Katrina's Window: Confronting Concentrated Poverty Across America

Alan Berube and Bruce Katz of The Brookings Institution have authored a report on concentrated poverty in the United States.

Hurricane Katrina’s assault on New Orleans’ most vulnerable residents and neighborhoods has reinvigorated a dialogue on race and class in America. This paper argues that the conversation should focus special attention on alleviating concentrated urban poverty—the segregation of poor families into extremely distressed neighborhoods.

The authors note that New Orleans was ranked second—behind Fresno, Calif.—in terms of concentrated poverty in large cities. What are the human costs?

  • reduced private sector activity
  • increased prices of basic goods for low-income households
  • limited job networks and employment ambitions
  • fewer educational opportunities
  • higher levels of crime
  • poor physical and mental health
  • limited wealth-building
  • increased pressure on government services and fiscal resources
  • greater political and societal divisions

The authors offer a seven-point plan for correcting this problem. The complete paper is available in PDF form here.

National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week

November 13 through 19 marks National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, co-sponsored by the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Student Campaign Against Hunger & Homelessness.

Each year … [d]uring this week, a number of schools, communities and cities take part in a nationwide effort to bring greater awareness to the problems of hunger and homelessness … Participating in National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week not only brings greater awareness to your community, but also helps to promote the national endeavor to end hunger and homelessness. The plight of those without a home can be both lonely and difficult. Addressing their struggles by organizing and participating in this week may bring greater solidarity and understanding, as well as promote future involvement. Events, such as “One Night Without a Home,” help people realize the difficulties that homeless persons daily face.

2005 Awareness Week manuals—containing a variety of suggestions and information—are available on the NCH’s Web site here.

Additional resources of interest:

How a Regular Guy Gets Homeless,” Les Gapay’s personal account of homelessness.

The Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness, developed by the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

Out of Reach 2004,” a nationwide comparison of wages and rents, sponsored by the National Low Income Housing Coalition. The study includes rankings for the least affordable states, metro areas, and counties.

The forthcoming Encyclopedia of Poverty, to be published by Sage in 2006.

International Day for the Eradication of Poverty

In 1992, the United Nations General Assembly declared October 17th as the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty.

The declaration was inspired by French citizens and human rights advocates who have, since 1987, gathered on October 17th to “express their refusal of extreme poverty.”

The Day seeks to promote increased awareness of the need to eradicate poverty and serves to remind all people that sustained and concerted effort is vital to achieve the millennium development goal (MDG) of halving the number of people living in poverty by 2015.

According to the UN,

Most anti-poverty programs lift out of poverty only those that are just below the poverty line, leaving the poorest of the poor even further behind;

Building a partnership with the most disadvantaged which takes into account their efforts and aspirations is the only possible way to eradicate poverty;

Because extreme poverty separates parents and children from each other, the efforts of families to reunite and stay together must be at the centre of political action against poverty.

Join others worldwide in raising awareness of poverty and the UN’s goals: a variety of printable posters, brochures, and other materials can be downloaded here.

Disaster Assistance: Legal Resources

The Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law has prepared a list of resources “to help legal aid lawyers, victims, and others recover from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.”

The list contains 19 categories with links to attorneys and legal services, assistance programs, post-disaster reports, relevant legislation, news, and other information.

The Shriver Center site also features articles from the May-June and July-August 2002 issues of Clearinghouse Review: Journal of Poverty Law and Policy, which address race, poverty, and social justice.

Given the recent disaster in the Gulf, which has disproportionately affected poor people and people of color, and the imminent reconstruction effort, the Shriver Center is now making these articles available free of charge with the hope that the ideas expressed herein may assist advocates serving evacuees and clients in the affected areas.

Who Are America's Poor Children?

The National Center for Children in Poverty has just published a new report in its Child Poverty in 21st Century America Series.

Who Are America’s Poor Children?” notes the following:

Twelve million children live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level—which is about $16,000 for a family of three and $19,000 for a family of four. Perhaps more stunning is that 5 million children live in families with incomes of less than half the poverty level—and the numbers are rising. Yet research clearly shows that, on average, it takes an income of at least twice poverty to cover a family’s most basic expenses.

According to the NCCP, poverty is more prevalent among black and Latino children: 33% and 28% respectively versus 10% of white children.

Poverty is associated with negative outcomes for children. It can impede children’s cognitive development and their ability to learn. It can contribute to behavioral, social, and emotional problems. And poverty can lead to poor health among children as well.

Some 19% of U.S. children lack health insurance, including 29% of children in the state of Texas.

A printable PDF version is available here.

Indiana Library Starts Info Service at Homeless Center

The Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library has opened an Information Center at Horizon House, a homeless day center in downtown Indianapolis.

The information center includes three personal computers from which visitors are guided directly to the Library’s Infoport Portal Page and easy-to-access resource links, streamlining the process of receiving the information they need and reducing unnecessary online navigation …

“Access creates opportunity, and this service helps our homeless neighbors pursue goals and overcome barriers that would be more difficult to accomplish otherwise,” commented Carter Wolf, Executive Director of Horizon House.

The Library also is providing a sound station and audio-video equipment for visitors to watch information videos on such topics as career development, resume preparation and GED study. A large collection of reading materials on these topics, including Spanish language materials, will supplement the offerings. Paperback books and magazines will be available for recreational reading.

Full story here.

On a related note, the nonprofit Schools on Wheels states that the average age of a homeless person in Indianapolis is nine years old.

Schools on Wheels provides one-on-one tutoring and educational mentoring to homeless children, who make up 30% of the city’s homeless population.

Just a Little Understanding: A Social-Service Provider’s Perspective on Homeless Library Users

by John Gehner and Kali Freeman

This information is provided in conjunction with the Infopeople Webcast “Library Services and the Homeless: A Legal Perspective,” presented by Mary Minow and available here.

How well do you know the lowest-income members of your community? Does your library invite their input for decision-making? Are you aware of their needs?

How well do you know the network of local services that support poor people? Do you routinely consult with crisis counselors, medical staff, or anti-poverty advocates? Does their expertise inform your work?

A variety of news reports this year have detailed new library policies to control odorous patrons—ostensibly homeless people. A library systems director in Salt Lake City stated in the Deseret Morning News, “If there are appropriate roles for the library to play, we want to do that—but we’re also not a social service agency.”

Unfortunately, any mention of partnerships between library staff and social-service professionals has been conspicuously absent from news coverage of odor policies in states like California, Texas, and Utah.

In April 2005, the Progressive Librarians Guild student chapter at the College of St. Catherine (St. Paul, Minn.) convened a discussion on homelessness and libraries. The PLG invited John Petroskas, a shelter and housing specialist with Catholic Charities, to share his knowledge and views. He is a regular participant in regional poverty initiatives and an avid library user.

Petroskas outlined reasons why his homeless clients use libraries: Chuck loves to read The New Yorker; Patrick follows sports online; Chris is preparing a business plan in conjunction with a class; Tammy does pro se legal work related to a child custody case; Bruce visits a library in his former community to stay connected there; Carlos, who struggles with mental illness, simply benefits from a peaceful setting.

“Just a little understanding goes a long way,” Petroskas noted. “If you knew the environment that a given person has to live his or her life in, it would probably make you more flexible.”

Here follow some additional insights informed by Petroskas’ experience with counseling and advocacy. (The complete discussion is available as a podcast here.)

Connecting homeless people with libraries

Libraries are great for people like me who are cheap or for people who are poor. It’s a great free resource. Economically it’s a smart thing to get connected to if you don’t have a whole lot of money.

Identity

Some systems are very difficult for homeless people to get into. All you need to do to get a library card is go in with an ID. If you have an address it makes it easier. But libraries have policies for people who don’t have an address or just have a mailing address like a P.O. box or general delivery. You won’t be denied a library card most likely, so it’s an easy thing to get and it’s free.

Community

A library helps ground people in the community they move into. And I think that’s more important than we might recognize. One problem with moving people out of a shelter and into their own apartment is that they get lonely. They feel like they lose the connection to the community they had.

The shelter is a dysfunctional community, but it’s still a community. You have friends, people to talk to, there are things to do, you can exchange gossip. When you move out of the shelter, it can be disorienting and lonely.

The library is one really easy way to get people connected to community. They can take a class or go to a performance, meet friends, talk, or use the Internet. It’s a way to ground people and that increases the likelihood that a person will succeed in living independently and will maintain their housing, which is the key thing we’re looking for.

Refuge

[Going to the library] is educational and is better than some of the other things you could do with your free time. Giving someone something constructive to do is a positive thing—especially if they’re trying to recover from an addiction. It’s one place they can go to do something positive.

For people who have mental illness, it’s a safe and quiet refuge. Especially if you’ve been in a shelter. The Dorothy Day Center in St. Paul is a good example. It’s supposed to be a shelter for 125 single men and women. But on a crowded night they have 215 people. As you can imagine, it’s wall-to-wall people.

If you have schizophrenia, or post-traumatic stress disorder, or you suffer from anxiety, or you are antisocial, being crowded in a gym with 215 other people, sleeping six inches apart, smelling each other, and listening to each other—it drives people nutty. A library is a quiet, safe place where people with [these disabilities] can go to decompress.

These are the reasons why I like people to get connected to the library.

Conquering fear

I think there’s a lot of fear of that dirty guy over there in the corner who’s having a wild conversation with himself or with the bookshelf or with his shoe … Librarians are not mental health workers. You’re not called upon to do diagnostic work, and you’re not therapists, and you can’t help a person solve their mental illness. But you can feel free to approach a person and name the behavior.

This is something that was hard for me to do when I started this work. To say, “Excuse me, I know that you’re busy, but can I have a minute of your time?” to someone talking to the lamppost. In every instance I have ever had to do that, the person snaps out of it and focuses on you for at least a few seconds. You can say what you need to say and they’ll probably do what you ask them.

Assisting homeless people and librarians

Librarians in libraries with a lot of homeless people should make themselves familiar with the resources available in the community. They should know if the police have a crisis team and how to contact that crisis team and not call 911. These officers are trained to intervene with people who are in a mental health crisis and [they] behave very differently in an emergency.

There are specialized services available to help. For example, Regions Hospital (St. Paul) has a crisis team and Hennepin County Medical Center (Minneapolis) has the Behavioral Emergency Outreach Program (BEOP).

[Social-service agencies] also have outreach workers who can come out. If you have a person who is coming to the library and causing problems, maybe it’s a person an outreach worker would like to get to know. We could try to talk to that person about what their behaviors are and how they impact other patrons. We can explain that if they want to keep using the library they might need to modify their behavior.

For people who are intoxicated or high, there are detox services in every community. In Minneapolis there is a detox van, with a police officer who does nothing else but round up intoxicated folks.

You don’t have to solve a person’s problems. I work with homeless people every day, and I don’t solve anybody’s problems. Homeless people don’t ask me to … They have to do the work. I can connect them to a resource, but I can’t do the work. And librarians can’t do the work for people either. But you can connect them to resources, and that’s what your jobs are.

If you want to speak with professionals like John Petroskas but are unsure about where to start, try dialing 2-1-1 or visit www.211.org/callcenter.htm. Enter your zip code and click on the “Comprehensive Information and Referral” link.

This is a one-stop information and referral service created by the United Way. Referrals are provided (in at least 30 states) to agencies that offer a variety of basic living needs, crisis counseling, and emergency relief.

Finally, if you require a snapshot of poverty in your community, visit the U.S. Census Bureau’s American FactFinder: http://factfinder.census.gov.

Simply enter appropriate location information in the box provided and click “Go.” You’ll be presented with a Fact Sheet listing local “Economic Characteristics,” including data on families and individuals living below the poverty line.

John Petroskas (jpetroskas@ccspm.org) is a shelter and housing specialist for Catholic Charities in Minneapolis.

John Gehner (jgehner@hhptf.org) coordinates the Hunger, Homelessness & Poverty Task Force, a unit of the Social Responsibilities Round Table (SRRT) of the American Library Association (ALA).

Kali Freeman (kwfreeman@stkate.edu) works in development and external relations for the College of St. Catherine and is a co-founder of the Progressive Librarians Guild student chapter at CSC.

Are Public Libraries Criminalizing Poor People?

In the wake of recent news reports, the Hunger, Homelessness & Poverty Task Force wishes to express concern about public libraries adopting punitive policies clearly targeted at homeless people.

Odor policies” of the sort enacted by San Luis Obispo County, California, and the “civility campaign” launched by Salt Lake City Library to “teach the homeless, children and others how to behave” (Deseret Morning News, 3/9/05) are at best misguided and at worst contribute to the criminalization of poor people.

Libraries are now participating in a deliberate process that geographer Don Mitchell calls “the annihilation of space by law”:

The anti-homeless laws being passed in city after city in the United States work in a pernicious way: by redefining what is acceptable behavior in public space, by in effect annihilating the spaces in which people must live, these laws seek simply to annihilate homeless people themselves … we are creating a world in which a whole class of people cannot be—simply because they have no place to be.

Homeless people are forced to live and dwell in public places. Why? Because we fail to create adequate, dignified shelter and affordable housing options that provide private space—among other basic human needs—for our most vulnerable citizens.

We want to clarify that poor hygiene and homelessness are conditions of extreme poverty, not types of behavior—a view inadvertently promoted by “problem patron” literature in recent years.

We challenge policy makers and front-line librarians to review the American Library Association’s Policy 61 (“Library Services for Poor People”) and ask themselves the following questions:

  1. Do I understand the scope of poverty in my community and its human face?

  2. Are our programs and services inclusive of all poor people and their needs?
  3. Do we actively partner with social service providers and anti-poverty groups?
  4. Do we advocate for public funding of programs that help poor people?
  5. Do our actions address core problems or simply treat superficial symptoms?

Jeremy Waldron, Director of the Center for Law and Philosophy at Columbia University, describes the best alternative to what we view as a disturbing trend:

Fairness demands that … so long as people live among us in a condition of homelessness, our normative definitions of community must be responsive to their predicament … not only in articulating some vague sense of social obligation to ‘do something’ about the problem, but in accepting that the very definition of community must accommodate the stake that the homeless have—as community members—in the regulation of public places … But, as things stand, the call is most often heard in connection with schemes of regulation that simply try to wish homeless members of the community away.

The democratic principles that govern our work demand a humane and informed response to people struggling with homelessness and poverty.

With this goal in mind, we encourage much-needed conversation about these issues and recommend the resources listed below.

Respectfully,

Hunger, Homelessness & Poverty Task Force
Social Responsibilities Round Table
of the American Library Association

NOTE: The opinions expressed here are the views of the HHP Task Force and do not represent or imply the endorsement of SRRT or ALA membership as a whole.

RESOURCES

American Library Association. ALA Policy 61 (“Library Services for Poor People”).

Collins, Ariel. Bibliography on Library Services to Poor People (2003).

How to Use ALA Policy 61

Mitchell, Don. The Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space [Chaps. 5 & 6]. New York: The Guilford Press, 2003.

Poor People and Library Services. Karen Venturella, ed. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 1998.

Waldron, Jeremy. “Homelessness and Community.” University of Toronto Law Journal Vol. 50, #4 (Autumn 2000): 371-406.

For more information, contact

John Gehner, Coordinator
jgehner@hhptf.org