Tag Archives: affordable housing

Boosting Texas Community

Boosting Texas Community Aligns With Planner’s Vision

What makes a community? Ben Hyde has been mulling that over ever since he was in high school.

The Kansas City native and his wife of four months, Ying, have just moved to New Braunfels, Texas, where he will put into action some of the ideas he’s had about creating community areas that truly serve homeless and low-income people and invest in local human resources.

Ben Hyde stands in front of the McKenna Center in New Braunfels, Texas, where he has recently moved to add his input and work toward improving the community. Ben is a community planner who is dedicating himself to seeing that low-income areas have better transportation, schools and availability to jobs and  affordable housing. He received training through AmeriCorps before moving to the Texas city. AmeriCorps mobilizes about 75,000 Americans annually to work with non-profit organizations, schools and community agencies to improve their communities. The McKenna Foundation's mission is to advance the well-being of New Braunfels by enhancing health-related services ("well-being means being involved").
Ben Hyde stands in front of the McKenna Center in New Braunfels, Texas, where he has recently moved to add his input and work toward improving the community. Ben is a community planner who is dedicating himself to seeing that low-income areas have better transportation, schools and availability to jobs and affordable housing. He received training through AmeriCorps before moving to the Texas city. AmeriCorps mobilizes about 75,000 Americans annually to work with non-profit organizations, schools and community agencies to improve their communities. The McKenna Foundation’s mission is to advance the well-being of New Braunfels by enhancing health-related services (“well-being means being involved”).

New Braunfels, one of the fastest growing cities in the country, has never had affordable housing, Ben says. A community of 10,000 15 years ago, New Braunfels has ballooned to 70,000 today. While a person can buy a house for $25,000 to $35,000, he says, this “young community needs infrastructure.”

After training sessions through AmeriCorps in Denver, Ben went to Texas in August to get to know his supervisors and plot his day-to-day activities. These will range from talking to politicians and giving presentations to doing research on funding, grants and tax credits.  He’ll be looking into acquiring some of those grants, helping to develop community gardens, homeless shelters and transitional living spaces along with services that deal with the psychological issues homeless people often face. These services need to happen on a daily basis, Ben says, “so people don’t fall back into the same situation.”

Unfortunately Ben is finding that programs already set up in New Braunfels that are trying to provide services like transportation for low-income and no-income people, affordable housing, better educational opportunities and day care are struggling. “They don’t have the funds,” Ben says. “Housing is particularly a big issue here as there are not enough housing units that are affordable for the area. There is a perception by some in the community that poverty does not exist and people are not homeless.

. . .There is a perception by some in the community that poverty does not exist and people are not homeless. The reality is much different…

“The reality is much different. My main purpose here right now is to work on streamlining how we get our data for the Texas Homeless Network and making sure that it is accurate,” he says.

Ben also is tasked with working on a transitional housing project. “We are trying to partner with SAM Ministries based in San Antonio to run the development of the project.” (SAMMinistries is a Canadian faith-based non-profit committed to “compassionately serving people…We are convinced of the empowering effect that acts of kindness have when they are done with love to address the needs of people.” samministries.com)

The good news is that the project is in Stage 2 environmental analysis and, barring any setbacks, should be under way soon.

Ben bills himself as political and community-minded and says that his driving interest in both has led him to this new job. After graduating from Creighton University in Omaha, he worked in advertising and lived in the area of downtown Kansas City that is coming back to life with theaters, shops, restaurants, lofts, art galleries and bars. He particularly became involved with the Crossroads District Community Association in a gallery-intensive area that hosts First Fridays arts crawls and other events.

In his work for that and the newly created Power and Light District of downtown Kansas City, he would return to the office with the thought that he wanted to “stand up for the little guy. It was my first taste of that.”

In 2008, his firm lost Sonic as a client. He was told that it would not make that much difference and that he would be doing more economic and community analysis. “But I could see I was going to lose my job when we lost Sonic,” he says. The firm lost a few others—Citgo and some theme parks. “They added some back but not in my department. I kept learning new stuff to keep my job but that year I burned out.

“I thought: ‘how is my business helping communities and people, especially urban people?”

He remembered what neighborhood meant when he was growing up—the feeling that people knew one another and the simple pleasures like visiting the elderly woman down the block. He wants to bring that forward and be part of a place where he and his wife can walk to work and nod to the people on their block.

“I want to help revitalize a community and see its schools improved, a place where programs can be provided for training to become pharmacists or dental technicians or training that correlates to good jobs,” Ben says. “I believe education is the key for the types of jobs that seem to be evolving in the 21st Century, like in the medical field in general and the sciences that help influence it.

Ben points to Portland as an example of a city with a successful downtown renaissance and Detroit as its antithesis. “When jobs go away, no one can afford housing. Businesses leave and then there is no work force. There are complex dynamics, some of them racial. It can become a blame game.”

Ben returned to school to get his masters in urban planning with an emphasis in economic and community development from the University of Kansas. He found out about AmeriCorps at KU in “the best public policy program in the country.” His counselor steered him to the urban program.

After this graduation, Ben “beat down every door,” looking for work that related to his masters locally. “I was frustrated. I found about 30 positions available. I applied to most of them. Right before we were married, my wife said she thought I should conduct a wider search.”

This netted him interviews around the country with the first offer through AmeriCorps in Chicago. “I thought about the safety for my wife,” he says.

“I will not be making a lot of money but I want to live in the neighborhood I’m helping with. I want to try to understand what people in the neighborhood are going through.”

Just after he and Ying decided they would not go to Chicago, another offer came through from Texas. When he flew there to meet with supervisors, he saw the opportunities he could involve himself in for the New Braunfels community.

House Keys Not Handcuffs

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI am editing the upcoming book House Keys Not Handcuffs by Paul Boden, a former homeless man and 30-year advocate for homeless and poor people in the San Francisco Bay Area. (His story is included in my book, Finding Home: How Americans Prevail in the “Outsider Insights” section.)

Paul started the Coalition on Homelessness after he witnessed the inability of local and federal governments to deal with ever-growing homelessness. He now is head of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, a group of California programs that works together toward creating housing for those without shelter and putting an end to mass poverty.

His book gives organizing tips to others who would like to begin advocacy organizations or groups. We follow the pitfalls he has skirted throughout the years and see what concerns activists should be alert to as they plan to help others in an efficient and generally successful manner.

Bob Prentice has written the introduction to House Keys. He was formerly director of the San Francisco Public Health Division and founded the Bay Area Health Inequities Initiative, a collaborative formed to transform public health practices and eliminate inequities, and to create healthy communities.

Paul Boden of WRAP
Paul Boden of WRAP

The book contains artwork that embodies homeless and poor people’s struggles and other civil rights efforts during the 30-year period Boden addresses. Artist Art Hazelwood, famous for his artwork in this genre, adds a detailed history of art that has been created to accompany justice movements and publications in San Francisco.

Boden’s book is due out in October. He will speak at the Howard Zinn Bookfest (billed “a celebration of subversive books”) in San Francisco on Nov. 15 and at landmark City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco (co-founded by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti) on Nov. 18.

Freedom Voices Press Celebrates 25 Years
Tuesday, November 18, 2014, 7:00 P.M., City Lights Booksellers, 261 Columbus Avenue, San Francisco


Panhandling Ordinance Deprives Many of Income

Panhandler earning money to go to next migrant worker job.
Panhandler earning money to go to next migrant worker job.

This is my upcoming article for Homeward the Sacramento Street Journal September 2014.

As anyone who is looking for a job in this economy knows, it’s rough out there. There is a largely misunderstood section of the population that has been put in the position of asking other people for money for food, shelter and transportation. Oh wait, that is a job.

But, if you are down on your luck and soliciting money in public places for your own welfare, it’s called panhandling. If Sacramento County has its way, that way of earning your money will be essentially illegal.

While there is a challenge in court, the county is poised to enforce an ordinance that creates large buffer zones between solicitors and potential donors at places where solicitors commonly ask for money, food or work. At first blush, the ordinance seems to address the “safety and welfare of the general public” by making it illegal to solicit in an aggressive or threatening manner. As well it should. Most panhandlers would agree that people should not be followed after saying no to a solicitation. Nor should they be accosted at ATMs, have obscenities hurled at them or feel physically intimidated.

But this is a different matter than peaceable panhandlers who non-aggressively hold signs up and appeal for personal donations. However, the ordinance contains a clause under exemptions stating “Nothing in this …shall be construed to prohibit soliciting for charitable purposes in compliance with the requirements set forth in…this Code.” Sacramento attorney Mark Merin says that distinction makes the ordinance unconstitutional. “This ordinance is vulnerable because it has the exemption for charitable organizations. This is a free speech issue.”

Merin has petitioned the court to issue a preliminary injunction to restrain enforcement of the newly adopted ordinance. The complaint says that “a number of principles have emerged from the case law, which compel the conclusion that Sacramento County’s anti-panhandling law is invalid on it face.”

For one, Merin’s document reads, “solicitation of donations in public forums is a form of non-commercial speech fully protected by the First Amendment.” And, “Individuals who seek donations for their own personal needs and survival are entitled to the same degree of constitutional protection as persons who solicit for other causes. ‘Panhandlers’ and persons who ‘beg’—categories singled out by the Ordinance—are not relegated to some lower rung of the First Amendment.”

Merin, a well-known Sacramento civil rights champion, says any restriction that is content-based has to meet with strict scrutiny. A struggling mother is just as entitled to ask you for alms as a save-the-whales organizer is entitled to ask you to sign a petition, or a Girl Scout is free to ask you to buy cookies. “If the ordinance is to be selectively enforced, then it is unconstitutional as applied,” he says. “You can regulate panhandling. You can prohibit all solicitations in a city or county, but that would mean all solicitors, including for charities.”

People who violate the ordinance more than two times within a six month period will be found guilty of a misdemeanor. Merin details how expensive for taxpayers the legal process will be if people are arrested for solicitation, even if each person is kept in custody just 30 days. Tallying only the cost of police, jailors, court personnel and judges, the figure mounts easily to thousands, he says.

Sgt. Lisa Bowman, media relations representative for the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department says they are aware of the litigation. She says the county has agreed to a 60-day period of non-enforcement so the police can “prepare people. Officers will give warnings, still just verbal advisements, until the period is up in September.”

Bowman said the department has had ongoing complaints about aggressive solicitation. “Also about people who stand in traffic. Those are a couple of major concerns.”

But the plaintiffs in Merin’s complaint include homeless people who rely on soliciting donations for their basic needs in the areas of the county affected by the ordinance. The Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee also is a plaintiff because some members of the homeless advocates’ organization distribute their newspaper in exchange for donations for their own needs. All plaintiffs “will face the choice of risking criminal penalties or choosing to give up their First Amendment right to seek donations free from unconstitutional restrictions,” reads the complaint.

Merin not only wants to see the ordinance overturned, he would like to see attitudinal changes about solicitation so that people can be given an opportunity to take care of themselves. “A lot of them are out at least five hours a day in the same place. They make minimum wage if they are fortunate. This is not something they want to have to do. It is degrading for them.”

For Merin, the “much bigger issue is why we have panhandling,” why so many people are dependent on it for their livelihood and “put in the position of imposing on others. We don’t have a society that honors helping those who are less fortunate,” he says. “Programs for public welfare and public housing have been cut out, along with job training programs. Rich people don’t want to have to pay taxes. There is insatiable greed.”

The safety net is shredded, he says, and we are not a society that “gives things out. If you are poor, it’s your own fault. You are told to take responsibility for yourself. Tell a mother with three children and no place to go to take financial responsibility.”

Old people are especially vulnerable, he says. “I walk around my neighborhood and see at least 20 people sleeping in doorways who are elderly or infirm.”

Angie at Arden Fair shopping center, Sacramento.
Angie at Arden Fair shopping center, Sacramento.

One of these could easily be Angie, a 63-year-old panhandler who spends two or three hours a day at the exit from a Sacramento shopping center. She still lives in a house her father built near the shopping center. The home is no longer hers but she is allowed to sleep on a couch. Her husband bought a motor home two weeks before he died. It is no longer hers and she lost all her possessions.

She has no family left. Her sister, mother and brother died within two weeks of each other. “I have all the death certificates and took care of the funerals,” she says. “I have nobody to ask for help. I don’t like to ask for help out here but I have a hard time getting by every day.”

Angie is slight and in ill health but keeps smiling at the people lined up to leave the mall. She can’t spend too much time out on the pavement in the 95-degree heat because she has high blood pressure and has had a “slight stroke. I’m on my last leg.”

Another panhandler whom Angie identifies as a deaf man peddles up on his bicycle and hands her a fountain soda. He hangs around for a while, trying to see if she is OK.

“I mostly stay to myself,” she says. “There are others who come out here and get drunk and violent. I take them aside.” She tries to get across to them what harm they are doing other people who must make their living soliciting. “I cry and tell them about my family and why I am doing this.”

She says the police know her and don’t bother her. Except one who hassles her and gives her tickets. “If she would just talk to me, she might not be so bitter,” Angie says. She has done community service to work off her tickets, “picking up cigarette butts for 40 hours.”

In general, she says people who drive by are not mean spirited, although one person sprayed her with pepper spray. “But a lot of good people have been in the same boat and can relate.  They give me food and stuff. If it weren’t for the ones giving me a couple of dollars, I wouldn’t be here at all.”

A man who does not give his name, puts down his “Just Hungry, Thank you, God Bless” sign and sits in the grass near a Howe Street intersection. He panhandles to support himself and his wife who was “deemed incompetent” in 2008. He received guardianship and lives with his mother-in-law for now.

He cannot understand how it makes sense to arrest people for what he refers to as “signing.”

“It will clutter up the judicial system severely. I would rather see a felon behind bars than someone who has been signing.”

hungry-signSometimes people pick him up to do work for them. He is grateful but still is looking for a full-time job. It’s a circular problem because looking for a job cuts down on the time he must spend asking for money and then he is short of food. He dreams of buying a farm near Elk Grove where he could be self-sufficient.

Both his parents died not too long ago. He served in the Army, which he says did him a lot of good. “I spent a lot of time scrubbing pots and pans, but those years straightened my butt up.”

When asked what he would do if he could no longer solicit money, he starts to cry softly about the hardship on his wife. “I would be up shit creek,” he says. “Really bad. We wouldn’t be eating.”

A young man near a McDonald’s in the county holds a sign that is humorous if self-deprecating: “Dirty, Broke and Ugly.” Occasionally he flips to the other side: “Addicted to Food.” Although he is from Sacramento, right now he is trying to just pass through on his way to what he hopes is another migrant job. He has come from Northern California most recently and plans to check out jobs near Davis.

He stayed with his sister last night but doesn’t know where he will be tonight. Probably outside. He wants to get to the day shelter in Davis where he will be will be able to shower and do laundry.

He agrees with attorney Merin that not being able to sign is a freedom of speech issue and hopes the county rescinds its ordinance. People out here aren’t ugly to him, he says. “It’s the bureaucrats that are ugly.”

He has traveled 32 states doing migrant jobs. “But this is the toughest job I’ve ever had.”










Sacramento County Weakens Affordable Housing Policy

Sharing an article that I wrote for Homeward Street Journal in April 2014.


Give people an opportunity to stabilize their lives and they will do it. That is what Darryl Rutherford, head of Sacramento Housing Alliance (SHA), has experienced.

He said Sacramento County’s Affordable Housing Ordinance, a forward-thinking inclusionary ordinance designed to ensure homes were built for low income people within future developments, was a way to address the poverty that segregates people and pushes them into homelessness. But the Sacramento

County Board of Supervisors voted Feb. 10 to eliminate its enlightened ordinance, passed in 2004. The now-defunct ordinance required developers to build 15 percent of units in master planned communities as housing for low-, very-low and extremely-low income people.

Read the full article in the PDF copy of Homeward 

Elected! Healthcare for the Homeless Board of Directors

I was elected to the Healthcare for the Homeless board of directors last week. It is a Sacramento County board, under the board of supervisors, that is responsible for allocating money for the program and making policy decisions.

sac-banner-picHCH collaborates with nonprofit health services and resource programs to provide clinic sites which offer acute care, chronic disease management, assessment and treatment of illnesses, mental health and substance abuse services, gynecology, Hepatitis C assessment and treatment and emergency dental services. It also coordinates a well child clinic through the University of California-Davis with third-year pediatric residents and conducts TB screening and testing at clinics and shelters in the county.

I am honored to be a member of this board of health professionals, non-profit organizers and representatives from the homeless community. I hope to add my writing skills to whatever the tasks are at hand, be it pamphlet updates or grant writing.

Communities Inclined to Undercut Affordable Housing Plans

The trend to weaken policies that require affordable housing to be built for low and very low income people seems to be making its rounds in this country’s cities and counties.

Sacramento County is the latest to overturn a landmark policy passed in 2004 that ensured homes were built for low income people within developments. This would have in part ended the segregation of poorer people in certain areas of the county and allowed them access to the better schools and amenities that come with new development.

The now-defunct ordinance required developers to build 15 percent of units in master planned communities as housing for low-, very low- and extremely-low income people. As soon as it was passed, developers brought lawsuits against the policy, hamstringing attempts to put it into action. The downturn in the economy dealt a blow as well when the housing industry virtually shut down and new home building came to a standstill.

The county, now eager to court developers in a slightly better economic climate, has approved a new policy which allows them to pay a fee-only amount of $2.50 per square foot to a trust set up for building affordable housing elsewhere—that is, not in the neighborhoods they are developing.

Darryl Rutherford, head of the Sacramento Housing Alliance said, “Sacramento County’s policy was kind of one of a kind” and reminded the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors that the low income people in the county “are our fellow Sacramentans on social security, disabled people, seniors, veterans and other community members on fixed incomes.”

Rutherford said his pleas and those of homeless organizations, faith-based groups and social service workers “fell on deaf ears.”