Safe and warm

Human beings are not meant to live in the cold. Some of us may enjoy living in cooler regions, but I doubt anyone enjoys spending any real amount of time exposed to the elements without proper clothing.

Yet routinely the poor and the homeless are left ill prepared to shelter themselves from the cold. I recently stumbled across video footage of the last hours of a homeless Vancouver woman’s life, filmed by Kristy Matthews. Shortly after the video was taken last December, the woman died in a fire caused when the candles she was using in a desperate attempt to keep warm set her cart on fire. Earlier this month the Vancouver Sun featured an article on the circumstances surrounding the woman’s untimely death.

Though I often struggle with just how much assistance I can provide someone on the street–after all I can not and should not be expected to help everyone–I doubt I could have ignored a woman in bare feet in the brutal cold. It is heartbreaking and deeply disturbing that we have abandoned those most in need in this world.

But those living on the street are not the only ones who must struggle to keep warm. According to a survey released on Dec. 18 by the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association, the number of households receiving heating assistance through the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) reached record levels for the second year in a row, increasing from 6.1 million to 8.3 million for 2009. LIHEAP is the primary program in the United States to help low-income individuals and families struggling with their utility payments.

This is not good news as the number of families struggling continues to rise. NEADA is projecting an increase of 20% in the number of families applying for assistance for 2010, noting in a press release that, “The current funding level will not be sufficient to meet the need if current trends continue. In the absence of supplemental funding, states will have few choices other than to reduce benefits, tighten eligibility requirements or close programs early.”

While I understand that electric utilities are no in the business of supplying power for free, it is unacceptable that anyone would be left in the cold. Yet utility shut-offs and arrearages remain high. Some 4.3 million households experienced shut off from power shut-offs in 2009, up from 4.1 million in 2008. These families owed a total of $1.2 billion, with the average amount owed $279. At a time when many of the top executives at bailed out banks stand to make millions in bonuses, it is a national disgrace that millions in this country cannot afford to pay for heat.

–by Jennifer E. Cooper

A baby bailout for the homeless

Dec. 27, 2009

Earlier this week the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced the release of $1.4 billion in grants to help keep thousands of local homeless assistance programs operating.

It pales in comparison to the massive bailouts handed out to financial institutions earlier this year, but it is welcome news nonetheless. The grants will offer financial assistance to 6,445 programs across the country that provide services for the homeless.

These are not easy times for anyone in the business of helping the homeless. Not only have the numbers of those in need of assistance increased, but many programs that serve the homeless have seen their both their budget decrease and donations on the decline. According to a survey by The Bridgespan Group conducted in the fall of 2009, some 93 percent of the nonprofits surveyed were experiencing the effects of the downturn, up from 75 percent one year ago.

“As city, state, and federal governments have slashed budgets, foundations have reduced their grant-making, and individuals have cut back their charitable giving, the number of organizations that reported funding cuts has increased to 80 percent from 52 percent.” – Managing in Tough Times Survey, The Bridgespan Group

That comes on top of budget cuts made to municipal programs. From Illinois to Washington to Hawaii, state budgets for homeless services has been reduced forcing those serving the poor to make tough decisions. One church in Brattleboro, Vermont opted to sell a stained glass window for $75,000 to keep it’s shelter open. One bit of good news is that not every state is cutting back. The Connecticut General Assembly earlier this month turned back an attempt by Gov. M. Jodi Rell to chop the state’s homeless services budget by one-fourth.

Though municipal budgets may be strained, cutting services for those most vulnerable, most in need, is no way to balance the budget.

– By Jennifer E. Cooper

An end to hunger

Dec. 26, 2009

Considering that the average American gains at least a couple pounds during the period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, it is hard to imagine anyone in this country is going hungry. Yet more than one in seven, or 14.6 percent, of American households suffered from food insecurity in 2008, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The 3.5 percentage point increase from 2007 is the largest one-year increase since the USDA first began publishing data.

So the next time you tell your children to eat all the food on their plate because of the starving children, perhaps you should realize that many children in the United States are indeed going hungry. Make 2010 a year to do something about it, and bring an end to hunger in this country. For some recommendations on how to end hunger check out my Take Action page.

– By Jennifer E. Cooper

Thank for serving our country ma’am, now sleep on the street

Dec. 17, 2009

It is no secret that so many of the homeless in this country are veterans. And little shocks me these days. But I found myself surprised to learn the number of homeless female veterans to be on the rise.

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, women are a growing segment of the veteran population. In addition, there is a higher proportion of female veterans with severe housing cost burden. Of the homeless population in the United States, one-fifth are veterans.

“A growing body of research indicates that female veterans have a higher risk of homelessness than their male counterparts.” Vital Mission: Ending Homelessness Among Veterans

The report suggests female veterans  are often at greater risk of homelessness as a result of higher incidence of sexual assault and victimization, which is linked to higher rates of PTSD.

They’re younger than homeless male veterans, have lower incomes, and are more likely to bring children. Their numbers have doubled in the past decade, and there are an estimated 6,500 homeless female veterans on any given night — about 5 percent of the total homeless veterans population.

Like male veterans, many homeless female veterans face substance abuse and mental health problems. Many also struggle with sexual trauma that occurred in their childhood, in the military, or elsewhere.

Data from the Department of Veterans Affairs finds that approximately 131,000 veterans were homeless at a point in time in 2008. This is a rate of 58 homeless veterans for every 10,000 veterans, more than double the rate of homelessness among the general population.

And vets returning from Afghanistan and Iraq are not immune from the current economic state and high unemployment rates. The jobless rate for post-9/11 veterans is higher than the overall U.S. rate and has nearly doubled in the past year to 11.3 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. About 1.5 million veterans — 6.3 percent — had incomes below the federal poverty line, according to a 2005 congressional analysis of census figures.

Last month Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki pledged to advocates to end homelessness among veterans within the next five years, and specifically mentioned the need to help women veterans. The plan includes preventive measures like discharge planning for incarcerated Veterans re-entering society, supportive services for low-income Veterans and their families and a national referral center to link Veterans to local service providers.

While much is being done to reduce homelessness among veterans, the U.S. military and the VA need to step up and take care of those who serve this nation. That so many in this country are homeless is bad enough. That veterans who put their lives in danger are homeless is beyond unacceptable.

– By Jennifer E. Cooper

Always plan ahead

Dec. 16, 2009

More than a year ago my husband and I were at home one Sunday morning when he noticed the back of our apartment was on fire. Faulty electrical wiring in the restaurant below had created a fire that was likely smoldering for hours before it spread to our apartment.

In the months that followed I had my first brush with homelessness. For three months we lived in several different hotels with all of our belongings and our two cats while the apartment was repaired. Yes we had a roof over head, but it was far from home. It was stressful. I struggled to communicate in French (we lived in Brussels at the time) with the dozens of contractors working to repair the building. Where we would be living from week to week was uncertain. It put a strain on our ability to do our jobs and on our marriage. It was no way to live. Yet, millions of people in the United States live in similar or worse conditions.

I was reminded of how close we came to serious injury or death this morning when I played the CD that had been in our stereo when our apartment caught fire. Even now, a year and a half later, it still smells like smoke.

This time of year is about celebrating and spending time with family and friends. But it is also a time when cookies could be forgotten in the oven; old Christmas lights could burn out and spark a dry tree; or unattended candles or space heaters could start a fire.

We did not have smoke detectors–there is no doubt in my mind that we would not have escaped had our fire occurred at night. So I am taking this opportunity to urge everyone to take a little time during the holiday season to ensure you have working smoke detectors (they should be tested every six months); that you have a plan to call for help and to escape (we did not even know how to call the Belgian fire department or police–it is not 911); that you have insurance for the unexpected; and that you have a fire extinguisher in your home just in case.

According to Firesafety.gov, each year fires occurring during the holiday season injure 1,650 Americans and cause more than $990 million in damage. Christmas Day is the peak day of the year for home candle fires. And minorities and the poor are disproportionately impacted by home fires.

– By Jennifer E. Cooper

Young and Jobless

Dec. 15, 2009

It is not a good time to be a teenager looking for a job. While the unemployment rate in the United States was at 10 percent for November 2009, some 26.7 percent of teenagers were unemployed in that same time period, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The month prior saw the rate at 27.6 percent, the highest rate of teenage unemployment since the BLS began tracking such data in 1948.

Further, in an article in the New York Times, Andrew M. Sum, an economics professor at Northeastern University, noted that half of college graduates under age 25 are in jobs that do not require college degrees, the highest portion in at least 18 years.

Now unemployed teens are not going to gain as much sympathy as say a single mom looking to feed her children. But, in the long-term, there are serious consequences to teenage unemployment. High school and college students need jobs, particularly during the holiday season and summer vacation, to save money for college, a car, a first apartment and generally transition into adulthood. And students who have to drop out of college or delay the start of their career will fall further down the earnings ladder. It will likely be years before the full impact of the current rate of unemployment is realized.

The value of having a job as a teen is not just about making money. It’s also about slowly building a work history; learning to be responsible; and, of course, discovering that not only does money not grow on trees, but before you get your cut of your earnings that pesky FICA and the Feds will take their share.

One solution to teenage unemployment proposed by the Center for American Progress Action Fund among others is national service through programs such as the AmeriCorps VISTA program. Founded as Volunteers in Service to America in 1965 and incorporated into the AmeriCorps network of programs in 1993, the program was designed specifically to fight poverty.

At a panel discussion today at the Center for American Progress Action Fund’s office in Washington, D.C., John Bridgeland, president and CEO of Civic Enterprises, suggested it is time to “think boldly.” He said the United States needs to revive national service in the spirit of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In an emergency session of Congress in March 1933, FDR called for the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps. Some 300,000 young men were put to work planting trees, building bridges, and cleaning beaches.

Now I am undecided as to whether volunteer service is the best way for those involved to enter the workforce, but the benefits for communities served is undeniable. Since 1994 some 500,000 AmeriCorps members have put in 637 million hours of service. Those in the program have done everything from expand technology access and recruit literacy volunteers to participate in disaster relief and connect poor families to health clinics and services.

In a Nov. 16 article on Center for American Progress’ Web site, National Service and Youth Unemployment, Melissa Boteach, Joy Moses and Shirley Sagawa argue that entering national service not only assists struggling nonprofits at a time of massive budget shortfalls, but it provides young workers with career opportunities they otherwise would not have.

“Young people who initially cannot find a job often suffer consequences that follow them long after a recession ends. The reason: Time spent not developing work experience makes young workers less competitive for future job opportunities. Indeed, lifetime earnings are diminished with each missed year of work equating to 2 percent to 3 percent less earnings each year thereafter. A study of college students who graduated during the 1982 recession found that they were still earning less 8-10 years later than students who had graduated into a strong economy.” – National Service and Youth Unemployment

Similarly, Bridgeland noted that studies suggest unemployment impacts not only those who are out of work, but brings down the morale of the entire neighborhood. FDR’s CCC has been credited not only with public service projects we still benefit from today, but a Chicago judge at the time credited the program for a 55 percent reduction in crime.

Melissa Boteach, Joy Moses and Shirley Sagawa’s article calls for Congress and the Obama administration to invest $625 million in  supplemental FY2010 funds to create 42,000 jobs in AmeriCorps, VISTA, Youth Corps, and Youth Build over the next 24 months.

Clearly putting people to work in a useful and meaningful way is an admirable goal. But the near poverty wages paid to those who serve is no way to enter the work force. We should not be paying more to incarcerate a prisoner (according to a report released in March by the Pew Center on the States, One in 31: The Long Reach of American Corrections, the the average daily cost to incarcerate an inmate is $78.95) than we are paying youth to work on projects that revive and strengthen our communities.

– By Jennifer E. Cooper

Mr, President, you have work to do

Today President Barack Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. He accepts this honor just over a week after he announced he would send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan at a cost of roughly $30 billion.

Besides the obvious question as to how a man who has expanded two wars could have received a prize for peace, I want to know how a man whose campaign was about change can abandon so many promises he made to the American people.

During his campaign Obama promised to cut poverty in half within 10 years. Mr. President, how will you reduce the rising numbers of poor in this nation when you are spending $30 billion of our hard-earned dollars on the escalation of a foreign war? How do you plan to help the 10 percent of workers who are unemployed? How do you plan to ensure that even after health care is guaranteed for all that workers can afford to take a day off when they are sick?

I understand this country has much work to do in Afghanistan and Iraq. We cannot destroy a nation’s government and infrastructure and then call it a day. But similarly we cannot endlessly throw money at the problem without a plan as to how to rebuild in a timely fashion. Schools, wells and roads are far more successful toward gaining peace than bullets and bombs.

And it should not be forgotten that hard-working Americans are footing the bill while millions in this nation are unemployed and living in poverty. Last Friday the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics announced unexpected good news, the unemployment rate had dropped slightly to 10 percent for November 2009. But that number is still more than double what it was two years ago at the start of the recession. The numbers of those living in poverty is also expected to rise this year. Last year the poverty rate rose to the highest level in 11 years, rising from 12.5 percent to 13.2 percent in 2008 according to a report by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Eliminating poverty, like ending a war, is a complex problem with no easy solution. But it is a problem that needs and deserves attention. Mr. President, it is my hope that being awarded the Nobel prize gives you a cause to contemplate the multiple meanings of peace, and how to bring a little more of it to this world.

–by Jennifer E. Cooper