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Why COVID-19 Will Strain the Safety Net for Homeless Vets to the Breaking Point

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Under normal circumstances, Jerry Porter would be spending his time helping the veterans he finds in tent camps and run-down housing.

But the escalating threat of COVID-19 forces the community activist and retired Steelworker to remain at home for now, even though vulnerable vets need him more than ever.

As the coronavirus spreads across America, the poor bear the brunt of a pandemic that’s exposed the deep class lines in U.S. society.

The rich have big savings accounts and quality health care. They’ll emerge from the crisis just fine.

But Americans at the margins, including homeless vets who rely on a frayed safety net stretched to the breaking point by COVID-19, now face an even greater struggle to survive.

“I don’t know where they end up,” said Porter ruefully. Porter, 75, is a Vietnam veteran and longtime member of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 105 who worked more than 40 years at the aluminum plant in Davenport, Iowa, now owned by Arconic.

Porter and a group of friends work together to help veterans in the Quad Cities area of Iowa and Illinois.

But now, they’re heeding the request of public health officials. They stay home to help their community slow the spread of COVID-19.

That prevents them from helping veterans like the one Porter found sleeping on a squalid mattress in a “junky” house. He got the man into a clean apartment and—thanks to a friend who owned a bedding store—a new mattress and box spring for just $180.

Just as alarming, COVID-19 halted the fund-raising supporting that kind of intervention. Local veterans groups just canceled a taco dinner and a poppy sale that together raise about $6,000 each year.

For some veterans, that money is the difference between sleeping indoors or on the street.

Porter and his friends use some of the funds to provide life’s basics to the homeless vets they move into government-subsidized housing with little but the clothes on their backs.

“There’s nothing,” Porter explained. “There’s no bedding, silverware, dishes, glassware, towels, sheets.”

Twice a year, advocates in the Quad Cities hold “stand down” events that serve as a one-stop shop for veterans needing anything from counseling to jobs.

Porter already worries that the three-day event planned for September will be canceled because of COVID-19, leaving veterans to face a long winter without important services.

Porter’s union job ensured good wages, a pension and affordable health care. He devotes his retirement to the less fortunate, feeling a duty to fellow vets with no one else to help them.

The federal government fails veterans who struggle to find adequate employment or wrestle with health problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

For example, the nation hasn’t adequately addressed the challenges that doom many vets to unemployment or low-wage jobs. Among other problems, veterans have difficulty converting their skills to the private sectorfinding purpose in civilian work and obtaining occupational licenses enabling them to apply skills learned in the military.

Raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, up from the current $7.25, would benefit about 1.8 million vets, along with millions of other Americans, who barely scrape by. The House last year approved a bill to increase the minimum wage, but Senate Republicans refuse to act on it.

Although significant progress in combating veteran homelessness has been made in recent years, unemployment, low wages and health problems still force veterans onto the streets or into shelters. About 40,000 are homeless, and 1.4 million more are only a lost paycheck or other crisis away from losing the roof over their heads.

A collection of government agencies and nonprofits operates soup kitchens, shelters and other services to serve America’s homeless. But this underfunded system is strained to capacity even in ordinary times.

Volunteers like Porter provide crucial support, stepping in when government agencies don’t know who else to call for help.

A veterans hospital once contacted Porter and asked him to help a man who lived outdoors. His tent was broken, and rain kept getting inside.

Porter picked up the vet and drove him to see a friend who owned an awning company. The businessman fixed the tent for free.

In a crisis, like the COVID-19 pandemic, this patchwork system is easily overwhelmed.

Some service providers already reduced services or limited new admissions to slow the spread of the disease.

Agencies closed drop-in centers where homeless veterans can get out of the elements. Some now want to counsel clients remotely, even though homeless people may not have cell phones.

And in the Quad Cities, Porter and his crew are sidelined, too.

Homeless vets face even greater odds during the COVID-19 crisis even though they have a higher risk of contracting the disease than other Americans.

Many live in cramped quarters without the social distancing and sanitary measures vital to controlling the virus. The closing of libraries, malls and coffee shops deprived them of places to wash their hands. They have nowhere to isolate themselves if they get sick.

Some cities are scrambling to place homeless people in places such as unused motel rooms, vacant houses and recreational vehicles on public streets. The goal is to disperse the population and keep the disease from spreading like wildfire if someone contracts it.

While the COVID-19 crisis is unprecedented, the slapdash response underscores how fragile the safety net for America’s homeless really is.

As cities struggle to adapt, the ranks of the homeless likely will grow because of the economic slowdown, putting more stress on the overtaxed system.

The government’s response to COVID-19 must include injecting funds into programs that support homeless veterans and keep other vets from losing their homes.

But federal officials also must think about what the economy and social-service network will look like after the pandemic.

That means better funding a system now overly reliant on fundraisers like taco dinners and poppy sales. It means comprehensively addressing the problems servicemen and servicewomen face when they leave the armed forces.

Thoughtful interventions will save lives, says Porter, who recently ran into the veteran he rescued from the “junky” house.

“I’m on my feet,” the man told him. “I’m doing OK.”

This article was originally printed the Independent Media Institute. on March 27, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Tom Conway is international president of the United Steelworkers (USW).


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A Nation Where Only The Rich Have Homes?

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In our daily lives, as anyone who keeps a household budget can attest, the unexpected happens all the time. A refrigerator motor fails. Some part on your car you never realized existed breaks down. A loved one passes away and you have to — you want to — be at the funeral a thousand miles away.

“Unexpected” expenses like these will, sooner or later, hit all of us. But all of us, says new research out of the Federal Reserve, can’t afford them.

In fact, just under 40 percent of Americans, says the Fed’s sixth annual household economics survey, “would have difficulty handling an emergency expense as small as $400.”

A fifth of American adults, the new Fed study adds, had major unexpected medical bills last year. An even larger share of Americans — one quarter — “skipped necessary medical care in 2018 because they were unable to afford the cost.”

Meanwhile, 17 percent of American adults can’t afford to pay all their monthly bills, even if they don’t experience an unexpected expense.

The new Fed report offers no anecdotal color, just waves of carefully collected statistical data. For a sense of what these stats mean in human terms, we need only look around where we live, particularly if we live in one of the many metro areas where inequality is squeezing millions of Americans who once considered themselves solidly “middle class.” Places like the Bay Area in California.

San Francisco, recent research shows, now has more billionaires per capita than any other city in the world. By one reckoning, San Francisco also has the highest cost of living in the world, as all those billionaires — and the rest of the city’s ultra rich — bid up prices on the most desirable local real estate.

But the Bay Area squeeze goes beyond the confines of San Francisco. Nearby Oakland and Berkeley are facing enormous affordable housing shortages as well. The Bay Area as a whole now has more than 30,000 homeless.

Two-thirds of these homeless Californians haven’t been able to find temporary sheltering services. They live and sleep outdoors, many in lines of RVs parked along public right-of-ways like the waterfront in Berkeley. And that has infuriated nearby residents who’ve paid big bucks for their residences.

Berkeley city council member Kate Harrison has felt the fury first-hand — from constituents who wanted the RVs of homeless people banned from the waterfront.

“I paid a million dollars for my place,” one constituent told her, “and they have a better view.”

Local officials in Bay Area cities don’t know quite what to do. On one side, they have people without shelter who have real and unmet human needs. On the other, they have angry affluents with shelter who see their neighborhoods under siege from homeless hordes.

The more people spend on housing, Berkeley councilperson Harrison has come to understand, the more “aggrieved” they feel.

“Only the one?percent here,” she adds, “feel economically secure.”

In other words, inequality has local officials coming and going. The ranks of the homeless are growing because almost all the gains from America’s growing economy, as the Economic Policy Institute’s Elise Gould testified to Congress this past March, are “going to households at the top.”

Empathy for the plight of the homeless, meanwhile, is withering away, particularly among society’s most fortunate, as the social distance between that top and the rest of society widens. The rich have climbed so far up the income ladder that they can’t see the humanity on the faces of people stuck on the lower rungs.

One telling sign of our unequal times: In wealthy Bay Area neighborhoods, the Washington Post reports, GoFundMe campaigns have emerged “to finance lawsuits against affordable housing proposals.”

What happens when empathy all but totally disappears? You get the life that the 33-year-old Ashana Cunningham lives in southwest Connecticut, the home to some of America’s grandest hedge-fund fortunes — as well as more separate and unequal housing, a devastating just-published analysis notes, “than nearly everywhere else in the country.”

Cunningham, the mother of three, lives in a homeless shelter amid abandoned factories and rundown houses. She takes a long bus commute every day to a high-priced day care center in one of Connecticut’s poshest areas. Cunningham couldn’t afford to live in that area even if she made triple her $12.50 per hour salary because, as joint reporting by Pro Publica and the Connecticut Mirror details, Connecticut’s wealthiest communities have been blocking construction of any modestly priced housing “within their borders for the last two decades, often through exclusionary zoning requirements.”

Towns like Westport — median home value: $1.15 million — have surrounded themselves “with invisible walls to block affordable housing and, by extension, the people who need it.”

One local developer five years ago proposed a project for Westport that would accommodate up to 12 families via a mix of single- and multifamily housing units on a 2.2-acre property he had purchased. The density, the developer explain, would allow the units to sell “for less than the typical Westport home.”

The Westport Planning and Zoning Commission denied his plan.

“To me,” declared one commissioner who voted against the plan, “this is ghettoizing Westport.”

In reality, the wealthy in localities like Westport have effectively “ghettoized” their corner of Connecticut, locking in place an extreme inequality that’s doing deep damage to the young people who grow up within it. So suggests a study that appeared last month in the medical journal JAMA Pediatrics.

The researchers involved in the study examined data from nearly 30,000 schools and found “the first evidence of an association between early-life inequality and adolescent bullying.”

“Put another way,” explains an analysis of the study from Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, “there is a link between early life inequality and being bullied at school later in life.”

The new study’s lead author, Frank Elgar of Montreal’s McGill University, emphasizes that the link his team’s researchers found rests between inequality and bullying, not poverty and bullying. The “effect of growing up in an unequal setting,” Elgar points out, may well be significantly — and negatively — altering the course of children’s development.

Just how does inequality have this impact? The researchers say we need more research. How about they start that probing in southwest Connecticut.

This blog was originally published at OurFuture.org on June 10, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: A veteran labor journalist, Sam Pizzigati has written widely on economic inequality, in articles, books, and online, for both popular and scholarly readers.


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Standing In Solidarity With Low-Wage Workers At the U.S. Senate

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Isaiah J. PooleU.S. senators and their staff only have to go to the Senate cafeteria to see what is wrong with the low-wage economy, with the workers who serve their meals earning near-poverty wages paid by the subsidiary of a multinational corporation that has blocked efforts by the workers to fight for better wages and working conditions.

Their struggle was made most vivid recently by the story of Charles Gladden, a Senate cafeteria worker who was homeless, earning only about $360 a week.

On Wednesday, some of those staffers made a point of showing that they understand what those workers are struggling with and are standing with them.

Their show of solidarity took the form of a “brown bag boycott,” in which they brought their own brown-bag lunches to the cafeteria. Joining the 40 or so Senate staffers who participated in the protest was Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). He promised that the boycott would not be a one-time event.

“We will be here every Wednesday until you are treated fairly,” said Brown.

Senate cafeteria workers have been doing battle with the federal contractor for Senate food services, Restaurant Associates, for several years for a $15-an-hour wage and the right to collective bargaining. They have staged one-day strikes and protests to ratchet up the pressure.

Last week two of the cafeteria workers wrote an op-ed in The Hill newspaper to outline their struggle, including the efforts by Restaurant Associates to thwart their worker organizing efforts.

“Since we started organizing, we’ve been relentlessly harassed and intimidated by our bosses. Managers have threatened to fire us, questioned us about our organizing efforts, cut our hours, changed our schedules, increased our workloads, and ordered us not to speak with union organizers,” wrote Betrand Olotara and Luz Villatoro.

In addition to a $15 wage, “we are demanding a free and fair organizing process just like the one Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is proposing in his Workplace Democracy Act,” they wrote. “Instead of going through a sham election, we should be able to join a union by just signing a union membership card.”

People can show support for the Senate cafeteria workers by signing this petition to “help Senate cafeteria workers form a union to bargain for a living wage.”

This blog was originally posted on Our Future on October 29, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Isaiah J. Poole has been the editor of OurFuture.org since 2007. Previously he worked for 25 years in mainstream media, most recently at Congressional Quarterly, where he covered congressional leadership and tracked major bills through Congress. Most of his journalism experience has been in Washington as both a reporter and an editor on topics ranging from presidential politics to pop culture. His work has put him at the front lines of ideological battles between progressives and conservatives. He also served as a founding member of the Washington Association of Black Journalists and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association.


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