Monday, June 22, 2009

DC Mayor Thinks Homeless Woman "CHOSE" To Die In Front Of Shelter

I usually don't blog just 2 days apart; but, certain recent developments in the case of the homeless woman who died in front of a homeless shelter warrant me blogging so close together. As it turns out, the Washington Post and the Washington Times have covered the story (which can be found on-line) and the family of the deceased might sue DC Government and/or the shelter in court. Furthermore, DC Mayor Adrian Fenty is on record as saying that the woman "chose" to forgo shelter and sleep outside. (I doubt he ever met her.) As the Washington Post article stated, the deceased was recorded on audio tape just 2 days before her death stating why she was not in the shelter (though I'm not sure as to whether or not it was as detailed as what she told me). Below is my June 9th post, which is followed by some "Additional Comments" about this wrongful death.....

June 9th:

This will, no doubt, prove to be the single most emotion-provoking blog post that I've done to date insomuch as it is about a homeless woman who was failed by the system and died needlessly right in front of a homeless shelter. As a matter of respect to the deceased and her family (whom I'm not in contact with), I won't give her real name, but will instead refer to her as Jane Doughless. Nonetheless, in order that her death not be in vain, I will make others aware of the fact that she died needlessly and of the circumstances surrounding her death.

Jane Doughless was a 51-year old homeless woman who was living with HIV. She was quite open and honest about her condition, which is not surprising given just how outspoken and rambunctious she was. Most of those who knew her knew what she had.

Several weeks prior to her death, she attended a meeting that had to do with there not being enough homeless shelters in our nation's capital.(See my April 1st blog post. There has been a series of such meetings since mid-April.) Jane Doughless stood up at the meeting, told people about her being HIV+, and asked when she would be housed by the Permanent Supportive Housing program. Little did we know on that day that Jane's desire for housing would become her dying wish.

Jane had lived on the street for some time. She used to sleep near Union Station, due to there not being any space for her at any of the shelters. She eventually got a bed at the CCNV Homeless Shelter at 2nd and D Streets, NW. Ms. Doughless told other shelter residents and the staff what she had. She explained to me that the residents began to be mean to her, insulting and harrassing her. She had an altercation with someone and was put out for a single night in May as a punishment. She decided against returning to the shelter and spent what would turn out to be the last month of her life on that bench in front of the shelter, making a week-long visit to the hospital within that month. She was failed by the shelter staff in that they failed to gain control of the people who were insulting Jane Doughless. I vaguely recall her saying that the staff was mean to her as well.

Jane came down with pneumonia about 3 weeks prior to her death and just days after asking for help at the meeting. She went into the hospital for about a week, having been discharged on or about May 25th. She then returned to the bench in front of the shelter. It is not known as to whether or not the hospital let her go prematurely. If so, it might've been due to her being homeless and indigent and not being able to pay for her healthcare, which is why i chose the AKA Jane "Doughless". (I'm not sure as to what hospital she was in. I DID notice a hospital band on her wrist when I saw her following her hospital stay. She chose not to talk about it.)

While Jane was failed by the shelter and possibly by the hospital, she was also failed by DC Government's Dept. of Human Services. In April 2008, DC Mayor Adrian Fenty announced the inception of DC's Permanent Supportive Housing program. This program was designed to house DC's chronically homeless population. It, ostensibly, prioritizes who gets housed first based on the vulnerability index, a system that attributes a certain number of points to each housing applicant for each physical and/or mental illness that the person has. (Substance abuse is listed as a mental illness on DC's vulnerability index.) Those who have the most points are then determined to be the most vulnerable, and thus, those most likely to die on the street if not housed. They are then housed first.

Evidently, this particular point system is pointless. It has failed Jane Doughless. She was obviously the most likely to die on the street if not housed. She's dead. I'd have to assume that there are some homeless people who have multiple non-lethal illnesses and are being given more points than a person who has a single, lethal illness and that this is resulting in those who are near death not being housed. Such were the conditions that led to the death of Jane Doughless.

Jane Doughless was found sitting up deceased on a bench in 80 degree weather around 6 PM on Sunday, June 7th, 2009. That was the spot where she spent the last month of her life. It was also where she sat and socialized with friends in her last days. A temporary memorial has been constructed in her honor on the bench where she died. Though the memorial is temporary, the memory of her and her situation doesn't need to be.

Housing is a human(e) right. Jane Doughless was denied this right. In order that her death not be in vain, let us continue the fight for housing and other human rights. Let us not get angry only for a fleeting moment and then return to business as usual. Stay angry until we change the system that allowed this to happen to her, angry enough to fight for change. The story of Jane Doughless could very well become your story. In this economy, you could soon find yourself "Doughless". There, but for the grace of God, go I.....

Additional Comments:

(Please excuse my medical ineptitude, as I referred to the deceased as having been "HIV+" when, in fact, I should've said that she had "full-blown AIDS".)

How does one define "choice"? Mayor Adrian Fenty made a senseless, thoughtless statement (which I hope you find on-line by going to the Washington Post website). Leaving a shelter and sleeping outside because the staff won't get the harassment under control doesn't constitute "choice" in my book. Furthermore, she had come down with pneumonia last year and people knew that she was prone to it. This should've moved her to top priority for the Permanent Supportive Housing.

One should bear in mind that, while PSH is supposedly given to the "most vulnerable" first, this actually WAS NOT how it was given out at its inception. The "Housing First Program", as PSH is often called, was developed just prior to the highly-contested closure of the Franklin School Shelter in Downtown DC. (Google: Franklin Shelter.) The mayor was in a rush to house 400 single, homeless men so as to justify closing the 300-man shelter. It therefore stands to reason that some of the less vulnerable or altogether invulnerable men were housed while certain highly vulnerable women were skipped over, all this for the reasons of getting the homeless men out of Downtown DC, closing Franklin School Shelter and selling the building to some greedy developer for $21 million. "Jane Doughless" may very well have become one of the mortal victims of corporate greed, in that her housing was given to some man who was less in need of it so that a men's shelter could be emptied. This speaks volumes to the failures of the Housing First program. Jane Doughless was failed by the system.

Let us not forget that a mentally ill, homeless, Japanese immigrant had his head bashed in as he slept outside near the Watergate Complex on Christmas Eve of 2008. He too might have been failed by the system. (I believe that his story appeared in the January 10th, 2009 issue of the Washington Post.)


My next 2 blog posts will be about "why people become homeless" and "the proposed closure of the CCNV Shelter" respectively. (Google: CCNV.) I read the comments about my blog posts as often as possible and many people appear to be concerned about the homeless issue, with some wanting to know the root causes of homelessness. I will blog the answer soon.

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Saturday, June 20, 2009

Why Some Homeless People Have Difficulty Finding Work -- Part 2

As promised, here is part 2 of "why Some Homeless People Have Difficulty Finding Work". The good news is that there is a sustained effort to put the able-bodied homeless to work. However, we still have much work to do getting the homeless to work.....

On Thursday, June 4th, about 2 dozen people met with Joe Walsh, the director of DC government's Dept. of Employment Services (DOES) to discuss how his department could better assist the homeless in finding employment. They included others in DC Government, some homeless service providers, a formerly homeless homeless advocate (Steve Thomas of "Better Believe Steve") and myself. We discussed the matters set forth in the previous blog post as well as this one. I gave Mr. Walsh an article from the June 3rd edition of the Washington Times which explained that many homeless people work but don't make enough money to pay rent, with the average rent for a 1-bedroom in DC being $1,400 and the minimum wage being just over $8/hr. Joe Walsh seemed quite concerned and anxious to hear new ideas. He admitted that his department is not where it should be in terms of serving the DC community and expressed a willingness to have future meetings and work with us to better serve the homeless community. Though I haven't heard from him since, it has barely been 2 weeks. Just how much Joe Walsh will actually do for the homeless has yet to be seen.

We explained that homeless people often don't have enough money to ride public transit or buy lunch for the first 2 weeks of work (as mentioned in the previous post). We also explained that the One-stop Career Centers which his department runs are too high-tech for some homeless people.

DOES' One-Stop Career Centers are employment centers that are designed for those with a moderate to high level of computer skills. A person can sign up for orientation and take a basic education test (the CASAS test), after which they are put into the department's computer system. From that point onward, they receive job postings on-line. This proves to be challenging for people who might not have any computer skills, especially those 40 and over who grew up in an era when computer skills were not considered important. (I only learned to use computers in November of 2006.) As a matter of fact, the woman doing the orientation clearly stated that she didn't have time to tutor anyone on how to use the computer and advised that anyone who needed a high level of assistance sign up for a computer course at the library. The unfortunate truth is that a person might need to know how to use a computer in order to get a job digging ditches.

Another problem with DOES' system is that, if someone fails the CASAS test, they can't re-take it for a whole year. While DOES will assist the person in finding an A.B.E. (Adult Basic Education) course and a job-readiness program, they won't assist the person in finding employment until that person passes the test, which is designed to ensure that one is operating at an 8th grade level or above. While other homeless advocates and I understand that certain education requirements are necessary, we maintain that even those who fail the test must sustain themselves in some way and that it is unreasonable to make someone wait a whole year to re-take the test if they failed by just a few points. Even those who fail the test need to eat.

Joe Walsh explained that the law won't allow him to put One-Stops in the shelters but that having representatives to do presentations on the services that they offer and sign people up for services at the shelters was a feasible option. (Just yesterday, I received word of this having happened at one of the shelters, though I've yet to confirm it or get any details.)

However, what I HAVE seen is that Federal City Recovery Services (which is featured in one of the videos on the right side of the screen) is serious about helping people to move beyond homelessness. They returned for the 2nd time on June 18th so as to connect dozens of homeless people to services which include but are not limited to employment. (See video.) They plan to return bi-weekly. FCRS must also be commended in that they let the homeless individual design his/her recovery plan. I believe that we all can agree that, if the mayor and DC Government want to end homelessness in the District, they should help people to find employment with a living wage as opposed to just closing down homeless shelters and thus hanging people out to dry.

I'd be remiss if I were to fail to mention those who helped me to hold down my job. I began work at the Developing Families Center in NE Washington, Dc on April 21st of this year. I actually hadn't been looking for work, as i was busy enough doing my homeless advocacy. As indicated in a previous post, a friend purchased a cell phone for me so that I could be reached more easily and told me that he would buy 200 minutes for me but that I would have to take over the payments. He returned a week or so later to tell me that a friend of his had a job opening.

For the 1st week, I walked 3 miles to work every evening and didn't eat much of a dinner. (I work from 6 to 10 PM, whereas I used to get food from the salvation Army around 8 PM every evening.) Due to undiagnosed leg issues, the walk was becoming quite uncomfortable. There were days that I only ate 1 full-course meal.

On the 28th, I received word of a place that would help me with bus tokens. I went there and they were all out. The following day I was able to make my way to a computer and mass e-mail my contacts asking for help. Beginning on May 3rd, a couple of women that I know gave me a total of $110.00. I had actually received my 1st check on Friday, May 1st, though it wasn't for a full 2 weeks of work. The gifts (no, I don't have to pay it back) proved to be quite helpful nonetheless. even WITH the gifts, I barely had enough money to cover my expenses until May 15th. Since then, a couple more people have given me gifts. A man gave me $20.00 because he appreciates how I advocate for the homeless. A woman who viewed me on CNN (see video)sent me $30.00 and a transit card worth over $40.00.

While this is all good and nice, let's not forget that this is not all about me, but about helping ALL able-bodied homeless people to find work. I have certain advantages that are not common to other homeless people. I have over 700 contacts each in my e-mail and Twitter accounts and about 1,200 on Facebook. I'm relatively well-known due to my advocacy. This enables me to send messages to dozens of contacts, knowing that at least one of them will be ready, willing and able to help. I also have some computer skills and a high school diploma. I'm relatively well-spoken. Furthermore, I have money from my part-time job that enables me to seek full-time employment. Not all homeless people are as fortunate as me. It is for these people that I am most concerned. The system needs to be designed to meet the needs of the least of us. It is with this in mind that we must forge ahead and transform the system.

As a closing thought, let me emphasize that employment in and of itself is not enough. There must also be a living wage, affordable health care and affordable housing. After all, why bother working if you still can't make ends meet?????

NOTE: My next post will address the lies and uncertainties pertaining to the wrongful death of a homeless woman whom I gave the alias "Jane Doughless" in a previous blog post. As it turns out, DC Government might be sued in court over her death and they are on edge as they try to figure out what happened and who is at fault for this death.

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Saturday, June 13, 2009

Why Some Homeless People Have Difficulty Finding Work -- Part 1

Due to the recent public interest in the homeless issue as a whole and employment for the homeless in particular, I decided to re-post my May 3rd blog post and then to add some recent developments in my next post.. thank you for the outpouring of support.

My May 3rd Post:

With this particular blog post I hope to educate the public about the many reasons as to why some homeless people don't work. (Many actually DO have jobs.) I hope to foster some understanding amongst those who are not homeless as to how they can better help their homeless neighbors. After all, we are all just a paycheck away from being homeless.

I am reaching out to prospective employers in hopes that they will offer jobs to the homeless community, seeing that the Fenty administration is failing to do so. Which employers and concerned citizens will rise to the challenge? That remains to be seen.....

In my previous blog post, I commended D.O.E.S. (the Dept. of Employment Services) for responding positively to the homeless advocacy community when we reached out to them and initiated discussion on how to help the homeless to find employnent. I left the April 13th meeting with a good feeling and thought that our local government had a genuine desire to assist their homeless (voting, tax paying) constituents in finding employment. It only seems logical that, if you don't want the homeless to leech off of government and to usurp more than their fair share of public funds, then you'd help those who are able to work to find employment.

Boy was I wrong about D.O.E.S.!!!!! I must admit that I was way too optimistic way too soon. (This just goes to show that all of us, myself included, are prone to making mistakes.) Since that meeting, there has been much bickering via e-mail, as many people are unclear on what was said at the meeting and what we decided to do going forward. (I personally haven't been a part of the bickering. My schedule and circumstances won't allow it. LOL.)

Nonetheless, I sat right next to Clinton LeSueur in the April 13th meeting and heard him loud and clear. He struck me as being very receptive to what we had to say and sympathetic to the plight of the homeless. He gathered the ideas of the homeless advocates and had us to clarify our ask. Everything about his demeanor made me think that we had struck gold.

As it turns out, the long arm of putrid politics has reached into the Dept. Employment Services and that monster called the mayor has reared its ugly head again. I should've known that what is said around the meeting table is never final and that those who make promises often have to answer to others who sometimes force them to go back on their word. I'm left to wonder whether it was Joseph Walsh who is the director of D.O.E.S., or the mayor himself who has influenced Mr. LeSueur to reneg.

The impression that most of us had on the 13th was that we would tailor the concept of the One Stop Employment Centers so that they could better serve the homeless community and would set up One-Stop Centers in various shelters and other places that help the homeless. Our next meeting was going to be so that we could further hash out the details of what these "homeless One-Stops" would do and which shelters and homeless services they'd be located in. They would offer unskilled jobs to unskilled homeless people, as opposed to the homeless having to compete with college-educated people who are sometimes under-employed at unskilled jobs. They would offer job training and connect people to jobs when they finish their training. They'd have literacy programs and help people with transportation to job training and eventually the job. They'd help people to assimilate into the work place and into society as a whole. They'd reach out to the homeless people who might've given up on the notion of ever doing better for themselves.

Yes, these "homeless One-Stops" would do all of this and much more, if they were to materialize. It seems that our hopes may have been thwarted. Fortunately, there is still time to salvage the situation. We, the homeless advocates plan to continue our efforts. Let's hope and pray that our efforts pay off.

I'd be remiss if I were to fail to mention the fact that there are numerous other systemic reasons as to why many homeless people remain unemployed. I'll address a few of them in this blog post.

A homeless person often needs to choose between eating and working. Places that feed breakfast to the homeless begin serving at 7:30 or even 9:30. Most people would already be at work at that time. Then there are the shelters and feeding programs that serve dinner around 3:30 or 4 in the evening, when most people wouldn't've gotten in from work yet. The homeless need to be able to acquire a bag lunch early in the morning in order to be able to go to work.

Several years ago, I used to work at labor halls (day labor). I've had days when I worked 8 hours on an empty stomach. I didn't have a bag lunch or any money. Therefore, if it were my first time working at that particular labor hall or I just hadn't gotten any work in a few days, I had to either work hungry or not work at all, due to not having any lunch money. In some cases, I was able to find someone on the job who'd share their food with me. (I've never been very good at asking for favors.) I know first hand what it's like to lack lunch money or a bag lunch while working 8 hours or more. Most of my day labor was done in Florida (where there are 9 months of summer) and most of my work has been construction clean-up, demolition and other jobs that involve much manual labor and sweat. Working such jobs while hungry is not easy (or recommended by doctors). Once the day laborer gets paid at the end of the work day, holding a few dollars for lunch the next day is not difficult (unless they have an expensive habit). It's just making it through that first day of work that's hard.

Many shelters begin check-in around 4 PM and don't reserve beds for those with jobs. This forces the homeless to choose between work and a bed at a shelter. I know of only 1 "Work shelter" in DC -- Emery -- and it's all male. All shelters should be work shelters that accommodate the homeless people who have jobs. That is to say that all shelters should make provisions for a homeless person to sleep during the day if they have a night job, reserve beds for regular clients who can't be there during an early check-in because they haven't gotten off of work yet and do other things to help the working homeless who are trying to better themselves.

This problem, like most of those which I'll mention, is not confined to Washington, DC. At the Orlando Union Rescue Mission in Orlando, Florida, men begin lining up at 1 PM for a 3 PM check-in. In Miami, Florida, a homeless person must go to a central referral office at Camillus House in order to gain entry to a shelter. That office is open from 9 AM until 3 PM. This means that a person must take off from work once a week to get a weekly refferal for shelter.

One of the biggest barriers to employment for the homeless is the fact that some shelters don't have anywhere for them to store their belongings during the day. They are forced to carry everything that they own in the world with them as they apply for jobs. When a person enters the office of a prospective employer while lugging multiple backpacks and pulling a travel bag and they stack their belongings in the corner, the odds are already stacked (no pun intended) against them. The employer doesn't want to hire someone who looks homeless.

Add to that the fact that many of the homeless are afraid to give the shelter number to an employer while seeking a job. If the employer were to call that number and hear the person on the other end say something like,"Hello, CCNV Shelter....." he might hang up and decide against hiring the applicant. Fortunately, there is some salvation for those who have this particular concern. There are some free voicemail services that a homeless person can use to get messages from employers. This way, the employer doesn't need to know that the person seeking employment is homeless.

All in all, people are homeless because they can't get a job and they can't get a job because they're homeless. It's a catch-22. Therefore, I am, slowly but surely, losing faith in our local government and reaching out to the larger DC community for help with ending homelessness -- by employing the homeless. Who will answer the call????? Who will rise to the challenge?????

Some concerned citizens may be able to help the homeless with bag lunches that can be delivered early, thus enabling a person to go to work, possibly at day labor until they can find permanent employment.

Others might be able to help with storage issues, at least for those who are seriously seeking employment. (Assisting people in this area might prove to be expensive, if you were to try to help too many people.)

However, there are some things that don't require any money out of pocket. Prospective employers can make it a point to lay aside stereotypes about the homeless. The larger community can do the same. We can all adopt an attitude of wanting to help someone, rather than put them down. we can bear in mind that the homeless person who is seeking work is trying to better themselves and not add insult to injury by refusing to hire them because they "look homeless" with all of their luggage. We can engage in conversation with the homeless so as to gain a better understanding of their plight. Then again, we can just extend some common courtesy to our homeles neighbors while remembering that "we're all just a paycheck away".

ALSO: See the April 7th video (on the right side of your screen) of me speaking with my new boss who seems to understand all of the afforementioned issues.....

FINALLY: In my next blog post I will explain some details of how I got my job and how my situation compares and contrasts with those of other homeless people. Hopefully i'll be able to shed more light on how to effectively help the homeless to find work.

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