22 November 2005

Vagrants in Denver

Denver has a homelessness problem. Most cities do. In fact, Denver really has multiple homelessness problems, with different solutions.

The fact and figures and debate are confused by terms that have shifting meanings. Just as the literacy debate has waivered between a narrow definition of illiteracy meaning people who can't read, and a broader definition "functional illiteracy", which means people who can't read at the 9th grade level and who can't read well enough to handle the more sophisticated aspects of daily life, homelessness has multiple definitions as well. Most people who think about the homelessness issue in the general public think about the narrow definition, vagrants who sleep outdoors or in shelters out of necessity. But, there is also a broader definition that includes people in transitional housing, people staying with friends without a home of their own, and people staying in low rent motels or RVs until they can find a permanent place to live.

My focus today is on vagrants. It is an almost archaic term, but has a pretty well defined meaning. Vagrancy is an issue I can't help but think about almost every day. My office is near a church based homeless shelter or outreach program. To be honest, I couldn't tell you exactly what services they provide. But, I do know that a lot of vagrant men congregate in the area where I work on a daily basis at certain times of the day to receive services.

Let's not mince words. Encountering vagrant men is scary.

One recent morning I was walking towards my office and let loose with an "Oh shit!" when I realized that I had forgotten to put on my tie that morning and didn't yet have a backup stowed at work. Only then did I notice a man sudden peak out from under a blanket in an out of the way corner who I hadn't even noticed, wondering if I was talking about him. At 8 a.m. on a chilly morning when the guy is half asleep, I wasn't exactly fearing for my life at that moment, but his look was exactly the stereotype you have of someone mugging you as you walk down a dark alley after working late, and needless to say, I'm careful with locks at work and I am very aware of my surroundings when I leave the office, especially in the evenings.

On another afternoon this week, I walked to a nearby post office to mail some legal papers that had to go out in the mail that day, and on the way back to the office encountered a somewhat heavy middle aged man, who was flapping his arms, trying to sing a Tom Petty song and moving well into that ill defined region we call our personal space. Did he make a verbal threat or display a weapon or anything like that? No. He didn't even ask for money. But, encountering an apparently mentally ill man who suddenly, without any apparent reason, takes a direct personal interest in you and tried to engage you is uncomfortable, to say the least. It violates basic, unwritten social norms about how you interact with people in public that normally provide a comfort zone in public settings.

When you routinely see vagrants in your neighborhood, whether it is the place where you work, or the place where you live, you worry about them breaking into your car to steal things, you worry about being mugged, you worry about your building being broken into, and you worry about anything left outside being stolen. Concerns like these are a big factor that drives many employers to office parks, like the one in Greenwood Village where I last worked. These offices are in unwalkable neighborhoods far from residences or commercial areas, in places where no one who doesn't work or visit the office has no business being there and in considered trespassing. They are isolated and boring, but they are also very safe. Suburban housing tracts, and in particular, the kinds of gated communities you find in places like Greenwood Village and Cherry Hills, in metropolitan Denver are in part motivated by the same kinds of fears.

The fear is not unjustified. These men are scary because they are able bodied men with nothing to lose and enough physical harm you if they choose to do so. They aren't that different from a Jean Valjean stealing bread in Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, or for those of you with fewer literary aspirations, the Bruce Wayne of Batman Begins who steals to support himself after having rejecting his fortune and leaving for Asia. These are men who don't have the very basics of what they need and these are also men for whom a jail term is a definite improvement.

Jail offers a bed, heat, regular meals, showers, television, serviceable clothing and provides better protection from violent assaults than sleeping on the street. A well timed misdemeanors conviction that puts a vagrant man in jail for several months during the coldest months of the year is a material step up in life for them, rarely aggravated future sentences, and puts them in jail, where the fellow inmates tend not to be as bad as those in state prisons. For that matter, even Third World jails generally have better material conditions than the life of a vagrant in a major American city in the North where it gets cold at night in the winter. If someone has to be a victim in order for a vagrant man to get into jail, well, those are the breaks.

In contrast, if you are a vagrant man in Denver this winter and the usual shelters are full, your best option is to go to a "collection site downtown" on a night where the temperature is expected to drop below 28 degrees Fahrenheit or significant precipitation is expects (making staying outdoors unsafe), where you are bused with groups of about 40 homeless men to shelters where you are required to stay inside until 5 a.m., at which point you are bused back downtown at 5 a.m. for a hot morning meal. You sleep on the floor, typically in a large public room, with sheets and blankets as available, and perhaps some coffee or hot chocolate provided by volunteers. If the night is warmer than that and clear (and all but about 20 nights are year in Denver fit that profile), you look for a spot under a bridge, behind some bushes, or otherwise out of the way to lie down, perhaps under a borrowed or stolen blanket to sleep, if you can't find a spot in a shelter (and there are regular shelter spots for, at most, half the vagrants in Denver). Food is at shelters on a supply available basis or at fast food places purchased with money received from begging.

Needless to say, it is hard to get a job, find medical care, deal with a mental illness, or wean yourself from alcoholism or a drug addition, living that kind of life. The main welfare program, TANF (Temporary Aid To Needy Families, formerly known as AFDC for Aid To Families With Dependent Children) doesn't cover single "able bodied" men. The waiting time to get public housing or a Section 8 housing voucher, even if you qualify, is typically months or years. Qualifying for disability payments under Social Security and the SSI program when your difficulties primarily involve mental rather than physical health (and not always standard clinical mental illnesses like schitzophrenia) is time consuming and not always possible. Most vagrant men qualify for Medicaid and food stamps, but many have trouble managing to fill out the requisite forms. Unemployment insurance last only about six months, pays only a modest percentage of your prior income, usually isn't available when you quit a job or are fired for good cause, and isn't available if your prior job was irregular contract work. Some states have a welfare program that provides very limited cash assistance to vagrant men, often under the rubric of "general assistance", but I'm not aware of such a program in Colorado. Denver used to have flophouses that provided an inferior small place to sleep cheap, but these places, now rechristened "single occupancy hotels", have been largely shuttered and torn down to the point where they Mayor has had to embark on a ten year program to build more.

The incentives in the current American system, where you get treated better if you commit a crime than if you don't, are screwed up. And, the solution is not to treat crimimals and people accused of crimes worse. Jail is far more expensive than providing the basics of life to someone Incarcerating someone costs on the order of $20,000-$30,000 per year, depending on the facility. Pairing people up as room mates in studio apartments and providing them with funds sufficient for basic groceries, local phone service and other necessities can cost less than $6,000, per person, per year. And, if someone has no employment and are able bodied, they are capable of doing work in exchange, even if they are often the dregs of the work force in terms of on the job behavior and skills. We can't expect vagrants to be good at long term budgeting, but a college student/company town model could work well.

We should, at least, be able to say with confidence that every able bodied man always has an opportunity to leave a law abiding life. We could, if we could guarantee vagrant men 25 hours a week of work at minimum wage, sign them up for Medicaid, provide a place to stay in a studio apartment with a roommate (the going rent for a studio apartment in Denver is about $450 a month), a mail slot, local only phone service, heat and electricity (paid for with $270 a month taken out of their pay checks), another chunk of money (perhaps $200 a month, maybe less with food stamps paying part of the cost) taken out of their pay checks in exchange for a cafeteria meal card (that buys food in bulk and hires program members to do the grunt work for minimum wage), and frequent pay periods to help them budget the rest of their money (perhaps $2-3 a day of walking around money). If jails and prisons required 40 hours a work from convicted prisoners, this would even be a situation better than jail and much cheaper for society (even if the make work jobs in the program cost somewhat more in payroll than they generated in revenues). But, we can't even say that. That is a shame.

Equally important, the status quo is bad for the city. A vagrant is a desperate man with idle hands. He scares people and that keeps people out of the city. A guy with a regular part-time job and an apartment who isn't hungry, who has a secure place to keep his meager possession during the day, and has some access to medical care doesn't present the same kind of threat, even if he is still living, perhaps by choice or perhaps because he can't handle anything else, a marginal life. Even if the government can only find work for a former vagrant with marginal skills and abilities that generates $2.50 an hour in revenue and has to pay $5.15 an hour, paying $3,000 a year per person on the streets to give them an incentive to get off the street and stay out of jail is a price worth paying.

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