The September 2006 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee

 
 

National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website

 

 

In this issue:

Police Raids on Fresno Homeless

Memorial to Mary Who Died

New Orleans After Katrina

Troubles for the Berkeley Housing Authority

Link Between Foster Care and Homelessness

An Epidemic of Rising Poverty

Angel Behind Prison Bars

Blaming Street People for Cody's Demise

MASC Storage Lockers Offer New Help

Interview with Osha Neumann, Artist/Attorney

Resisting Unjust CEO Pay Rates

Liberation from Hell of Addiction

Poor Leonard's Almanack: On Social Change

Sept. Poetry of the Streets

Review of Jan Steckel's Poems


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Street Spirit is published by American Friends Service Committee.

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The views expressed in Street Spirit are those of the individual authors alone, and not necessarily that of the American Friends Service Committee.

A National Epidemic of Poverty

by Janny Castillo

Residents of McKinley House in Berkeley gather to discuss the problems and solutions to homelessness. From left to right, Elizabeth and her husband Peter, Mikki, Tamika and her daughter, and Brenda. Janny Castillo photo

McKinley House in Berkeley is a transitional house operated by BOSS where families can stay a year or longer to search for affordable housing, find work, and complete training programs. Seeking answers from homeless people themselves about the causes of homelessness, I met with six residents and Family Services Coordinator Nikki Sachs in a small studio-like unit at McKinley House.

Above our heads in the common room, we heard children engaged in an art class. There was a moment of quiet as everyone thought how best to answer the question: "How do people become homeless?"

Peter and Elizabeth

Peter, who is quiet by nature, spoke first. He said, "Lack of jobs, drugs... There's no one specific reason why people become homeless." Peter mentioned that his experience in recovery groups taught him that drugs and alcohol abuse play a major part in people becoming homeless.

Peter and his wife Elizabeth have been together for five years, and they have been homeless for most of that time. They have survived having their children taken away from them, life in a homeless shelter, severe depression, and drug addiction.

Elizabeth spent her teenage years in a foster home. She remembers the day her mother left her home and family when she was only 11 years old. Elizabeth said, "My mom came home with a guy who turned out to be more than her friend. She left my dad, me, and my two younger sisters."

Her father was "highly strict," Liz said. "My dad believed in hitting us with belts and extensions cords. We weren't allowed to do anything. I clashed with him every day."

At the age of 14, Liz ended up in a foster home that also turned out to be very strict. "So when my friend's mom said that she would be willing to be my foster mom, I left. I stayed with her until I was 18."

Liz then enrolled in Chico State University where she "partied her way out." College life was a whirlwind of drugs and alcohol and little learning. For many college students, Liz's lifestyle was the norm. Alcohol abuse is rampant on U.S. college campuses.

A report by NIAAA, A Call to Action: Changing the Culture of Drinking at U.S. College Campuses, estimates that 2.1 million college students drive under the influence of alcohol; 500,000 students suffer nonfatal injuries; more than 150,000 students develop alcohol-related health problems; and 1,400 college students die from alcohol-related causes annually.

One day, after partying all night, while she was in terrible shape and on her way to an interview, Liz met the man who would father two of her boys. He told her he had something that would keep her awake for her interview. It did the trick, and she became instantly hooked on "meth" (methamphetamine).

Liz said, "After that, most of the time I stayed in this house off campus with him. It wasn't a good scene - lots of drugs, lots of everything." They were together for four years until she could no longer endure the physical, verbal, and emotional abuse. She took her two boys and left for the Bay Area. "We have pretty much been homeless since Chico," she said.

In the Bay Area, Liz met Peter, who took the family to live at his mother's house. She soon became pregnant. Little Alec was born with amphetamine in his system. Liz also tested positive and the hospital insisted that she sign up for a family maintenance program.

Liz found it hard to cope with the living conditions and the responsibility of raising three young boys; she slipped further into her disease and deeper into depression. One day, Child Protective Services (CPS) knocked at the door. They thought Liz looked high, saw the conditions the children were living in, and took them away from her.

Fighting to stay clean

"I felt horrible and so out of control," Liz recalled. "I fought. I fought to clean up the house. I fought CPS to get my kids back. I fought to stay clean."

Peter remembered how hard it was to visit his kids in their foster home. "Alec was only 15 days old, but the older boys were devastated," he said. "I still remember the look on their faces when they had to go back to their foster kids home." It took six weeks for Liz and Peter to get their children back.

Yet her addiction took hold of her again and, after three weeks, CPS came again. This time, they did not take the kids, but insisted that they move out of Peter's mother's house. Liz's dad came to the rescue and took them in. "We went to my dad's house for like six months, (but) he assumed that we were drinking and using and kicked us out," Liz said.

After that, the family went from motels to family homes, back to motels, and finally to the Harrison House, an emergency shelter in Berkeley.

"The same week we got our beds at Harrison House, we had a CPS court hearing," Peter said. "They told us we had thirty days to straighten up or our kids are gone. That was two years ago in August."

The family credits their success to BOSS, which gave them the time and resources to stay clean and keep a roof over their heads. Nikki Sachs, the family services coordinator, explained that it is the family's hard work that makes all the difference in the end.

After working in a low-paying job for several years, Peter landed full-time work at a major grocery store. The family is getting ready to share a four-bedroom house in Oakland. To afford this rent, they will share the house with a single mom also living at McKinley House.

Both families have been applying rigorously for Section 8 and subsidized housing for many years, yet not one opportunity materialized into permanent housing. The wait continues for them, as well as many other homeless families.

Although their journey has beeen long and bleak, Peter and Elizabeth have not given up on their search for respect and self-determination. Their struggle reflects an inner light that is worth more than gold, and they no longer carry the label of being homeless.

No stability for families

Brenda has three boys. Her two-year-old son lives with her while her older two sons are staying with relatives. She is currently enrolled in the EBMUD training program. She has endured having her children taken by CPS, undergone a serious drug problem, and has joined Peter and Elizabeth in renting a four-bedroom house in Oakland. "No stability," she explained. "I could not find work that could handle the bills - that and drugs caused my homelessness."

Elizabeth nods her head. "Personally, I did not have stability either," she said. "I came out of the foster care system and was able to get my own apartment. I was free. I was 18. I went from one dead-end job to another; none of them got me anywhere. Then I had my first son and I couldn't find affordable childcare and I couldn't get anyone to help me pay for it either."

Nikki Sachs, formerly a foster care worker in New York City, said, "There's no safety net after foster care. If someone is struggling with a drug and alcohol problem, there's no one to help him/her hold it together until you get it together. Once you are 18, there's nowhere to go, no job, no higher education opportunities."

A job for life? Not in America

Mikki, an immigrant from Yugoslavia, came to America in 1982. He said that he came because of love and shared his first impressions. "It was a shock. The workplace culture was very different."

Mikki grew up in socialist Yugoslavia where the philosophy was a "job for life." He found a different set of values in the American workplace. "Here, people are disposable," he said. Mikki lost his Los Angeles printing job with Warner after the AOL merger. Employees that were allowed to stay were burdened with triple the workload for the same pay. "Also, the industry changed, everything became digital," he said. "And then, after a serious health crisis, my daughter encouraged me to come to Berkeley."

But job prospects were dismal in the Bay Area; he could only find low-paying jobs and eventually found himself homeless. "The middle class is basically gone," Mikki told us. "I now work for a drugstore in town, another low-paying job."

But Mikki has a plan. He is building a worm compost business from the ground up. Several years ago, he worked for Berkeley Worms which, for financial reasons, was on the verge of closing. He talked about how he made the decision to go into business for himself.

"I saw a great opportunity to continue its work because Alameda County needs this service," Mikki said. Alameda Point Collaborative lent him a piece a land where he has been experimenting and is producing excellent-grade compost. He considers his work to be a public service and an effective way to divert waste from landfills.

Mikki shared his thoughts on homelessness. "Because of the changing structure," he said, "the middle class is disappearing. New companies do not want to train the existing staff for the new professions and they lose their jobs."

Divorce, severe emotional stress, and medical emergencies are all situations that send the middle class slipping into poverty and homelessness. "Basically, people are treated like disposable material," he said. "People also hold the notion that homeless people are lazy, stupid, and are not willing to work. This is not the truth."

The chronically homeless -- people who have been living on the street for many years -- make up only 30 percent of the country's homeless population. A large majority of these chronically homeless people are veterans and mentally disabled. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans states: "Conservatively, one out of every three homeless males who is sleeping in a doorway, alley, or box in our cities and rural communities has put on a uniform and served our country."

In addition to the complex set of factors affecting all homeless people -- extreme shortage of affordable housing, poverty-level incomes, and lack of access to health care -- "a large number of displaced and at-risk veterans live with lingering effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and substance abuse, compounded by a lack of family and social support networks," according to the National Coalition of Homeless Veterans.

The growth of homelessness can only be understood by seeing the big picture - lack of living wage jobs, a severe shortage of affordable housing, the rising costs of higher education, and a serious lack of affordable child care and health care. All these factors combine to show why the homeless situation is so out of control and is now a national epidemic of poverty.

The conversation turned to how the public school system fails its students. "Basically, our public schools are not set up to help us in the real world." Peter said. "They try to prepare us for college even though most of us can't afford to go."

Another barrier to low-income housing is bad credit. "We have been denied quite a few apartments," Liz said. "They deny the people who truly need affordable housing because of mistakes they made years ago. I don't see how they expect us to move up in the world."

Brenda spoke about how losing your children can be a painful wake-up call for parents. "I fell into homelessness because I lost my son," she said. An unbearable depression set in. She went on to tell how hard it is to save money in recovery programs because most of your money goes to the program. "It was hard to lose my son, but he was the reason I found the strength to go into recovery -- to get him back," she said.

On the other side of the room, Tameka broke into tears. The pain of being separated from her daughter is still fresh in her mind. Tameka is brand new to McKinley House. She is pregnant with her fourth child. She has worked hard this past year to reunite her family.

What about solutions?

The group came up with some ways on how to prevent homelessness, as well as how to help people out of it. They came up with the following solutions.

1. Our nation needs to build more affordable housing, and landlords and HUD must do their part by looking past negative credit records.

2. The hundreds of billions of dollars currently being spent on war could be better spent on schools and social services. We need more social service workers and we need to give them better pay. Put more funding into social services, subsidized housing and homeless service providers.

3. Fix CalWorks. They give so little that it barely helps and then as soon as you begin to get on your feet, they cut you off. Allow people to work and give them some time to save money.

4. Allow folks on TANF and SSI to save some money to build better futures for their families.

5. Reduce market-rate rents in the Bay Area. Low income families can't afford to live here.

6. Stop treating homeless people like criminals. Many cities arrest people for panhandling and sleeping outdoors.

7. Create more funding and services to help homeless people who are mentally disabled and to help folks coming out of prison re-establish themselves.

8. Livable wages and affordable health care for all.


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