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This Week in Poverty: Fresno to Homeless People—Get Out | The Nation

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Greg Kaufmann

Poverty in America: people, politics and policy.

This Week in Poverty: Fresno to Homeless People—Get Out

In 2008, the City of Fresno and California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) paid a hefty settlement of $2.3 million for seizing and destroying homeless residents’ personal property and signed an agreement on how to deal with homeless encampments in the future.

But according to nine lawsuits filed last week on behalf of twelve homeless residents, the city and Caltrans have resumed a policy of “demolition and destruction of dwellings and personal property” since October of last year. Central California Legal Services (CCLS) has interviewed over 100 people and more legal action is expected in the coming weeks.

“Starting last September, the city clearly made a decision to try to get rid of all the homeless encampments that there are in Fresno,” says Chris Schneider, director of CCLS, where he has worked for nineteen years. “They started doing what they call ‘cleanups’ but it’s really just destructions of the encampments. The city comes in and says, ‘You’ve got to get out of here.’ Then as soon as people set up somewhere else the police come and tell them to move on from there too. There is just less and less space to go to, while the number of homeless have risen in the bad economy.”

The city claims that it stores people’s belongings, and while Schneider says that’s true for a lucky few, there are plenty of others who either watch their property destroyed or have gone to retrieve it only to find it’s not in storage as promised. Some homeless people manage to acquire new belongings, only to have the process repeated again—chased from their next dwelling and their property again destroyed.

“We have people who’ve lost everything they own two or three times since October of last year,” he says.

According to one of the complaints, items seized and destroyed include tents, furniture, clothing, blankets, medications, photographs, letters, and other items of personal value. This policy has been carried out during the winter months, when temperatures fell below 36 degrees “on several occasions.” One evening in December, an “extremely ill” Melissa (last name omitted) was forced to remove a tarp sheltering her from the cold and rain. Her property and that of other homeless residents was taken from shopping carts and destroyed. They weren’t offered alternative shelter, and Melissa ended up contracting pneumonia.

“The city is basically saying to homeless people you don’t have a right to live in Fresno if you’re not in a shelter. But there aren’t nearly enough shelters for the very large number of homeless people we have,” says Schneider. “We are thousands of beds short—for example, the shelter for homeless women has twenty-three beds and yet there are hundreds of homeless women.”

Schneider says the number of homeless per capita in Fresno is three times the national average. The city has officially adopted a “housing first” policy with an aim to get people into housing and provide wraparound services. But the number of available units falls far short of the need and so far the city refuses to look at interim solutions.

Schneider says that this increased aggressiveness towards the homeless isn’t unique to Fresno and he sees it happening in most cities. But there are also places that have adopted more progressive policies. He points to tent cities that provide social services and a safe place for belongings, are largely self-policed, and offer “a community where people can try to get their lives back together and move on.” While Schneider and CCLS don’t view tent cities as a long-term solution, they do see them as necessary in the interim until adequate housing and shelters are available for all who need it.

“There really are alternatives out there that can work,” he says. “That’s what cities should be looking at instead of just making it impossible for people to survive.”

JP Morgan Cashes in on Welfare

In Washington State, JP Morgan Chase is paid $9.6 million a year to administer the debit card program for families on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). The bank also charges these families an eighty-five cent per transaction fee that brings in about another $1.2 million annually.

According to a new report from Burst for Prosperity, a research and policy institute focused on asset building opportunities for low-income families, a majority of other states have contracts with major financial institutions to provide program benefits via a debit card too.

Although low-income families in Washington have the option of receiving assistance through either the debit card or direct deposit into a checking or savings account, only 12 percent choose the latter.

“Most cannot afford the fees to open and maintain an account at mainstream financial institutions,” says Karan Gill, policy director for Burst for Prosperity and author of the report. He also calls the transaction fee “essentially another tax on the most vulnerable.”

With the state’s contract expiring next year, a bipartisan group of more than thirty state lawmakers recommended that the Department of Social and Health Services negotiate with JP Morgan Chase to eliminate the transaction fees. Burst of Prosperity urges the state to push for more, and require that any contracted financial institution provides no-fee bank accounts to TANF participants. The group also recommends financial coaching to increase management and investment skills.

“There is a misconception that low-income people cannot save but research consistently shows they can—when [TANF] participants attain work, they need to have a foundational financial product to begin saving towards a personal safety net,” says Gill.

Gill notes a recent Urban Institute study showing that 50 percent of families with low incomes were able to accumulate enough liquid assets twelve years after their first savings product to escape asset poverty.

Finally, the report recommends the elimination of asset limits—a maximum amount of savings people are permitted to accrue and still be TANF-eligible—in essence, punishing people for saving. In the case of Washington, families aren’t allowed to have more than $1000 in liquid assets or a vehicle worth more than $5000 and still receive TANF.

“The state has a big opportunity to renegotiate this contract and get a better deal,” says Gill. “That better deal should include promoting opportunities for working families to build a personal safety net that provides them greater financial security.”

Face To Face with Poverty, North Carolina

In North Carolina, 1.6 million people are living below the poverty line of $17,374 annually for a family of three. That’s 17.2 percent of the state’s population—the twelfth highest poverty rate in the nation—and includes 1 in 5 women, 1 in 4 children, 1 in 4 African-Americans, and 1 in 3 Latinos.

The North Carolina Community Action Association (NCCAA) is launching a “Face to Face With Poverty” initiative to take advantage of the election year and the Democratic Convention in Charlotte in order to give low-income people a platform to talk about how best to alleviate impoverishment in the state.

“It’s hard to fathom that within a 5-mile radius of any point on a state map, children are starving, families are homeless, and so many individuals are one car accident, illness, paycheck, or hospitalization away from living in poverty,” says Sharon Goodson, executive director of NCCAA, an association of North Carolina’s forty-one Community Action Agencies (CAAs).

CAAs are nonprofit private and public organizations with their fingers to the pulse of poverty. They provide direct support for more than 34.5 million of the 46 million people living in poverty in the US today. Each CAA is governed locally and offers a different mix of programs and services, including: emergency services like food pantries and domestic violence counseling; education programs like Head Start and youth mentoring; day care and job training programs; income management and housing assistance; health care clinics, WIC and more.

In North Carolina, CAAs provide direct services to most of the state’s 100 counties. Goodson herself discovered them at age fourteen growing up in rural North Carolina. She worked in a summer jobs program and after college returned to serve as a youth employment counselor. She calls CAAs “hidden gems all across the country.”

NCCAA will convene trainings, information fairs, and town meetings in each region of the state, inviting agencies, community leaders and legislators, and low-income people to talk about “real people and real solutions.” The trainings will help people to advocate for themselves at the local level. Information sessions will offer materials about different programs and services, and also the opportunity for local businesses and “new partners” to get involved in the antipoverty effort. Town meetings will be key to articulating possible solutions, developing a plan of action, and holding elected officials accountable. All of the conversations will be documented and distributed to local and national elected officials.

“We’re having these discussions while there are 15,000 reporters roaming the state. We’re helping people to change lives. We’re making poverty everybody’s business,” says Goodson. “We need people to get involved—come to the events, follow us on Twitter and Facebook, and get involved in your own communities. Everybody look at what they can do to help empower low-income communities and eradicate poverty.”

An Antipoverty Budget

Last week I wrote about Congressman Paul Ryan’s budget, which—despite his pontificating about “promoting the inherent dignity of every individual”—was about as anti-poor people a budget as this town’s seen in recent years. It makes the Simpson-Bowles Commission report look like the New Deal.

Nevertheless, Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity” legislation passed the House on a party-line vote, no surprise there. That the House also voted down the alternative Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) budget is no surprise either.

But that doesn’t mean the CPC’s “Budget for All” won’t serve a purpose in the upcoming election and the budget debates that lie ahead. I had a chance to talk about that with budget author and Out of Poverty Caucus co-chair, Congressman Mike Honda.

“Our budget reflects the value that we are our brothers and sisters keepers,” said Rep. Honda. “Congressman Ryan’s budget—it’s like he’s the Sheriff of Nottingham, protecting the Count and Countess and everybody else and stealing from the poor. That’s not to say that Ryan as an individual is evil. But the product is evil.”

Where Ryan cuts from the likes of SNAP (food stamps), Medicaid, and other programs serving low-income Americans—all so he can provide trillions in tax cuts for the wealthy above and beyond the Bush tax cuts, and give the Pentagon billions more than it wants—the CPC budget increases investments in income security by $312 billion over ten years. That goes towards the aforementioned programs plus things like rental assistance, public and affordable housing, WIC, TANF, energy assistance, child care—“things that people need, mostly the elderly and poor,” said Honda.

Where Ryan seeks to limit funding of Pell Grants and further tighten eligibility—putting postsecondary education even further out of reach for low- and moderate-income students—the CPC increases investments in education and job training by $234 billion over ten years. These are programs that are proven to create opportunities and pay for themselves over the long-run—like Head Start, youth summer jobs, Pell Grants, Workforce Investment Act, Social Security Block Grants, and more.

Among the ways that the budget pays for these investments is through creating new tax brackets for millionaires and billionaires (the top marginal rate would still be lower than what it was during nearly all of the Reagan Administration), and a modest financial transaction tax along the lines of what is supported by France and Germany and currently under consideration by the European Union.

“I don’t believe in big government, I believe in a government that functions well and addresses the needs of the people,” said Honda. “I’m reminded of a story of a dad with seven kids, and he’s asked which one is his favorite? ‘It depends on which one needs me the most,’ the dad answers. And that’s not to be paternalistic, it’s just that as a family we take care of each other.”

His communications director Jack d’Annibale added, “Look, if we’re going to address the fierce and urgent issues of poverty and income inequality, Republicans in Congress are going to have to stop playing games and come up with solutions. Come September and up through December, we’re going to see some epic debates over the budget and the Bush tax cuts. This budget plants a progressive flag in the ground and will help drive those debates.”

“We want people to see the distinction in our value system,” said Honda. “Ryan’s got a great grip on the jugular, while we’re trying to keep our finger on the pulse of the people and get this nation healthy.”

Notable Studies

Affording Health Care and Education on the Minimum Wage,” John Schmitt and Marie-Eve Augier, Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). This report demonstrates the number of hours a minimum wage worker must work to pay for two common benchmarks of middle-class life—a college degree and healthcare. This is the second of three CEPR pieces on the minimum wage. The first considered the historical level of the minimum wage in terms of inflation, productivity and average wages.

Ending Individual Mandate Would Cut Health Coverage,” Christine Eibner and Carter Price, RAND Corporation. “The individual mandate is critical not only to achieving near-universal health care coverage among Americans, but also to yielding a high value in terms of federal spending to expand coverage,” Eibner said. “Without the individual mandate, the government would have to spend more overall to insure a lot fewer people.”

Further Reading
Homeless Woman’s Death in Police Custody Stirs Anger in St. Louis,” Matt Pearce
Ryan Gets 62 Percent of His Budget Cuts…” Kelsey Merrick and James Horney
Lack of Rental Units a Hurdle for Low-Income Residents,” Alan Heavens

Get Involved
National Low Income Housing Coalition

Vital Statistics
US poverty (less than $22,314 for a family of four): 46 million people, 15.1 percent.
Kids in poverty: 16.4 million, 22 percent of all kids

Deep poverty (less than $11,157 for a family of four): 20.5 million people, 6.7 percent of population.
Impact of public policy, 2010: without government assistance, poverty twice as high—nearly 30 percent.
Impact of public policy, 1964–1973: poverty rate fell by 43 percent.
Number of Americans “deep poor,” “poor” or “near poor”: 100 million, or 1 in 3.

Quote of the Week
"Our intake workers have people on the phone crying to them because we’re their last hope and we don’t have the resources to help them. Or people who are turned away at the front desk, break down, because they have nowhere else to go. And they are hoping that we can help them save their home and prevent them from being out on the streets."
—Chris Schneider, director of Central California Legal Services, on impact of budget cuts and rising need

This Week in Poverty posts every Friday morning. Please comment below. You can also e-mail me at WeekInPoverty@me.comor follow me on Twitter.

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