Homelessness and Solutions

Homelessness is now well-known as a national problem, one that had been worse in California. As I follow the progress of this issue I rarely read something that to me at least addresses a potential real solution. Mainly because I’ve been wondering who understands the source of the problem, until I read a NYT piece on Dr. Margot Kushel, a longtime advocate for the homeless, now director of the Benioff Homelessness Initiative at UCSF which has a $30 million endowment from the billionaire Salesforce founder. She reminds us that we know what works: Housing First, programs where finding housing is the first and fundamental step to being able to help many who are homeless. But she also acknowledges that “We’ve always known that homelessness is a result, pure and simple, of poverty: the lack of a living wage, the lack of affordable housing and the insidious impact of racism. If we don’t fix the fundamentals, we are just patching a leaking ship. And that is what has happened.”

In my neighborhood as in many others new apartment buildings are going up on almost every block, apartments which are by law exempt from rent control and called luxury units partly to justify their high rents with a slew of amenities. These units are touted by many in politics and elsewhere as the answer to homelessness—implying that a shortage of units is what makes rents unaffordable. And yet when one remembers as was the topic of a post not long ago, that 44% of the labor force work at low paying jobs, economic inequality does seem to emerge as an underlying cause of homelessness. As the California legislature is struggling to come up with a new version of recently defeated AB 50 which wanted to supersede local zoning laws to be able to build more apartments such as those in my neighborhood, the views of Dr. Kushel gain added importance. Let her voice be heard.

Water and the Navajo Nation

58 out of every 1000 Native American households lack plumbing. For whites the numbers are 3 out of every 1000 households. That means no running water, no going to the tap or flushing the toilet as most of us take for granted.  Two organizations, Dig Deep and the US Water Alliance, recently issued a new report showing that some 2 million Americans lack these basic amenities and that Native Americans are more likely to be without than are any other group. Take someone like Darlene Yazze. She has to drive 9 miles to the community house of the little town of Dennehotso near the Four Corner Region of the Navajo Nation to get her water. She uses a large key which she has to plunge in the basin containing the water, turn it so that it opens the valve so that the water can run into her container. The water is not free and she was told the price is now going up. That is for drinking water only. To water her animals she needs to go to a windmill 5 miles away. There is no water there for the present which may or may not be a good thing because that water is contaminated by arsenic and uranium stemming from the nearby uranium mines. Even though they use it for animals although they will probably eventually eat those animals. The result is a much higher rate of cancer—in a region where healthcare availability is sparse.

While the report and the interest of the authoring organizations offer some hope, the problem is far from being resolved. It is estimated that it would cost about $200 million to provide water access and sanitation across the Navajo Nation. Somewhere within the increasing number of billionaires in the US, one could perhaps, or even ought to, come forward and give the needed $200 million.

Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vasquez

Dear Carlos. There’s unfairness and tragedy in the way you died, at 16 in a holding cell at a border patrol station in Weslaco, alone since family separation policies took you from the older sister you came to the US with. You’re the sixth minor to die in custody. Like them you shouldn’t have died. You had the flu and your fever reached 103 and yet instead of sending you to emergency they put you in a cell with another sick boy so you wouldn’t contaminate others. The guards were supposed to check on you per the orders of the nurse practitioner who had seen you but didn’t. There are a lot of irregularities that have and will continue to surface as a result of your death. Already border patrol agents have been ordered not to rely on video to check on someone who is sick, but need to go in and see for themselves and take their temperature. You wanted to come to the US to be with your older brother who is here and works in construction. You didn’t make it, you didn’t get to see the joyful side of life, you didn’t get to experience love except from your family. But you accomplished a lot you didn’t expect to accomplish. ProPublica wrote a long article about you and through it hopefully through other such articles and the press it generated you are becoming an example and a symbol of how we treat minors at the border, and because of that, maybe things will change more than just ordering agents go into cells to check on those who are ailing. On behalf of all those who will end up benefiting from your short life, I want to thank you. I am sure that doesn’t make up for the loss you are to your parents and siblings, but even they would feel gratified by what amounts to a sacrificial life. Your death contributes to putting our system of treating migrants and refugees to shame, and that’s why to me at least it was not in vain.

44% Have Low-Wage Jobs!

The Brookings Institution has a report that plainly says that 44% of the US labor force is low-wage earners. That is 53 million Americans 18-64 whose median wage (the point where as many fall below as are higher) is $10.22 an hour or an annual salary of $17.950. These are staggering statistics. I originally put the article away and yet was so struck by it, the numbers kept coming back. What haunts are the consequences. According to the report there is little chance of these workers being able to go into higher paying jobs. We say we have as near full employment as we’ve had in the last 5 decades, but what does it mean when almost half  the workforce can’t earn enough and can’t have access to upward mobility? These statistics open so many questions in a consumer driven economy. Since a recession is part of our future, won’t these workers be the first to bear the brunt? We speak of how politically divided we are. And that may be, but there are other divisions that are far more immediate to the well-being of citizens, economic equality for one. On a practical level, it’s not or ought not to be, difficult to imagine the hardships of living with so little money. When you’re struggling to that extent, it would seem that voting or participation in politics is not likely to be among your priorities.  Are these workers part of the growing number of working homeless, often families? And too what about the children? What kind of neighborhoods are they living in, what kind of schools? What does it mean for their future and the future of the nation? Perhaps even more to the point where’s the outrage when nearly half of our working force are low wage earners?