Why We Need the Homeless

IMG_8941As Phillip Lopate points out, perverse humor and contrariness can help us break through our ingrained ways of thinking, can help us view emotionally charged problems in our world through a more constructive lens. With that in mind, here’s why we need homelessness, why we shouldn’t be trying to end or reduce homelessness at all, but rather encouraging it.

Homelessness is good for individuals because it provides an education in life not available by other means. If you’re young and homeless and have a sense of adventure, you can travel around the country in a Jack Kerouac sort of way, get to see more cities and small towns and different ways of living than you’d ever be able to do if you were not homeless and if you were working full-time to try and stay not homeless. We should encourage homelessness in our young people, as it would increase their civic and geographic literacy and help us avoid the high cost of a college education.

Homelessness is good for our society. First, it is good for the environment because people who are homeless often recycle things. They find discarded aluminum cans and plastic bottles in ditches beside streets and turn them in to recycling places in exchange for money. Homelessness is good for the environment because people who are homeless often leave very small carbon footprints: they usually don’t own cars, or if they do, they can’t afford the gas to drive them so they rely on public transportation, ride bicycles or skateboards (if they are young), or simply walk to where they need to go. They eat leftover food that would otherwise go to waste and have to be carted off in garbage trucks and take up space in land fills. This especially applies to all of those excess Starbucks pastries that have to be thrown away at the end of each day. Homeless people don’t use much electricity, especially if they live outside, and even if they stay in public or church-run shelters, the cost per person of heating or cooling the shelter area is quite cost-effective.

Homelessness is good for the economy because our US market economy is based on winners and losers, the wealthy and the poor: having people who are homeless on our streets—so visibly down and out and poor—reminds us that our economy is working. It reminds us on a personal level that we had better keep working or we will end up like them: homeless. It’s a good moral lesson for our children when they are lazy at school. We can point out a homeless person and say: “See—that’s what you’ll become if you don’t study harder!” Homelessness is good for the economy because, like migrant farm workers, many homeless people do day labor, such as construction or yard work, for very low wages. This enables businesses to turn a higher profit.

Homelessness creates jobs for people, especially jobs in public health and social work, as well as jobs for journalists and researchers who focus on homelessness. Homelessness and poverty support health care providers, teachers, social workers, and other professionals who are incompetent or impaired, and who wouldn’t be tolerated in care settings for affluent persons. People who are homeless—along with other poor people—help support medical innovation, since many of them serve as patients and research subjects in academic medical centers. Of course, these medical innovations mainly benefit affluent people who can afford health insurance to cover the cost of such innovations.

Please support homelessness. Our country needs more of it.

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From my medical memoir, Catching Homelessness: A Nurse’s Story of Falling Through the Safety Net (Berkeley: She Writes Press, August 2016).

Note: For this piece I was influenced by Herbert Gans’s article “The Positive Functions of Poverty” in The American Journal of Sociology (Vol. 78, No. 2, September 1972) and by Joel John Robert’s article “Ten Things We Can Do to Perpetuate Homelessness,” published in the Los Angeles Times (July 19, 2003).

Beyond Violence: End With Responsibility

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“Face of the Abyss” Josephine Ensign, Mixed-media on canvas, 2015.

“We begin a poem
with longing
and end with
responsibility

And laugh
all through the storms
that are bound
to come

We have umbrellas
We have boots
We have each
other”

~Excerpt from Nikki Giovanni’s poem “Where Do You Enter.”

And from Attorney General Loretta Lynch : “This has been a week of profound grief and heartbreaking loss. After the events of this week, Americans across our country are feeling a sense of helplessness, of uncertainty and of fear. We must reject the easy impulses of bitterness and rancor and embrace the difficult work — but the important work, the vital work — of finding a path forward together.” (As quoted in the NYT article “Shootings Further Divide a Nation Torn Over Race” by Timothy Williams and Michael Wines, July 8, 2016.)

Last night, as the many peaceful protests occurred in cities around the country over the latest police killings of African-American people (Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in Minnesota), I finished reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ memoir The Beautiful Struggle (New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2008). Coates has been called the ‘angry black man of choice for progressive-type white people,’ and perhaps there is some truth to that quip. His writing manages to be angry but not bitter, highly educated while somehow sounding more authentically gritty.

The Beautiful Struggle is almost a love letter to his father, W. Paul Coates, a former Black Panther, and the founder of the Black Classic Press. Coates’ more recent book, also a memoir of sorts–but one written as a love letter to his own son-(and a much stronger book in my opinion), is Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2015). As I look at these two books of his lying side-by-side on my desk, I realize the covers of both (as well as of the hardback edition of The Beautiful Struggle) are black and white and red. A classic and powerful color combination, but also one that today, as the violence and killings of not only African-Americans but also of the Dallas police officers continues and just seems to escalate, black and white and red takes on a new—and gruesome—visual meaning.

“Hate gives identity.(…) We name the hated strangers and are thus confirmed in the tribe.” (Coates, Between the World and Me, p. 60.) But, as hippy-dippy and starry-eyed as it might sound, doesn’t love also give identity? And if we begin to name the loved strangers, don the boots to walk through muck on that path forward, perhaps we get beyond violence and despair. End with responsibility: individually, tribally, nationally.

Third Places Rock Democracy

imageHaving recently completed my first cross-country road trip from Seattle to Washington, DC, with frequent bathroom and re-fueling/re-flooding stops in coffee shops and gas station diners in dusty, tumbleweed Western and grits-serving tiny Southern towns, I have a greater appreciation of the role of these ‘third places’ in communities, in civil discourse, and in democracy.

Third places are informal community gathering spaces, separate from the ‘first place’ of home (assuming you have one) and ‘second place’ of worksites. Third place is a term and a concept developed by the urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg. This article in Psychology Today does a decent job of explaining his work on third places.

Being a socially progressive, moderate Democrat-leaning person, I wanted to spend some time immersed in a broad swath of Red States. Especially in Texas, which seems to be one of the Redest states of all. Imagine my surprise, while sitting at a community table at a Starbucks outside of Houston, when I tuned in to the conversation of a group of four middle-aged men. It went something like this:

“We’re all Americans here and we represent a cross-section of our country. I’m a white guy. We’ve got someone who is Jewish, you’re Hispanic, and you’re African-American. And we’re sitting together here talking about things that are important.”

“Yeah, this sure wouldn’t have happened thirty years ago,” said the Hispanic man sitting at the end of the table.

“I don’t understand this,” said the white man. “The Supreme Court justice yesterday equated civil rights of Blacks, Hispanics, and Jews–people who have clearly been discriminated against–with homosexuals and transgender types–who are–what?–less than 1 percent of the U.S. Population. How can that be the same?”

The Hispanic man replied, “If they’re fully realized human beings–they had the surgery or whatever to cut off their penises or whatever it is they do–I’m okay with it. We probably don’t even know there’s a difference. They could be right here or even serving us our coffee of whatever and it don’t matter at all. And everyone needs to use the restroom, so they should be able to do that and not have people harass them over a basic human need.”

All four of the men nodded in agreement and then started to show each other family photos from their phones. I nodded in silent agreement, having ended my enlightening Red State third place eavesdropping experience. And I went to use the mixed gender/any gender Starbucks bathroom.

 

Place-based Health and Well-being

P1010527If you have to be poor and homeless, don’t be poor and homeless for long. If you have to be poor and homeless, learn how to fill out all of those food, health, and housing support forms before you become poor and homeless. If you have to be poor and homeless, chose carefully which city to be poor and homeless in.

That’s my take-home message from this past week’s top public health news stories, as well as from my recent trips to the underbellies of both Los Angeles and Cleveland. If I somehow were to become poor and homeless again, I would want to be poor and homeless in my adopted hometown of Seattle. Seattle has its problems, but as a major U.S. city, we somehow manage to do many things right.

First, the buzz created among health policy-minded people and even laypersons from a recent article in JAMA reporting research results indicating that individual health behaviors like smoking and lack of exercise among poor people in the U.S. are the most important correlates of their diminished life expectancy compared with higher income people.

The April 10, 2016 JAMA article, “The Association Between Income and Life Expectancy in the United States, 2001-2014” by Stanford University economist Raj Chetty and associates, used an impressively large dataset of 1.4 billion deidentified tax records; Social Security Administration death records; rates of self-reported smoking, obesity, and exercise from the CDC’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey; Medicaid claims data; national/regional data on major urban ‘commuting zones,’ urban area per capita government spending, fraction of the local population that are college graduates, average housing price, and level of socio-economic neighborhood segregation. The researchers claim to have found weak to no correlations between life expectancy and many of the classic social determinants of health, while finding a strong correlation between individual health behaviors (especially smoking) of the poor and life expectancy. Although, in digging into this quite dense article, it becomes apparent that being poor in some urban areas and regions of our country is much worse than in others. The 10 states with the lowest life expectancy for the poorest people form a belt across our country: Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. Their data indicate that it is much better to be poor if you live in urban areas of California, New York, or Vermont. And they report that the strongest protective factors for people people include the percentage of recent immigrants (long known to be healthier when they first arrive to the U.S. but we somehow beat the healthy living out of them), higher local government expenditures per capita, and the fraction of the local population with college degrees.

Life expectancy was not shown to vary by access to most health care, but it was positively associated with level of preventive care. The level of residential segregation by socio-economic level mainly negatively impacted the life expectancy of people in the top income bracket. That finding should be getting much greater emphasis in the press: to all the richie-rich people who live in gated communities, believe in trickle-down economics, and do everything they can to avoid (or to invest in) impoverished areas near where they live, are paying the price by shortening their own life expectancies–and the life expectancies of their family members.

But it is important to read and digest the JAMA editorial in the same issue, “The Good Life: Working Together to Improve Population Health and Well-Being” by Steven H. Woolf and Jason Q. Parnell. As they astutely point out, the Chetty study has several major flaws (that, not surprisingly, were largely unnoticed and ignored by mainstream media). First, the researchers of the Chetty study used life expectancy at age 40 years instead of the more usual and robust life expectancy at birth. They also excluded people with no reportable income on federal taxes (thus, most all people experiencing homelessness), and they excluded people who live in rural or urban/commuting areas of less than 590,000 persons. Woolf and Parnell also point out that the Chetty, et al research report–and the way the researchers structured the study–“ignores both upstream determinants of individual health behaviors and the poor measurement of other pathways.”

Woolf (a physician) and Parnell go one to claim “that everyone seeks a good life,” of which health is an essential component, “but a good life also involves productive work, emotional and spiritual well-being, supportive social relationships, and a clean and safe environment. (…)  Inequity, a term that can engender political controversy, is giving way to the language of opportunity and the more positive, bipartisan message that everyone deserves a fair chance at the American dream. Education is seen as an answer, not only for better health but also to combat poverty, crime, racism, the loss of blue-collar jobs, and many other social challenges. Many sectors are targeting early childhood, a pivotal age to shift life trajectories, giving children tools for success in education and careers and breaking the cycle of poverty while also preventing illness, behavioral disorders, substance abuse, and violent crime.” Woolf and Parnell exhort their (mainly) physician readers to use their “gravitas” to advocate for local improvements in the social determinants of health. They (annoyingly) leave out the essential role of nurses and all other members of the health care team. But, okay, it is JAMA after all.

Chetty was a researcher on an earlier study on variations in upward mobility of children growing up in different urban areas. In a July 22, 2013 NYT article, “In Climbing Income Ladder-Location Matters,” David Leonhardt used the study’s findings to compare children’s income mobility if they lived in Seattle versus Atlanta (at the time, the two cities had similar median incomes). Leonhardt writes, “The gaps can be stark. On average, fairly poor children in Seattle — those who grew up in the 25th percentile of the national income distribution — do as well financially when they grow up as middle-class children — those who grew up at the 50th percentile — from Atlanta.” The researchers of this study outlined four main factors which were linked with upward mobility for children growing up in poverty: 1) living in less socio-economically segregated neighborhoods, 2) living in a two-parent household, 3) access to better public elementary and high schools, and 4) higher levels of civic engagement, including in religious and community groups.

I leave you with some uplifting, positive, encouraging (and yes, nurse-centric) news related to this topic. The cost-effective, evidence-based Nurse-Family Partnership program is again in the news. I’ve written about this amazing program before (see “More Babies! Nurse-Family Partnership” January 29, 2012). The New Yorker, in a March 1, 2016 post titled “One of the Stranger Jobs in Texas,” links to a recent “The New Yorker Presents” film by Dawn Porter titled “Lone Star Nurse.” The film follows the work of former teen mother turned public health/ Nurse-Family Partnership nurse Nicole Schroeder as she visits “her girls” in Port Arthur, Texas. I say we need many more Nurse-Family Partnership nurses like Schroeder and much fewer high-end, elective surgery hospital nurses. 

 

 

 

Crack Houses and Mass Incarceration

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Rooming house in Jackson Ward, Richmond, Virginia. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign/1988

The deeply disturbing underbelly of the American life many of us have the mixed-blessing privilege of not having to confront: the racist premises of and fallout from our War on Drugs.

The War on Drugs was begun by President Reagan in 1982, and was continued by both Bush administrations, as well as by President Clinton in between the two Bush presidencies. Remember all the crack houses, crack babies, crack crimes, and Welfare Queens that were invoked to stoke the fervor and the funding for the War on Drugs?

As Michelle Alexander points out in her excellent book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, 2011), President Reagan began the War on Drugs before crack cocaine was introduced into impoverished, mainly African American inner-city neighborhoods as a ‘cheap high’ substitute for the high-priced White Collar cocaine. All of the ensuing efforts to get ‘tough on crime’ and ‘one strike–you’re out’ have resulted in the U.S. now having highest rate of incarceration in the world. We also have the highest proportion of our racial and ethnic minorities incarcerated. In fact, we have a larger percentage of our black population imprisoned than did South Africa under the height of Apartheid.

The War on Drugs hasn’t made us any safer, as various politicians have tried to make us believe over the past thirty years. It has made us sicker in body, mind, and soul–all of us. It has contributed to a worsening of health inequities since incarceration leads to a never-ending system of debt, to permanent disenfranchisement by taking away people’s voting rights, and of making it almost impossible for people to find jobs and housing once they are released from prison. Not to mention the negative health effects of incarceration on families. I have worked in prisons and in juvenile detention and knew about many of these issues. But I had not really thought of it as a continuation of slavery, Black Codes/ Jim Crow until I read this book and participated in a University of Washington Teach-In on the topic last week.

Here is one of the more piercing passages of Alexander’s book:

“When the system of mass incarceration collapses (and if history is any guide, it will), historians will undoubtedly look back and marvel that such an extraordinarily comprehensive system of racialized social control existed in the United States. How fascinating, they will likely say, that a drug war was waged almost exclusively against poor people of color–people already trapped in ghettos that lacked jobs and decent schools. They were rounded up by the millions, packed away in prisons, and when released, they were stigmatized for life, denied the right to vote, and ushered into a world of discrimination. Legally barred from employment, housing, and welfare benefits–and saddled with thousands of dollars of debt–these people were shamed and condemned for failing to hold together their families.” p175.

And for an excellent recent report on the public health effects of mass incarceration, take at look at the Vera Institute for Justice’s “On Life Support: Public Health in the Age of Mass Incarceration.

At the end of one of the Teach-In sessions “No Sanctuary: Understanding Historical and Contemporary Intersections of Mass Incarceration, Racism, and Health,” Dr. Alexes Harris stated, “The U.S. has always had an insidious system of social control targeted at those who are racialized and poor,” and then she asked each of us audience members, “How do you perpetuate this system?” On this Presidents Day, what an excellent question to ask ourselves.

Framing Homelessness

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Rough sleeping in the U-District. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign/2016

Homelessness is in the news almost every day here in my hometown of Seattle. Unless you happen to live in a gated community and never go outside your protected home, there is scarcely a city block you walk without distinct signs of people living rough outside or in cars or RVs. It is no surprise then that our One Night Count of homelessness by the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness last week found 4,505 people homeless/without shelter, a 19% increase from the One Night Count in January 2015. And this is despite the fact that the One Night Count volunteers (including a group of our UW Seattle nursing students) being unable to enter and count homeless people in ‘The Jungle,’ a longtime homeless encampment area in an I-5 greenbelt area of Seattle–and the location of our impressive Depression Era Hooverville. There had been a mass shooting in The Jungle the night before, resulting in the death of two homeless people and the hospitalization of three others.

Just two months ago, in November 2015, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray declared a state of emergency over homelessness, saying this in the official notice: “The City of Seattle, like many other cities across the country, is facing a homelessness crisis. The region’s current needs outweigh shelter capacity, leaving too many seniors, families and individuals sleeping on the street. More than 45 individuals have died while homeless on Seattle streets in 2015 alone.” His declaration of a state of emergency supposedly helps “deploy critical resources more quickly to those in need.”

Suddenly it begins to feel like we’ve entered a 1980s time-warp, with so many people weighing in with competing viewpoints, priorities, and proposed ‘fixes’ for our homelessness problem. I, of course, could add my own voice to the rising cacophony surrounding this latest round of the homelessness crisis. Instead, I offer these words of wisdom and perspective from some of my favorite deep and critical thinkers on the topic of the ‘first wave’ of modern homelessness in the 1980s:

  • “The scandal of homelessness looked as though it could harness a new politics of compassion and shame–compassion for the plight of the dispossessed and shame at the inhumanity of national and local policies toward them. Homelessness, in sum, had political appeal.” pp 132-133, in Donald Schon and Martin Rein’s excellent book, Frame Reflection: Toward the Resolution of Intractable Policy Controversies. Basic Books, 1994.
  • Put plainly, the opposite of homelessness is not shelter, but home. Understood culturally, ‘home’ must entail some claim to inclusion. The principled question underlying homelessness policy, then, is not, what does charity demand? but rather, what does solidarity require? And so it no longer suffices (if it ever did) to ask what it is about the homeless poor that accounts for their dispossession. One must also ask what it is about ‘the rest of us’ that has learned to ignore, then tolerate, only to grow weary of, and now seeks to banish from sight the ugly evidence of a social order gone badly awry.” p. 214 of Kim Hopper’s now classic book, Reckoning With Homelessness. Cornell UP, 2003.

Water, Water, Clean Water (not) Everywhere

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Cook Strait ferry crossing, New Zealand. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign/2014

The public health (and political) crisis in Flint, Michigan over their contaminated drinking water should be sending out much louder alarm signals throughout our country. Snowmagedden 2016–from a different form of water–is drowning out the dirty water, dirty politics, and dirty failures of our public health system. Note my use of ‘our’ and not ‘their,’ which would make it oh so more comforting and at arm’s length for those of us who are not living in Flint. Contaminated water supplies can happen in our own hometowns, especially with the widespread crumbling infrastructures and a diminishing focus on public health surveillance. Access to safe, clean water is a basic human need; it should be an equal opportunity necessity. But clearly it is not.

For anyone who has missed this part of our national news, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) three days ago issued an emergency order over unsafe public water in Flint, Michigan, and assumed federal oversight of water testing and water treatment in the city of 100, 000–a city where 57% of the population is African-American and 42% of the city’s residents live below the poverty line. This week President Obama declared a state of emergency over the Flint water crisis and has assigned an expert from the Department of Health and Human Services to assist in assessing the extent of lead ‘poisoning’ in children and then recommend interventions. As we know all too well, what with the effects of lead additives to household paint and gasoline, as well as other environmental sources, children’s exposure to lead has devastating effects on multiple organ systems, and especially on the developing nervous system. Lead exposure in infants (including en utero) and children is linked with cognitive deficits (lower IQ), learning and behavioral issues.

In 2014, city and state officials switched from using the nearby Detroit water supplies (which came from the much cleaner Lake Huron) to using the highly contaminated Flint River for Flint’s water, in order to save money. They also failed to treat the water appropriately to minimize lead leaching into the water supply from old pipes. And they failed to appropriately test the household water supplies, ignored residents’ complaints about green and brown and foul-smelling water. And the city and state officials, including public health officials, publicly denied there was a problem, even after Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a local pediatrician, presented them with evidence of alarmingly elevated blood lead levels in children she was seeing. As reported today in the excellent NYT article, “When the Water Turned Brown,” by Abby Goodnough, Monica Davey, and Mitch Smith:

“Yet interviews, documents and emails show that as every major decision was made over more than a year, officials at all levels of government acted in ways that contributed to the public health emergency and allowed it to persist for months. The government continued on its harmful course even after lead levels were found to be rising…”

People have rightfully pointed out that this is clearly a case of a willful neglect of environmental justice. If Flint, Michigan was more affluent and ‘more white’ it is highly unlikely that this problem would have started in the first place, or at least it would have been more quickly and more efficiently remedied. As the EPA defines ‘environmental justice’ on its website: “Environmental Justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. EPA has this goal for all communities and persons across this Nation. It will be achieved when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.”

In his characteristic no-holds-barred truth-telling way, filmmaker and Flint native Michael Moore is calling for the arrest of Republican Governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder, claiming he helped create the water public health crisis in Flint. (See this MSNBC interview of Michael Moore by Chris Hayes, January 19, 2016.)

As a public health nurse, this complex and entirely preventable problem in Flint, makes me angry and sad. Not only because of the environmental injustice of it all. Not only for the longterm negative health consequences for the thousands of children of Flint exposed to lead through their town’s drinking water. Not only for the devastating effects on the parents of these children. But also because of how much it undermines any and all heard-earned trust people have in our public health system. That negatively affects the health and safety of all of us.

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