A Vortex of Indifference

A Vortex of Indifference

“Very sad to think that a public official’s only solution to mental health and homelessness is encouraging residents not to feed them” –Rafael Yañez, 15th Ward Aldermanic Candidate

By RA Monaco

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The absence of sophistication left me in disbelief, my client had just confirmed there was no dispute about the facts. I can recall looking up from the stack of police reports I had finished reading with one question in mind—only one.  I don’t think I had ever asked a client this question before.  My question—which I’m sure I never again asked another client—“What were you thinking?”   Don’t laugh!  There was nothing funny about it—then or now.

It was winter and it had been cold when my client went into someone’s back yard to take a large barbeque fork from the side of a dusty old Weber.  It had been hanging, unused, in the over-grown weeds that yellowed with the changed seasons.

With a 24” barbeque fork in hand, my client walked into the convenience store at the corner, held it up to the face of the clerk and demanded all the money in the register.  He then—with this same barbeque fork—walked directly down the street to the very next convenience store only one block away and demanded money from that clerk in exactly the same manner.

Eagerly accepting the challenges of felony work—a young Deputy Public Defender at the time—my client was charged with two robberies and facing a sentence to state prison.  In appearance, he was just a kid swimming in an oversized orange jumpsuit behind a courtroom in a narrow, poorly-lit booth.  I looked across the counter through the bars waiting in silence to hear this nineteen year old boy’s response to my question.  Dutifully, he looked into my eyes and with an indescribable timbre of pain in his voice blurted, “I was just so cold.”

His answer was truthful and unqualified just as he had been with the police who, within minutes, arrested him without incident.  The memories of that boy’s pleading eyes are still vivid in my mind after most of three decades.  He was fearful.  His fear wasn’t about going to prison or that he would surely be abused by the guards and more developed adult inmates.  His fear was simply that he would somehow be released.  That his crimes weren’t egregious enough for him to remain in jail and that I might get him released from custody.  His fear was returning to the cold uncertainty of hunger and homelessness.

I learned that my client had been living in the bushes for months.  Was there any way this boy could have failed that made it morally acceptable for him to live this way, freezing into such desperation?  That boy didn’t fail at America—we failed.  Those failures define us as a city and a nation—the shame is each of ours, plain and simple.

Chicago’s Homelessness Increases above National Average

An August 2014 survey from the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH) estimates a 19.4% increase in homelessness in the city from the year before.  To be clear, that’s 138,575 homeless Chicagoans or 22,532 more people homeless, in the course of just one school year 2013-14.

Those numbers are well above the 25-city average from the U.S. Conference of Mayors Hunger and Homelessness survey which saw on average a 7% increase in homelessness nationally.  Chicago officials have described the increase as moderate— that’s 22,532 more people!

Interestingly, the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH) survey released in August paints a much less favorable picture about the state of homelessness nationally than the 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress.

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Chicago’s Homeless Resources Will Remain Unchanged 

One advantage to having an abundance of data collected as an education accountability tool is that it revealed a record number of Chicago Public School students—22,144 during the 2013-14 school year—were at some point homeless.  It’s difficult not to think about a barbeque fork and my client’s pleading eyes when the recent CCH survey specifically includes 2,508 unaccompanied homeless youth living without a parent or guardian.

We’ve already experienced a dusting of September snow and, after a brutal Chicago winter last year where the cold of the polar vortex actually stopped Metra trains and closed city schools, to accept this official indifference that another 22,532 homeless people on our streets warrants no increase in resources from the city is just wrong.

Some could argue that these additional 22,532 Chicago homeless might actually be the timely benefactors of the Mayor’s re-election aspirations and diminished popularity given his willingness to starve public education and close 53 public schools.

To his credit, Mayor Emanuel recently announced his plan to end homelessness for veterans with a financial commitment from the City’s 2015 budget and a donation of four acres of city land to be paired with a federal grant for new veteran housing facilities.  Last January researchers conducted a point-in-time count of Chicago’s homeless veterans and found that 721 homeless veterans were either on the streets or in shelters.

Joining Mayor Carl Brewer of Wichita, Kansas, Mayor Emanuel’s recent press conference announcement of additional resources from next year’s budget to address the needs of homeless veterans is surely welcomed by both veterans and the community.

But cynicism quickly creeps into this good news photo-op that garnered national coverage by invoking veteran’s causes, when another 21,811 Chicago homeless are left ignored with no additional resources from the city.  It also begs the question, what interim assistance can be expected from the city for veterans as winter nears?

If the Mayor is looking to counter the ongoing Anybody but Rahm campaign, CNN might suggest another Chicagoland-PR documentary with Rahm utilizing some of our closed public school buildings as homeless shelters.  On camera, our warm and fuzzy mayor could be cast passing out hot coffee to the homeless—too snarky?

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Political Indifference to Homelessness

If you live and work in downtown Chicago you might relate to burying your nose in a Smartphone while walking past a homeless person.  Or, seeing them on a bench while walking through the park you possibly might think, that’s just the way things go here in the city—there’s no way we’ll ever solve this problem.  But providing affordable housing is a proven solution to reducing homelessness.  The idea of providing affordable housing however doesn’t seem to be part of Chicago’s vision for the future.

According to Sun-Times reporter Mark Brown, last year Chicago Streets and Sanitation crews removed any items that the homeless could not carry who were sheltered at the Wilson Avenue viaduct under Lake Shore Drive.  Police came back to issue tickets to those who returned.

Images of our Streets and Sanitation crews confiscating the meager belongings of the homeless and police issuing citations to those sleeping under viaducts with no place to go, is uncomplicatedly clear—Chicago is becoming a vortex of official indifference—a nationwide trend directed at our homeless population.  How far can Chicago chase people who have nowhere to go?

Ideas like ticketing panhandlers, imposing bans on sleeping in public areas, replacing park benches with dividers that make it impossible to stretch out and sleep, are common tactics among a growing number of U.S. cities that have shifted compassion for people struggling, to overtly vilifying the homeless.  These efforts even include threatening people attempting to provide immediate assistance—actually trying to help.  In fact, last summer, Chicago police warned people who were delivering meals along lower Wacker Drive that they could be arrested.

Concerned that the homeless were gravitating into his 46th Ward and becoming dependent on a Salvation Army food truck, Ald. James Cappleman ordered them to stop feeding the homeless in his ward.

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Attempting To Tackle the Problem with an Arrest

Unlike Ald. Cappleman—who is also a licensed social worker—not every aspiring public official sees homeless food dependency as justification for denying food and warmth.  When asked to comment about Ald. Cappleman’s solution to homelessness in his ward, 15th Ward aldermanic candidate Rafael Yañez, responded by saying, that it’s “very sad to think that a public official’s only solution to mental health and homelessness is encouraging residents not to feed them.”Slide1

In a recent interview with Rafael Yañez—a police officer whose experiences include implementing crime prevention programs and the C.A.P. S. program, he sees a connection between the increased homeless population in Chicago and Rahm Emanuel’s  2012  decision to consolidate—read close—six of the twelve mental health facilities in the city.

Having to travel across town for mental health services, Yañez believes, is an unnecessary challenge to an already tenuous relationship.  This is to say nothing about the difficulty in having to re-establish the clinical trust needed to help them succeed.

Attempting to tackle the homeless problem by citation and arrest isn’t a sound approach either according to Yañez who said that “the next time we come there it’s going to be a bigger problem.”  He cites Sheriff Tom Dart’s description of Cook County Jail as a big mental health facility.

Building on a discussion about how the Salvation Army uses counselors to reach out to the homeless while they eat the hot meals they deliver daily, Yañez says that “We have to build that trust.”   As a community organizer he isn’t without ideas and believes that we have to be innovative in addressing the problem saying, “Social services, counselors, psychologists on wheels, why not?”

Illinois Homelessness Increased 221% in Last Five Years

During the course of the 2012 election cycle we witnessed no discussion about the 46 million people then living in or near poverty between our presidential candidates—that number has since grown to almost 50 million people.

Now, only two years after presidential elections, in the midst of an Illinois gubernatorial race between Gov. Pat Quinn and challenger Bruce Rauner, we are hearing nothing about the 59,112 homeless students that live in Illinois—a figure obtained through the Illinois State Department of Education.  Education accountability data—deemed current and accurate—reveals that this number represents a 221% increase in homelessness from five years earlier.

Homeless students aren’t an immediate voting constituency so wasting time on a vision for their future may not be an efficient strategy to get votes—but without discussion and debate it becomes another vortex of political indifference.  How can a 221% increase in student homelessness in Illinois be reconciled with our claimed economic recovery— unemployment is at 6% and the economy has recovered, right?

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Jobless Workers Are Only Counted If They Are Actively Seeking Work

Unfortunately, the current unemployment rate drastically understates the weakness of job opportunities. That, in part, is because of the existence of a large pool of “missing workers”—potential workers who, because of weak job opportunities, are neither employed or actively looking for work.  In other words, those “missing workers” are people who would be either working or looking for work if job opportunities were actually there.  Simply stated, jobless workers are only counted as unemployed if they are actively seeking work.  So, these “missing workers,” sometimes referred to as long-term unemployed, are just not being counted in the official unemployment rate.

According to U.S. News and World Reports, “the jobs regained since the recession have, as a whole, been lower paying than the ones lost.”  The federal minimum wage of $7.25 is the full-time equivalent of $15,080 a year and in terms of purchasing power, is below its 1968 peak—a 32 percent erosion of the minimum wage worker’s pay.

Minimum Wage Exceptions Are a Shameful Disservice

Expectations of getting political help—real help—to establish a living wage or at least meaningfully raise the minimum wage, seem low in a state like Illinois that permits for example, the restaurant industry to pay their servers half the current minimum wage—that’s $4.12 an hour.

Illinois politicians apparently have convinced themselves that the rest of us are so flush with loot that restaurant servers should rely mostly on our gratuity and collective benevolence to feed their families and survive rather than their own employers.

On its face, the restaurant industry’s 50% minimum wage exception amounts to government sanctioned panhandling.  Can restaurants really thrive while their employees languish?  This minimum wage exception is a shameful disservice to those who, for their livelihood, labor in the restaurant service industry—think about this when you leave the coffee shop, please!

But what of the unfairness to Illinois tax payers who must underwrite the costs of public benefits like food stamps for these restaurant employee’s?  Really, how many restaurant servers are receiving public assistance and who does this exception benefit beyond restaurant owners and the politicians who’ve entertained industry lobbyists?

Economists might consider researching beyond fast food chains and Walmart to uncover the actual costs of public assistance—food stamps, welfare and subsidized utility support—needed by working Illinois restaurant servers who languish under the industry’s 50% minimum wage exception.  After all, restaurant servers fall into the category of low-income jobs where most of our employment gains since the putative recovery from the Great Recession have occurred.  It follows that increasingly, Illinois tax payers are indirectly subsidizing restaurant owners just as they are Walmart, McDonalds and Burger King who has even moved their headquarters off shore to avoid social responsibility.

The Illinois Housing Wage is now $17.34 an Hour

The seriousness of the current political debate surrounding homelessness and raising the minimum wage gets undone once you do the math.  The Fair Market Rent (FMR) for a 2-bedroom apartment in Illinois is $902 according to a March 2014 study by the National Low Income Housing Coalition—in some areas of Chicago it’s even higher.   That puts the Illinois housing wage at $17.34 an hour which means two (2.1)  minimum wage workers are required to work 40-hour work-weeks 52 weeks per year to afford rent and utilities without paying more than 30% of their income on housing—each household must earn $36,064 annually.

Raising the minimum wage will surely float the boats of some of our homeless and raise them from the streets.  There are plenty of homeless people who actually have jobs and trying to hold on.  Some are forced to live in their automobiles for example, getting kids to school while attempting to maintain some level of stability.   But is this political talk about raising the minimum wage really serious or is it empty election cycle hype just to get votes?  Those numbers will help gauge the political seriousness of that debate.

If we raise the minimum wage Rafael Yañez sees a “snowball effect” that would immediately help families as well as the overall economy.  “It’s great when we are talking about people who are already working but what about people that are homeless?  What about people that are not living in that market where they’re having the opportunity to be in the work force?  So we have to consider that, is that part of our agenda?  Is that part of the agenda in the 15th Ward—absolutely.

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 An Issue We Need To Address Right Away

“We have a big population of young people that are disconnected, they are not in school and they are not in the workforce” said Yañez, who went on to explain that “a big percentage of them are homeless.  So we have to make sure that we address that right away.”

As a crime prevention officer, Yañez was quick to explain that violence “goes back to the lack of opportunities for jobs, the lack of services for mental health, the lack of quality education and a salary” that would allow parents to have one job so that they could stay home and give kids the support they need.

“Right now someone who makes the minimum wage” Yanez knows can’t provide enough to support a family.  “So most likely that person will have to get a couple more part-time jobs just to make ends meet” which, according to Yañez, too often leaves kids without much needed guidance from parents.

Yañez points out that often parents are unable to help their children with homework explaining that “we also have a population that has a need to get skills in language—ESL programs…and skills they need to get a better job—a job that is going to help them to earn more to help their families.”

“One of our goals is to make sure that we identify those organizations that already have programs” in the 15th Ward and bring that information here to the campaign office, says Yañez.

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La Casa Norte Is One of the Programs Making an Impact in Our Community

In discussing local resources, the 15th Ward candidate notes that he is aware of the Salvation Army being in the Greater Englewood community, not specifically in west Englewood—by 69th and Morgan.

“Also, I think La Casa Norte is one of those programs making an impact in our community” said Yañez.  “They are our neighbors,” referring to La Casa Norte, an organization which, according to Yañez, recently opened a facility which he identifies as a resource in the community addressing a homeless need.  “They are also giving support to the youth and the LGBT community as well—young people that are maybe kicked out of their home or are in fear of some consequences at home with their family or the community they live” explained Yanez who pointed out that “La Casa Norte is offering these services to make sure they have an opportunity to get back on their feet and connect them to their needs.” 

A consistent theme projected throughout my interview with Rafael Yañez about Chicago’s homeless population centers on his belief in making the community part of the solution—reaching out to residents, stakeholders and the community at large for information, input and ideas.  In short, he doesn’t share the attitude that decisions should be made downtown without a buy-in from the community.

“Some programs look great on paper but fail in their implementation” says Yañez.  Consistent with that understanding, Yañez suggests the development of a monthly meeting with the different organizations in the community who are addressing homeless issues—education, housing and community engagement.

 City Officials, If You Do Nothing This Year Have Some Humility

Knowing that last year on any given night in Chicago 21,000 people—human beings—were homeless pushes me to remind everyone, particularly city officials, that if you do nothing this year have some humility.  There are a thousand ways that life can go differently for any of us.

History will judge this city morally by how we treat our most vulnerable people and it’s well past time that we stop expecting nobility from our poor and homeless—our youth.  Stand up for the least among us—someday that could be you.

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