The Poverty Industry
- Written by Gary Davis
Though I’m not yet retired, I am a member of AARP. And one of the services notice AARP provides is to educate older folks about the scams that scummy people perpetrate against those who are vulnerable. Indeed, con artists identify the old, the young, the poor, and the struggling as particularly easy “marks.” When you’re young, you don’t know enough not be taken in by a flim-flam artist’s enticements; when you’re old, your faculties are just not working at capacity to question dubious claims; when you’re poor and destitute you’re so desperate that you’re willing to jump at anything that looks good.
But isn’t it the case that, particularly because these folks are so vulnerable, when we hear of some small-time crook taking advantage of them, we feel that person to be low as to be deserving of the lowest reaches of hell?
But what if the scamming of the poor, weak, and vulnerable happens on a wholesale, corporate level?
It’s not many books that get my blood boiling from the very first pages of its Introduction, but I just finished reading a pre-publication copy of a volume called The Poverty Industry by Daniel L. Hatcher, formerly with the Children’s Defense Fund who now teaches law at the University of Baltimore. And what Mr. Hatcher describes is a giant scam in which state governments with the assistance of private consulting firms (which themselves make billions off the deals) rip off federal government funds earmarked for public welfare programs to use for their own designs. What Mr. Hatcher reveals is that, whereas fingers are often pointed at poor folks lining their pockets with welfare dollars, it’s the state houses and the suites of corporate America that are really raking in the dollars for their own benefit.
Here’s an example, the vignette with which Mr. Hatcher opens his book:
Alex was taken into foster care at age twelve after his mother’s death. Over a six-year period, he was moved at least twenty times between temporary placements and group homes. Soon after losing his mother, Alex learned his older brother might be able to care for him, but then his brother died. There were also hopes that Alex could go to live with his father, but then his father died as well.
Unknown to Alex, he was eligible to receive Social Security survivor benefits after his father died. These funds could have provided an invaluable benefit to Alex, supplying an emotional connection to his deceased father and financial resources to help with his difficult transition out of foster care.
But without telling Alex, the Maryland foster care agency applied for the survivor benefits on his behalf and to become his representative payee. Then, although obligated to only use the benefits for the child’s best interests, the agency took every payment from Alex. The agency didn’t tell Alex it was applying for the funds, and didn’t tell him when the agency took the money for itself. Alex struggled during his years in foster care, left foster care penniless, and continued to struggle on his own. And after taking Alex’s funds, the agency hired a private revenue contractor to learn how to obtain more resources from foster children.
When I was a sociology major in college I engaged in a study of an aspect of organizational dynamics academics label, “the complexing phenomenon.” The essence of this "phenomenon" is that organizations originally designed to serve others in fact tend to direct less of their energy and fewer of their resources over time toward the mission for which they were founded, and instead devote more and more of them inward toward efforts aimed at their own self-preservation. This phenomenon is common, and all organizations with a mission (such as Nightwatch!) have to be ever-vigilant to guard against falling victim to it. But what Mr. Hatcher demonstrates is that current institutions directed to serve the public welfare have taken the "complexing phenomenon" a giant step further: much beyond simply channeling more of their own resources toward their institutional self-preservation, as Alex's case illustrates, they are actively exploiting the very people entrusted to their care in order to bolster their own coffers. Not only are foster care agencies accessing the individual funds of their clients, but courts are financing themselves by piling fine upon fine upon their indigent prisoners (even charging for access to court-appointed lawyers, in violation of the 6th Amendment), and nursing homes are pumping their residents with stupor-inducing psychotropics so they can cut back on staff while bringing in more residents toward the end of obtaining greater federal funds.
The ordinary citizen may not be aware this is happening, but among government wonks it is happening in plain sight. State legislatures have passed regulations Mr. Hatcher quotes from the public record that dictate in black-and-white that “no more that 17.5% of federal funds received for public welfare shall be directed to clients,” yet no one is calling them to account for it. When Mitt Romney was governor of Massachusetts, his so-called “Massachusetts Miracle” where he balanced the state’s books only got balanced in this way—by siphoning money away from that which was earmarked for the poor. Similarly, our new vice-presidential candidate, Mike Pence, has been celebrated for paying Indiana’s bills, but he did it exactly in the same way, from money given to the state that was meant for the poor. And this is not to say Republicans have a hammerlock on the practice. Jerry Brown has engaged in similar actions in California. And what’s been going on in Oregon also occupies a place in the book.
There is certainly enough here to outrage any reader, no matter where the reader stands on the political spectrum. Conservatives who believe government does not work will be fortified in that belief, because there is certainly plenty of evidence here that the government agencies commissioned to serve the public welfare are indeed NOT working toward their intended purposes. On the other hand, left-wing critics will find much ammunition here as well, as much of the dysfunction can be attributed to private companies that have invaded the welfare establishment to make billions (hence the title of the book, The Poverty Industry), who have come here because they see there is profit to be made.
The ordinary citizen may not be aware that all this is happening, but with the publication of this book, there’s no excuse now. This book deserves a wide readership.
Find it. Read it (the Kindle edition is only $2.99). And be prepared to feel your blood boil.
The Springwater Displacement
- Written by Gary Davis
The big news this week is the city of Portland’s announcement that it will be sweeping the entire Springwater Corridor of its homeless camps and putting a prohibition on any future camping there.
As this decision will displace as many as 500 people—the city itself has acknowledged that 1 in 4 of Portland’s homeless population is camping along Springwater, and it has been identified by Willamette Week as “the largest encampment in the Pacific Northwest and possibly the nation”—this decision should be everybody’s concern. But it’s an especial concern for us at Nightwatch because in our SE operation, these are the folks we serve. These are our people.
The city admits that there is no where else for those displaced from Springwater to go. Most of existing shelter beds are already filled. But city has said it needs to make this move because tensions have risen to such a point that there are serious safety concerns. A couple of weeks ago, the media reported a homeless-on-homeless shooting that happened on the Corridor not far from where our SE Hospitality Center is located. But that’s only part of the story. What the media did not report (though this story is confirmed by sources within the Mayor’s office) is of vigilante groups beating homeless people along the Corridor, even taking shotguns threatening them to leave.
So there are bad things going on. Homeowners near the trail report thefts. At least one even said his dog had been stolen. Where encampments have grown large, inevitable environmental and sanitation issues have risen as well.
But what will be mitigated when 500 people are displaced and simply forced to move somewhere else?
This past weekend while in SE I sought the reaction of a couple of our guests. Significantly, they made no excuses for bad behavior. They themselves admitted things has gotten bad. They could personally testify to it because they themselves had been victims, having their things repeatedly stolen by other Springwater denizens. Springwater, it seems, had become the drain around which all the cast-offs of society, including its sludgier parts had swirled. “There are bad people out there,” one guest said. “But everybody thinks because there are a few like that, we’re all bad people.” He then went on to talk about one encampment he knew along the Corridor consisting of a cluster of about a dozen people that kept strict rules prohibiting violence, hard drugs, and messy campsites. “But,” he said, “when the city comes in, they’re going to kicked out with everyone else.”
When I posted the news on Nightwatch’s Facebook page about the city’s decision to do the Springwater sweep, one person replied with this comment: “I have a politically incorrect question: was it legal to camp there in the first place?” My reply: “The search is on for legal places, but with PDX's lack of affordable housing, shortage of shelter beds, and limited spaces in mental health treatment and detox programs, they're hard to come by. And NIMBY attitudes make it even harder to come up with more.”
There’s no telling what the fallout from the evictions along the Springwater will be, but whatever they are, Nightwatch will continue to be on the job.
- Written by Gary Davis
A lot happened this past week, from the onboarding of our new Mental Health Specialist, Kolin Busby, to conducting interviews for our new downtown Program Coordinator who will be replacing Steve Hutchinson, leaving in a couple of weeks.
But there is one thing item especially that consumed my attention: blankets!
Three thousand blankets!
They’re coming our way. Thanks to my colleague Rick Reynolds at our namesake, Operation Nightwatch in Seattle, I learned of a provision in federal law that allows agencies involved in disaster relief—homeless agencies included among them—to apply for free blankets stockpiled by the Department of Defense. With the support of City Commissioner Nick Fish, we applied for 3000 of them, and despite the fabled slow-turning wheels of government bureaucracy, our application was quickly approved. A call came from a supply depot in Texas: the blankets were ready to ship!
Our response? “Yikes! Where are we now going to store them?”
Three thousand blankets are a pile of blankets. We did some quick calculations and figured we could store them in a 20’ shipping container. Our long-time supporters at Resurrection Lutheran Church agreed to having such a container stored on their property.
Alas, our initial calculations were too quick. We learned that the 3000 blankets would be shipped on 38 pallets filling a 53’ semi-trailer. Math whizzes we’re not, but even we figured that whatever fit into a 53’ trailer would not be able to fit into a 20’ container. We asked Resurrection whether they would also be willing to provide space for a second 20’ container. They graciously agreed. (I know: 53’ does not equal 2x20’ either, but don’t worry. We’ve got that extra 13’ feet covered—I think.)
So as I write this, the blankets are on the road, on their way. They will be arriving Monday morning, July 11. With no loading dock and no forklifts to offload the truck, I’m hoping to have a good crew of volunteers present to do the job manually in a reasonable amount of time. My current anxiety is over whether all those who said they would be willing to show up will indeed show up to help in the task.
But one way or another it will all work out. And we’ll be blessed with a gift of 3000 blankets.
Wow! Do you know what that means? There has never been an occasion in my entire experience with Nightwatch that “blankets” hasn’t occupied the very top of our Wish List. We’ll be able to replace that top slot with something else.
Three thousand blankets will last us, serving the needs of our guests, for a good, long time—certainly past the end of my tenure as Executive Director. And consider just what a gift this has been to Nightwatch. Yes, we had to make something of an investment for this project to happen, the biggest of which was $3000 in the purchase of two used shipping containers. But as an amortized cost, that translates into only $1/blanket. When we have ordered blankets in the past on the private market, they have cost us about $10 apiece. And given the fact that Nightwatch is now an approved agency with the government, when in the future we might order even more blankets, the amortized cost becomes even less.
Yes, consider the worth of this gift. If these blankets themselves sold for $10 apiece, there’s $30,000 value right there. Then throw in the cost of shipping from Texas, for which we also didn’t have to pay. A quick estimate using Web resources puts that at about $2500. That’s quite an “in-kind” donation!
Our shipping container expenses came out of the fund we had built up over time to purchase blankets directly. So I want particularly to thank all of you who may have contributed to our Blankets and Socks Fund. You made this possible.
But I also want to thank everyone else who made this a successful team project. I want to thank Rick Reynolds at Seattle Nightwatch for the idea and support. I want to thank Commissioner Nick Fish, whose endorsement of the project opened the federal government’s doors to us. I want to thank Roger Fuchs and the other good folks at Resurrection Lutheran Church, not only for their ongoing support of Nightwatch, but for also going with us this extra mile. And I want to thank all the volunteers who helped us in the key effort of unloading 38 pallets on delivery day.
It’s just another illustration that if Nightwatch is anything, it is a team. It is a community.
For All the Good Men and Women
- Written by Gary Davis
Jimmie is a young native Alaskan who, ever accompanied by his faithful Lab, is a welcome guest at our Downtown Hospitality Center. He always greets you with a smile and expresses his thanks when it’s time to take his leave. In short, he’s pleasant company to have around.
Some time ago, when I took advantage of cheap airfares to make reservations for a week’s vacation in Alaska, I mentioned to Jimmie that I would making a visit to his home state. “Man, I wish I could go,” he said. “I miss it.”
I just returned from my Alaska trip last week, and walking downtown a couple of days later, I ran into Jimmie. I told him about my trip and said I had thought of him while I was up there (which indeed I had).
But his smile was missing. He was in a dark place. “You probably know a lot of addicts, Gary,” he said. “And I have to tell you that I am one. I’m drinking myself to death.”
“Aw, Jimmie, don’t say that,” I replied—although from his glassy eyes and the slur to his speech I could tell that he had very recently indulged.
“Well, it’s true,” he said morosely. “I just can’t help myself. I need to have it.”
“The last time I talked with you,” I said, “you said you were up for housing.”
“Oh, that’s still true,” he said. “I guess. Although I haven’t my caseworker in a months. I miss appointments and . . . You know. It’s the drinking.”
“I do know,” I said. “It’s hard. You can’t kick the drinking on your own. The alcohol—it messes up your blood chemistry and everything.”
“Yeah,” he said. “You know, I was born an alcoholic? Everyone where I grew up drank.”
It’s right around that point where we parted. But before we did, I put my hand on his back and said, “You’re a good man, Jimmie.”
“Well,” he shrugged, “I try to be.”
I don’t know why I feel compelled to tell this story. It is not a happy one and there was no resolution.
But I truly meant what I said. I know Jimmie to be a good man. And there are a lot of other good men and women out there who are not made any less good just because an addiction has gotten themselves in a stranglehold and just won’t let go. Because that stranglehold is so fierce, constant frustration accompanies it, not least in the sufferer who can feel in its death grip as much as he tries to wrestle it to the ground.
But the frustration is also experienced by family and friends who, seeing the sufferer fail in his struggles again and again and again, are ever-tempted to give up on him.
Yet this much too is true: no one can kick an addiction on their own. So as frustrating as an addict’s behavior might be, the worst possible thing any of us could do is to give up on him. Should any ever ask, “Who cares for the Jimmies of the world,” we should be able to say, “We do.”
Homelessness: What's Housing Got to Do With It?
- Written by Gary Davis
[NOTE: This week's dispatch is from Mikaila.]
I often get volunteers and community members that ask me, “What do you think is the biggest issue that plays into homelessness?” While everyone’s personal journey is of course unique, the more I learn about homelessness the more readily apparent one answer becomes: a lack of affordable housing! Perhaps even some of our readers are beginning to feel the strain of increased housing prices here in Portland. I know that my rent is going up $100 with our next lease, and there are many that have it far worse.
According to the “2016 Out of Reach Report,” created by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, this is certainly becoming a countrywide issue. (For the full report, please visit: http://nlihc.org/oor/).
Here are a few snapshot figures found in the full report:
- Oregon is the 18th most expensive state to rent a two-bedroom apartment. You’d have to be making a wage of $19.38/hour to afford a 2 bedroom “fair-market rate” unit.
- In Oregon, you would need to work over 68 hours a week at minimum wage simply to afford a one-bedroom unit at fair-market rate.
- In Clackamas, Multnomah, and Washington Counties, someone would have to make $23.23/ hour to afford a 2-bedroom unit.
I can’t speak for our readers, but I certainly know that there is absolutely NO WAY I would be able to afford my housing without roommates, family financial support, and a lot of luck.
So, when I hear people allude to the fact that those experiencing homelessness need to just “get a job,” I am quick to point out how much of a solution that IS NOT. We have plenty of guests that are indeed working, some even more than full time. Yet, they cannot afford housing. When you consider how extremely expensive it is to be homeless (transportation, buying ready-to-eat foods, health care, replacing stolen, broken or dirty items, losing belongings due to theft, etc.) , saving up for a security deposit and first/last month rent to get into a place truly becomes a daunting task.
Not only is housing expensive in Portland, there is not enough of it, at least not of the affordable kind. We are seeing a sharp increase of high-rise condos replacing what used to be family and community members homes. A story I am hearing more often these days is of our guests being forced out of the building that they have been living in for decades because they are being developed, or because rent is increasing so high they cannot afford it.
Portland currently has a rental vacancy rate of 3.4% in 2016, versus a national average of approximately 7.0%. This tells me that not only do we have extremely high rents, we also have fewer units for everybody to fight over.
So yes, of course, homelessness is a diverse and multi-faceted issue. But truly, at the heart of the most simplistic answer possible, a lack of housing is pushing families into our streets and keeping others on the streets. Although it would be a small step in the right direction, rent control, an increase in production of affordable housing, and housing-first principles are certainly topics to be explored.