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The latest fad flooding Facebook and Twitter is a Microsoft-created app (how-old.net), which, based on an uploaded selfie, guesses your age. The app is still in development; hence, it is not quite accurate. Thankfully so, particularly for people who are determined to be a decade older.Some of the funniest “how-old” photos are the ones where grandma is assessed to be 33, and her 20-year-old grandson is determined to be 50. Of course, with Photoshop and the how-old app, anyone can smooth out their skin and hide wrinkles to appear a couple of decades younger. This is much easier than a facelift! When thinking of the homeless population my agency (PATH) serves, the how-old app would probably inaccurately judge their ages. For instance, Jennifer has been living on the streets for nine years. Over this period, she has had continual contact with one of our street outreach teams. Jennifer has deeply pronounced wrinkles on her forehead; dark, puffy bags under her eyes; and a sagging chin. Her hair is thinning and her eyes are cloudy. She walks with a bent back, while shuffling her feet. If her photo was displayed on the how-old app, I would bet she was carrying an AARP card. In reality, however, Jennifer is in her late 30’s. Her advanced-looking age cannot be ascribed to poor family genes; rather, it is attributed to living on the streets. Jennifer’s skin has endured the harshness of sunbaked heat in the summer…and dry, cold air in the winter. Her frequent bouts with the flu often turned into pneumonia. The concrete sidewalk-turned-bed has battered her body. Living on the streets, for years at a time, can rapidly increase one’s age—turning any young adult into someone appearing middle-aged or elderly. Jennifer is no exception. Most of those elderly-looking people on the streets are decades younger. Sure, Photoshop can smooth out their skin and disguise their wrinkles; yet, their bodies have been battered by street life. There is a solution, however, which surpasses Photoshop. At PATH, we have seen people’s looks dramatically change. Their skin becomes fresher, cleaner, and younger looking. Their eyes become clearer and more alert. They walk taller, with a jump in their stride. They look and act decades younger—sans Botox, facelifts, fad diets, or photo-editing software. How were we able to see such age-reducing effects on people who are homeless? We house them. We take them off the streets. We move them into apartments. Continue Reading
It is so compelling. Our compassionate impulses race through our bodies when we see a person sleeping on the sidewalk. Especially if they appear to be a senior struggling with an illness, or a veteran with his military cap.
To many of those who are privileged, these individuals experiencing homelessness look like refugees from a war-torn country, or survivors of a natural disaster in a developing country, clinging to life. They certainly do not look like most of “us”…part of the proud, successful nation we call America.
We are compelled to extend a helping hand to these “lost” souls by providing sack lunches or our leftover dinners. We may toss them a couple of bucks as we walk or drive by them.
A more common response, in recent years, has been to give them tents. These pup tents have become synonymous with homelessness, especially in urban neighborhoods. They used to primarily only be seen in the “skid rows” of downtown cities; now, they are everywhere.
A row of tents clinging to a chain link fence along a city or suburban sidewalk are the new “skid rows” of our country. People living on the streets hide in these tents and their possessions are stored inside.
Let us all be reminded that giving a person a pup tent is not equivalent to providing them with a safe, secure place to rest their head. A tent is not a home. In fact, a tent is not even a safe shelter.
Perhaps, if we give away tents to everyone on the streets, we could hide them. We would just see their shadows. It is hard to put a face on a shadow. Shadows are easier to stereotype. They are easier to forget after we drive by them. Shadows sleeping in a pup tent are easier to label as lazy, drunks, or criminals.
I wonder if, in the past five years, this is the reason there has been a proliferation in the number of tents on our streets. I wonder if this is why housed people are distributing tents on the streets.
Is it to camouflage the reality of homelessness?Continue Reading
by Aurelio Jose Barrera
Every morning I wake up before 5 a.m. and head out from my house to walk for an hour. But one or two days a week, I load up my old bike with food that I deliver to my homeless neighbors in East L.A., and in the City of Commerce and Montebello.
All the food that I distribute is donated. People who live in my neighborhood allow me to pick oranges, lemons, and grapefruit from their trees. One neighbor, Estel, recently gave me a trashcan full of recyclables to sell. I had just enough to buy a 2 ½-pound container of unsalted mixed nuts. Pedro, who runs Listo Produce Inc. at the Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market, has donated several 40-pound boxes of oranges, tangerines, peaches, and bananas.
It’s still dark when I set out. For two blocks on Simmons Avenue, the only sounds I hear are dogs barking and a rooster crowing. I make a right on Whittier Boulevard and pass by closed restaurants and hair salons, a dry cleaner and a bakery. My bike is loaded with two worn grocery panniers and a blue plastic milk crate—filled with fruit but also water, canned drinks, nuts, and granola bars. I usually have about 30 pounds of food on my bike. To increase donations, I’ve started to document my delivery trips with a small camera mounted on the handlebars, the front fork, or behind the seat of my bike.
My first stop, only five blocks from my home, is the bus bench near a McDonald’s restaurant on Whittier Boulevard. Most of the time, I find Diana already awake. I always greet her with a loud “Buenos dias!” to make sure she knows I am a friend. She looks at me through her neon orange sunglasses and smiles. I hand her a banana, a drink, and some packaged food. “Que dios lo bendiga” (“God bless you”) she repeats several times in her raspy voice as I ride away.
After leaving Diana, I ride to my next stop where two men sleep in front of a shoe store. One man I have never spoken to because he is always either sleeping or pretending to be sleeping. The other man sometimes says good morning and takes some food. Other days, he curses at me. I back away and tell him that I am leaving food.
I ride my bike though dark alleys looking for men and women sleeping in back doorways, beside trash bins, on stairs, or anywhere else they find to stay as warm and safe as possible. On some days, I need to squeeze between delivery trucks that are being unloaded and a wall or a fence.
By about 7 a.m., I have usually ridden about 10 miles and am running low on food. I head to the final encampment in a parking lot behind a couple small restaurants and discount stores in East L.A. on my way home. There are shopping carts, mountain bikes, lawn chairs, and tents made of bed sheets that house up to nine people. One of the men takes everything left in my crate and passes it out to others still lying under blankets. As I ride away, I am happy that, with the help of friends and neighbors, I can deliver food to hungry people who appear to be increasing in numbers on our streets but whom we often don’t notice as we rush off to work or school.
This part of my day is done; I ride home to make breakfast for my daughter.Continue Reading
The 387-acre Department of Veterans Affairs campus in Brentwood is going to have to start housing veterans, says a new federal ruling. In 2011, a veterans group represented by the ACLU sued the VA, charging that it was misusing land that had originally been deeded (in the late 1800s) for housing and helping vets. The lawsuit cited practices dating back about four decades, says KPCC, but the filing was spurred by the VA practice of leasing out land for all kinds of random uses, including a hotel's laundry service, UCLA (for a baseball field), and a car rental agency, among others (much of the huge campus was still used for veteran care, just not all of it). Now, the VA's going to have to create a master plan that will single out sites for housing for disabled vets on the property, and then get to work building them.
The VA came into the nearly 400-acre property near the end of the Nineteenth Century, when two wealthy donors deeded the land to the organization so that it could be used to provide housing for veterans. The VA did function as "a thriving veteran community" and a place where concentrated services, including housing, were available until around the 1960s, when it stopped accepting new residents.
Now, it will have to open itself up again to offering support and housing to disabled vets, hopefully including homeless veterans and those who have PTSD or other impairments as a result of their time in the military. Where it'll get the money to actually build that housing is still not at all clear, but the VA says it'll have its master plan—which will include both new buildings and remodels—by October and form a nonprofit to guide it into reality. Lawyer Bobby Shriver, who's helping lead the plans, says he'd like the campus to become a full community: "There's no track. There's no basketball courts. There's no Starbucks. There's no dry cleaner. There's no community. There's no restaurant," he laments.
· VA settles lawsuit, agrees to transform West LA campus to help disabled veterans [SCPR]
· Veterans Sue to Take West LA VA Back From Fancy Brentwooders [Curbed LA]
In the mythology of ancient Greece, Odysseus, King of Ithaca, disguises himself as a beggar to gain an advantage over his enemies. In Shakespeare’s King Lear, a nobleman masquerading as a vagabond helps shift the monarch’s sympathies.
The past year marked a new trend in the electoral cycle: politicians “going native,” spending the night in homeless shelters or sleeping on the streets of Skid Row. Toss in digital technology and social media to document and promote these undercover exploits, and the experiences go viral. In this new age of digital selfies and homegrown YouTube videos, it’s no surprise that some politicians made their own “reality-videos” during the campaign season.
Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy shadowed a homeless man around the streets of New Haven, from a methadone clinic to soup kitchens. In Milwaukee, County Supervisor Michael Mayo spent the night in a cardboard box at a local downtown park. U.S. Senator Tim Scott, from South Carolina, went on a “listening tour,” mopping floors in a burrito shop, and volunteering at a Goodwill store in downtown Greenville.
There is something more than a little manipulative about the whole enterprise—the inner city is more or less hijacked to serve as stage set for politicians who are suddenly “down with the people.” At least Scott, a Republican, is honest about these staged events. He admitted that he is a “salesman” not interested in changing his own views, but in convincing voters that the GOP does have something to offer, even to his fellow (and usually Democrat-leaning) African Americans.
He told a reporter during his South Carolina ‘listening tour’: “I sold doughnuts door to door, I sold vacuums door to door, I sold Amway door to door. So for me, that’s what I do.” Appointed to the Senate by the governor, Scott knew he needed to enhance his name recognition with voters. The “listening tour” apparently worked; Scott won the special election to the Senate in November.
Not all such stunts work. The marquee player on the 2014 “barrio tour” was California gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari, the former Wall Street banker, who spent a full week last summer undercover on the streets of Fresno, California. Trailing incumbent Gov. Jerry Brown by more than 20 percent in the polls (and eventually losing by a similar margin), the millionaire tried to shake up the campaign with his homeless odyssey, which he dubbed “Is California Back?” in a widely circulated campaign video.
Arriving in Fresno by Greyhound bus, with “a change of clothes and $40 in his pocket,” Kashkari wandered the streets downtown in search of jobs. In handheld video clips we see him inquiring about work in local markets, appliance stores, and repair yards.
Kashkari launched his reality excursion under somewhat suspect premises. To begin, he chose the relatively isolated, San Joaquin Valley agro-industrial city of Fresno for his homeless trek. If the Newport Beach resident wanted to understand the homeless crisis in California, why did he not hop a bus to nearby Los Angeles, which has the nation’s second largest homeless population (over 50,000)? Or, travel straight up the coast to San Francisco, California’s second worst urban region for homelessness, where more than 10,000 city dwellers lack permanent shelter. From there, he might have taken the train just across the bay to Oakland, another California city with a homelessness crisis.
Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland weren’t the choice for a visit by candidate Kashkari. These cities have something else in common: They are Democratic strongholds. Fresno, on the other hand, is a city with a GOP mayor. Coincidence? I think not.
Yet, even Fresno’s GOP mayor was not entirely happy with Kashkari’s uninvited visit. Just after Kashkari unveiled what he’d done, Mayor Ashley Swearengin sarcastically told the press that if Kashkari had approached her, she would have been happy to show him new low-income housing and other efforts underway to address Fresno’s homeless problem, which, he, of course, never references in his video.
The Kashkari team had its own game plan. A few days after returning from the streets of Fresno, Kashkari’s opinion essay “Brother Can you Spare a Job?” appeared in the Wall Street Journal. Next, his campaign released the 10-minute “Is California Back?” video, featuring the millionaire in disguise, sleeping on a park bench near the Fresno courthouse, washing his clothes in a local laundry, and frantically applying for jobs he would, of course, not get in his short stay.
In the end, these “barrio tours” leave one with an empty feeling. In Kashkari’s film “Is California Back?”, we see inner city storefronts, vacant parking lots, abandoned buildings near train tracks, the glaring lights on the inside of convenience stores—images that are shimmering, floating fragments of a place, but not tethered to a larger story about why Fresno is worth saving, or how (other than with more “jobs”).
Missing was any sense that Kashkari really cared about downtown Fresno as a place worth saving, or understood the policy strategies needed to revive it. While sleeping outdoors, surely he must have noticed the air pollution, which the EPA rates as worst in the state? Never mentioned. Fleeting cameos may have fit his campaign theme, but his team squandered a chance to address the larger question of how governments can help rebuild inner cities like Fresno.
Many of these political undercover operations have failed in the same way. By zeroing in on one malady (homelessness in one video, food stamps in another) these stunts obscure the most promising approaches to social problems—comprehensive ones.
Comprehensive strategies attack community poverty from the bottom up, and in all its myriad dimensions— affordable housing construction, better transit, upgraded schools, jobs tied to local agriculture, food production, renewable energy, and green buildings, as well as community policing, crime prevention, and other public health improvements. Taken together, multi-faceted approaches, anchored around public-private partnerships and tied to local ecology and culture, will make a difference on the rundown streets of barrios and skid rows.
Kashkari and other politicians deserve credit for venturing out of their comfort zones. Yet what the Kashkari video revealed was a slightly dazed and tired protagonist not merely in disguise, but also a bit lost amidst the searing heat and grit of Fresno’s back alleys and Skid Row streets. Maybe that’s because, at the end of the day, he was.Continue Reading