share. So I am turning my attention to another aspect of my internship with the Stewpot.

I will work with the lead caseworker at the Stewpot to organize a small series of voter registration and education workshops for clients. The Stewpot has done some voter registration in the past, but not this year. With this being such an exciting and important year as far as voting goes, I was a little perplexed. Turns out, the Stewpot doesn’t really register the homeless for the purpose of voting, but for the purpose of a valid form of state identification. A voter registration card helps a homeless individual establish an identity both personally and legally.

In my workshops I’ll have voter registration cards and information about voting rights and the election in general. Most people who register to vote at the Stewpot will use the Stewpot’s service of offering a physical address for the homeless to use. This means that they will vote in that precinct and I can provide information about early voting, polling places and candidates (in a fair and balanced manner, of course).

I’ve already had a couple people balk at my intention to register the homeless to vote, which follows with the stereotype of homeless as undeserving of basic rights that all citizens should enjoy. This is an election year when every vote counts – from the presidential down to the local races – and everyone deserves to participate. The Stewpot address falls in House District 108, and Democrat Emil Reichstadt is running against incumbent Republican Dan Branch. This is a race that could swing the Texas State House from Republican to Democrat control. This means that those candidates should be looking to every voter for support, including the homeless who register in the district.

The voter workshops will not be for a few weeks, but in the coming week I’ll visit with Mike Faenza at the Bridge. Faenza is director of MDHA and has been extremely active in homeless policy in Texas. Even without talking with him, a visit to the Bridge is bound to be interesting.

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Homelessness in Dallas

My internship at the Stewpot has already exposed me to a whole new aspect of Dallas. The Stewpot is responsible for the meal services at the Bridge Homeless Assistance Center, which opened just this May. Before the Bridge opened, the Stewpot ran meal services out of its location near City Hall and provided several other services to the homeless. It continues to provide services that are not offered at the Bridge.

Notably, I have learned how many people in Dallas are involved with efforts to help the homeless. At my sister’s high school graduation party, a few neighborhood people talked about their involvement with the issue (mostly through their churches). At a political meeting, the same thing happened.

Also, I have become much more aware of and sensitive to stereotypes and harsh judgments of the homeless. The criminalization of the homeless is something that I will study throughout my time with the Stewpot – anyone working with or for the homeless is always conscious of this attitude. The job I have created for myself at the Stewpot involves a lot more time at City Council meetings than with homeless people, so I am in a slightly different situation than someone who volunteers at meal services, for example. Many people can respond to allegations that homeless people are “ungrateful bums” (actual quote) by describing how thankful and kind most homeless people are when interacting with volunteers and other workers.

My main aim is to study the public policy of homelessness – what can government do, in this case city government, to minimize homelessness? Through a contract with the city, the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance (MDHA) serves as the main authority on homelessness in the area. There are several MDHA people who will have valuable insight into the policies that Dallas is implementing and changing with respect to homelessness. However, I also need to be aware of state policy. A Dallas Morning News article brought up Texas’ dismal spending on mental health care, which is directly linked to chronic homelessness.

As I attend City Council meetings, speak one-on-one with City Council members, and attend MDHA meetings, among other things, I will have much more to write about, so stay tuned.

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