Tag Archives: homeless

America’s Refugees

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America’s Refugees

Seventy-five percent of extremely low income families cannot find affordable rental housing, but it’s not for lack of effort (iii). Rather, a deficit of affordable housing leaves more than 10 million U.S. families either stranded or teetering on the edge of homelessness. This is particularly common in Florida, where only 22 units of affordable housing are available per 100 extremely low income families (6). Regardless of political affiliations, we can all agree that increasing the inventory of affordable rental housing is a prerequisite for ending homelessness and giving hope to America’s refugees – extremely low income families making less than 30% of the average median income (1).

“Affordable housing” is defined as housing that costs 30% or less of a person’s monthly income. A household that spends more than 30% of their income on housing and utility costs is considered “housing burdened” and at risk of becoming homeless. HUD Secretary Julian Castro states that “there is a shortage of 7.2 million affordable housing units for the nation’s more than 10 million extremely low income families.” The direct result is that 75% of these families are forced to pay over 50% of their wages on rent, making them severely cost burdened.

Eventually, this burden will catch up with them. A missed paycheck or medical emergency might be the the straw that breaks the camels back, as these families are forced to make hard choices and compromises to make ends meet. Necessary medications are foregone, payday loans taken out, or credit cards maxed out with unsustainable debt. The consequences of these choices inevitably lead to a Catch 22 with no way out besides shelters, doubling up, living in motel rooms, sleeping in cars, or worse – becoming homeless. And in Central Florida, one in every 50 families and one in every 17 children will experience homelessness in the course of a year (45).

These extremely low income families are the working poor. They are the subject of the Heart of Florida United Way’s A.L.I.C.E. (Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed) Report, which details the struggles of Floridians trying to survive with only the most basic necessities. According to this report, the Household Survival Budget for a family with 2 children is $47,484; which only includes  Housing, Child care, Food, Transportation, Health Care, and 10% Miscellaneous (i.e. cell phone expenses). However, the median family income is $45,040 per year. It is estimated that 3.2 million households, or 45% of total households in Florida, are struggling to afford these necessities (4).

Add to this equation wage stagnation and the fact that only 22 units of affordable housing exist per 100 extremely low income families; it’s no wonder that nearly 70,000 homeless youth were enrolled in Florida’s schools in 2013. That is, 18 % of the Nation’s homeless school-aged children live in Florida (7). The psychological, nutritional and academic consequences for these students are the only part of this that adds up, concomitantly increasing the costs of public education, social services, and future prison expenses in the worst case scenarios. But most importantly, even the brightest children may be robbed of the chance to go on to lead healthy, balanced, and productive lives. Whether your political affiliations would have you fix this by increasing the minimum wage or not, we can all agree that there is a deficit of housing that is both affordable and available. Increasing this inventory is a public good and worthwhile investment in preventing family homelessness.

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There’s No Place Like Home

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There’s No Place Like Home

What if you could never go home? Or even see your family again except in Facebook pictures? I’m contemplating this on my flight home because this weekend I met a refugee from Syria in New York. He moved to the U.S. a few months ago, and he will never be able to return. Not just because of the civil war or violence that is ongoing, but also because he is gay. He is not homeless in the traditional sense; but if you consider the place where your family, relatives and loved ones reside as your home, then he is without a home.

His culture’s inability to accept homosexuality did not change the fact that he seems to love his home very much. He talked about the food from Syria with passion, as he discussed the different taste of U.S. hummus with our Israeli host. He described the different varieties of pomegranates in his homeland with a hunger in his eyes that expressed his longing.

Although his parents may never know or understand his sexual preference, he still loves and misses them very much. He told me that he would check his phone constantly because he never knew when his relatives would have Internet access to call, and he needed to be able to answer in case they got a chance. Communication was exceptionally urgent recently, as my friend’s mother had told him that Russian troops were just stationed in their village. He explained that this is a very bad sign and he feared for the lives of his family if the village were bombed. He was so worried that he hadn’t been able to sleep for 12 days since.

I could not even begin to imagine what it would be like to be unable to return to Belize, to never see Mamita again, or to only see my little cousins grow up in pictures. It’s hard enough to see my grandparents aging, but to fear that an off-target bomb could reduce my entire family to “collateral damage” in a moment’s notice? I would not be able to sleep either.

Meanwhile, across town, the leaders of almost every country in the world were in Manhattan for the United Nations General Assembly. I cannot understand how Americans, Israelis and Syrians can eat dinner together in peace, but our governments cannot take the time to ensure the safety of entire nations by resolving these issues themselves. Or at least get together over dinner and agree to stop supplying weapons to the governments and rebel groups that insist on causing problems. Real lives hang in the balance, and refugee crises can be prevented by keeping residents safe at home.

We discussed many things that night, including the geopolitical climate in the Middle East. We agreed that the conflicts were about power and resources, not religion like so many believe. We thought that the world would be a better place without governments or borders to separate the individuals that live within these artificial lines that some empires arbitrarily sketched on a map way back when. Just IMAGINE… If we were all citizens of the world instead of countries. Then a man could love a man, a Palestinian could love an Israeli, and everyone could worship the Creator in his or her own way; without arguing over who gets to sit at the UN’s table.

Dignity Village in Portland, Oregon

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Dignity Village in Portland, Oregon

Last October I visited Dignity Village – an institutionalized homeless encampment just outside of Portland, Oregon. I had stumbled upon the encampment online, and I jumped at the opportunity to see Dignity Village with my own eyes when I realized that I would be traveling through the area.

Dignity Village is a city-ordained “campground” located on Sunderland Street in Northeast Portland. It has been at its current location for almost 15 years, but most of the residents of Portland have no idea that it exists. It is located near an industrial area in the parking lot of the city’s composting facility. I met a resident named Brian as we checked in at the security desk, and he toured me through the village to show me the amenities.

Brian explained that the “tiny houses” were built by churches and community organizations to accommodate the formerly homeless residents. The structures were built to be no larger than 10’ x 12’ so that building code regulations and permitting were unnecessary. There is no electricity in the houses, but propane heaters donated by the fire department kept the residents warm at night. Residents are required to pay $20 per month in rent, along with offering 10 hours of community service per week (this could include picking up trash, chopping firewood, or manning the security desk as Brian had been doing when I arrived). Electricity is available in the “common area,” along with wifi and cable television. Anyone, including non-residents, can visit this community space between 8 AM – 10 PM, to warm up, use the internet, or just hang out.

A sense of community existed in the village, which I believe is an essential element in the reintegration of marginalized groups into any society. In fact, the entire village started as a group of homeless individuals who banded together while struggling to survive the winter, by forming a tent city underneath an overpass in downtown Portland. Whether intentionally or not, this became the impetus for a movement that demanded the right to housing back in 2000. Eventually, thanks to the work of advocates and community stakeholders, the City of Portland agreed to lease the parking lot of their composting facility to the board of the 501c3 that governs Dignity Village.

The results have been incredible – a sense of community and participation in civic society that is unprecedented in any homeless shelter or section 8 housing, the formation of micro-businesses by residents, and a waiting list of other homeless individuals who would like to become a part of this community. “The five rules are all very basic; No violence, No theft, No alcohol/drugs, No constant disruptive behavior, and Everyone must contribute at least 10 hours per week to better the Village” 

It made me think: what are we waiting for? why can’t we build tiny houses to house the homeless now??  There must be something to this… I’m not saying that they have all the answers, but it seems like the rough draft of a beautiful masterpiece.

Cultural Revolution

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Cultural Revolution

Last week makes it 4 years since my best friend Sarah and I went to Occupy Wall Street in New York City. After feeling like the odd ones out in a hoard of angry millennials, we left with the realization that nobody else had read the manual or understood that our “One Demand” was supposed to be an end corporate personhood. We didn’t even get to go camping in the financial district because no one had bothered to pull a permit for the gathering. (I told them that the point of civil disobedience is to break the laws that are unjust, not the ones that keep us safe, like permitting.) But the dialogue that began that weekend was the real take-away from our experience with this grassroots movement.

I returned to finish my last semester at UF, realizing that I was way to small to make any real impact on the state of US or international finance. But I joined the solidarity movement that arose as “Occupy Gainesville” in my college town. Just like in New York, nobody could agree on the intricacies of our manifesto or decide on a cohesive plan of action. However, we coalesced around a park in the middle of downtown Gainesville called “Bo Diddley Community Plaza,” named after the Originator himself. It was our struggle to Occupy this space that confronted us with the real victims of the financial crisis: the homeless. As neither of our groups were allowed in the park after hours, they became our greatest cause.

We protested at the Alachua County Commission meetings, and advocated for the rights of the homeless to have a place to stay. We protested the meal limits imposed on the local churches, preventing them from feeding more homeless. We slept on the sidewalks with the homeless at night, just outside of the plaza, and kept night vigils to protect our group from harm. We had community meals, and ate together at least once a week.

Some of my friends understood, but the majority of them didn’t. Sarah was the most supportive. She even traveled to Gainesville for a Peace Protest, where we stayed in the plaza overnight and demanded the rights of the homeless to sleep there whenever necessary. Sarah and my friend Viv stayed with me for the majority of the night, and left to get coffee just before the police arrived to arrest us all. I was arrested for breaking a law that was unjust: sleeping in the plaza. I still believe that the homeless and I deserved to stay in Bo Diddley Plaza if there was nowhere else available to stay or Occupy.

My experiences at Occupy Gainesville made me realize that the real achievement of the Occupy movement was not revolution in the traditional sense. It was more of a cultural revolution. It was meant to get us out of our houses, to bring us together in the general assemblies, and to discuss the problems that we all faced, together in civic society. I mean, how are you supposed to love your neighbor if you don’t even know them?

Sarah and I continue to discuss the failures of the horizontal movement that was Occupy Wall Street to this day. But mostly we talk about the memories we made, and the time we spent fighting for justice. It made us each into the people that we are today, and we certainly cannot regret that.