Tuesday, July 6, 2010

New Forum is Live!

Hey everyone,

I just wanted to draw attention to the fact that I set up a little free forum and connected it to the blog so that people can post their thoughts and discuss topics with anyone who cares to listen. I can guarantee, at least, that I will read your posts and respond to your ponderings, so don't feel too lonely on the big empty forum.

The link is on the top menu bar next to "Home" and "Books to Read." It's also about one or two millimeters above, and then roughly three or so inches, depending on your monitor and resolution, to the left from the "Search the Blog" heading on the right-hand side of the screen. Otherwise, you can locate the forum link by finding the thinnest point of that squiggly design on the left-hand side of the screen, and shooting straight to the right - you can't miss it.

Or, if you're not fond of top menu bars, and you much prefer embedded links, then you can access the forum here.

Happy posting!

- David
Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Obama Administration Released their "Opening Doors" Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness

The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), which is comprised of 19 different member agencies including federal departments, offices and corporations, just released "Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness 2010." The strategic plan was released yesterday, and can be read here.

The stated goals of the strategic plan are to end chronic homelessness and homelessness among veterans in five years, to prevent and end homelessness for families and children in ten years, and to set a path toward ending all types of homelessness. The goals laid out in this strategic plan are definitely ambitious, and the federal government acknowledges that it will need the support of state and local governments and organizations in order to accomplish them.

The strategic plan was created with what appears to have been much careful thought and deliberation, with myriad sources and experts called upon to support the plan's claims and guide their action. I was particularly happy that a lot of the macroeconomic and cost-effectiveness arguments were brought to the table.

Because helping to end homelessness is chiefly about improving peoples' quality of life, many people who devalue public policy aimed at ending homelessness seem to assume that these efforts will help a few at the cost of many others. And though I'm sure advocates of this viewpoint were thinking about Googling information to support their claim at one point, and probably spent an entire three to four seconds thinking up their brilliant correlation, this is not the case. Quite the contrary, it makes no economic sense to leave the poorest members of our population without an economic safety net or productive outlet for personal economic growth.

The Opening Doors strategic plan lays out some of the basics to show how the country could save millions of wasted dollars by investing money more intelligently - and help the poorest members of our society at the same time. Instead of allowing local municipalities to collectively waste millions upon millions of public dollars on idiotic campaigns to criminalize the homeless or compete with each other through fiscal mercantilistic transportation, utility and service provisions (which lead to high investment costs, low payout, and millions of wasted tax dollars), we could invest in sustainable low-income housing, local community development loan agencies, job training programs, youth centers, metropolitan-level planning agencies, micro-level economically incentivized development zoning for empty areas of the city long forgotten since the era of urban renewal, and a host of other methods, but you get the point.

A few examples of how it costs more money to ignore the problem of homelessness than it would to do something about it are provided by the Obama administration's USICH within this report. For instance, the graph above (click for a larger view) shows the average costs of serving homeless individuals in a variety of ways, according to data gathered from many metropolitan areas across the country.

It's important to note other facts brought up throughout the plan to understand the full implications of this graph, such as that homeless individuals are much more likely to wind up in the emergency room, or a hospital in general, than other low-income housed individuals. Also, the high cost of jail compared to supportive housing is important to note for obvious reasons, debunking half-assed theories conjured up by city officials who thought it'd be a good idea to pass laws making it illegal to block sidewalks, set up tents in public, or sleep in parks.

As far as the actual plan goes, the strategies recommended by the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness are split up to pursue ten overarching objectives. These include the following:

  1. Promote collaborative leadership
  2. Strengthen capacity and knowledge
  3. Provide affordable housing
  4. Provide permanent supportive housing
  5. Increase economic security
  6. Reduce financial vulnerability
  7. Integrate health care with housing
  8. Advance health and housing stability for youth
  9. Advance health and housing stability for adults
  10. Transform crisis response systems
The plan then goes on to explain each of the objectives in more detail. Each objective's section includes in-depth descriptions of the logic behind the objective, the strategies to be applied in order to meet these objectives, and, where applicable, explanations of initiatives that are currently underway or soon-to-be underway to bring the country closer to meeting these objectives, along with any recommendations for future actions that other entities could take in improving the effectiveness of these initiatives.

Afterwards, the plan describes in further detail what steps have to be taken by each federal department and office in order to turn these objectives into realities. The plan also includes descriptions of more key initiatives along with a road-map toward successful implementation (and post-implementation analysis).

Overall, the plan is ambitious, confident in the nation's increased level of scholarship and knowledge on the topic of homelessness, and careful in crafting a meaningful and effective path towards an economically sensible America. Everyone deserves a home, and for the love of the flying spaghetti monster, public officials need to wake up, stop worrying about Guam capsizing or creating armed Tea Party insurrections, and realize that they hurt everyone economically when they hurt the homeless (if the morality of the issue isn't enough of a reason for them).

Thanks for reading.
- David
Sunday, June 13, 2010

Call For Outrageous Criminalization of Homelessness Stories

Hey everyone, I have a bit of a special request here for everybody reading. I know that across the country, there are many laws specially designed to discourage homeless people from simply living within municipal borders. Laws that criminalize actions such as sleeping in public, setting up tents under highways, and even laws that make it illegal for a person to feed homeless individuals. There are also cases where the police will target homeless people when enforcing laws such as loitering, jaywalking and other crimes that are hardly ever accounted for when it comes to anyone else.

A lot of practices such as these may go on because homeless people are viewed as a nuisance, and because that outlook is a lot simpler than having to face the truth and admit that the structure of our economic system is inherently flawed, and in need of careful and detailed change.

We occasionally see stories in the newspaper or online of homeless people being treated as if they weren't human, as if it was against the American moral and legal code to be without a home, and that this was their fault. But stories like this seldom receive enough attention to make the news. In conversations with homeless individuals, activists, and even classmates, I heard several stories from people who had witnessed homeless people being harassed by the police, kicked out of their homes, or leaving behind and losing all of their belongings on the street once they were arrested.

I want to hear about the instances in which homeless individuals and families have been criminalized in your city. Not everything makes the news, but now it can! If you consider a blog with a handful of regular viewers news... Stories that are sent in to me from readers across the country (or across the world!) who have witnessed or otherwise know about homeless people being treated unfairly in their communities will be posted on the blog periodically for everyone to read. Small steps like this towards public awareness can make a big difference in long-term public policy outcomes, so send in those stories!

You can send your stories to me by sending an e-mail to davidboston88@gmail.com.

As always, thank you for reading.

- David
Friday, May 28, 2010

Food for Donations at New Panera Bread

In a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri called Clayton, Panera Bread just opened up a new store that runs completely off of donations from its customers. The motto over the counter says “Take what you need, leave your fair share." It seems like a pretty ambitious project. The hope is that while poorer customers will be able to access new food options while leaving what they can, the wealthier clientele will be able to leave a little more money to keep this social experiment in business.

This kind of project has great potential to help alleviate poverty by offering more substantial, healthy meals to poor families who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford them. And if it were to spread, then crime would no longer be the alternative to hunger in many cases. People would always be able to eat whether they were low on cash or not.

But, if this experiment spread to other stores and services, how far would the generosity of the wealthy spread with it, when it is a model based purely on the goodness of others? Would people who have always lived so easily be willing to start spending more on everything, or is their generosity limited to the occasional stop at Panera because it makes them feel good about themselves without having to face the reality of how extensive poverty in our country really is? Just how far can this model expand?

The new bakery is called “St. Louis Bread Company Cares,” based off of Panera Bread’s original name, which they still go by in their hometown of St. Louis. However, the experiment isn’t being funded by Panera Bread, really. The company’s nonprofit foundation is covering the operating costs, and if the project fails, the foundation will absorb the costs. But if the trial succeeds, Panera Bread will be expanding this “pay what you can afford” model to communities all over the country.

It seems as though the first of these stores was set up in Clayton after much thought and deliberation, as it is a community with a high percentage of people capable of giving back a little more. The suburbs of Clayton are no ghetto. But if the experiment were expanded to areas where there are more people in need than there are people capable of giving more, would it be able to sustain itself? And will it even be able to sustain itself in the rich suburbs of Clayton, where people can most certainly afford to help those in need, if they wanted to?

According to Denise Cerreta, the founder of a similar restaurant that has been able to stay afloat since 2003, “ultimately people are good.” I guess if Panera expands this experiment and funds restaurants like this one all over the country, we’ll see just how good people are. I hope Cerreta is right.

Thanks for reading. The photos above were provided by Lisa Watson of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat.

- David
Thursday, May 27, 2010

Enterprise Green Communities

Going green and affordable housing have been two practically contradicting terms for way too long. This group, called Enterprise Community Partners, have developed a list of criteria necessary to build affordable, green housing, and they finance developers willing to build according to these standards.

To strengthen these criteria, Enterprise conducted a study and found that developments built according to their standards cost 2.1% more in upfront development costs. But these developments pay for that and more in the long-run because of the way they are built, due to long-term operating cost savings.

When affordable housing developments are built green, they also provide health, economic, and obvious environmental benefits as well. To bring these benefits to low-income residents, Enterprise breaks their criteria into eight categories: (1) integrated design, (2) location and neighborhood fabric, (3) site improvements, (4) water conservation, (5) energy efficiency, (6) building materials beneficial to the environment, (7) healthy living environment, and (8) operations and maintenance.

If you’d like to learn more about specific findings, you can check out the abridged version of their detailed report.

Every donation helps to finance more low-income housing units built in a sustainable, energy-efficient and healthy way, and if there’s one thing we know it’s that there aren’t enough low-income housing units in America for families going through hard times right now. To donate, please go to my donation page!

And if you need any other reason to donate besides helping needy families move into much-needed housing or my eternal thanks and appreciation, for every donation of exactly $9.00 you get entered into a chance to win an Apple Macbook Pro.

Cool, huh?

Thanks everyone.

- David
Thursday, July 30, 2009

Discretionary Authority of Local Governments

Since most urban planners work for cities or regional planning authorities, it is important to understand how much discretionary authority a municipality has in relation to their state legislature. You can figure out roughly how much discretionary authority your municipality has by paying attention to four different factors, courtesy of Joseph Zimmerman and weighed by importance by David Miller. Keep in mind that these factors usually vary more from state to state, not from municipality to municipality within the same state.

The following factors are listed in order of importance when determining discretionary authority of a local government:

  • Finance: the degree to which a local government can raise revenues necessary to support the functions it has decided to undertake.
  • Function: the ability of a local government to choose activities or functions it wishes to undertake.
  • Personnel: the ability of a local government to regulate and determine the makeup and responsibilities of its workforce.
  • Structure: the degree to which a local government can define its own organizational structure.
Keep in mind that a high level of discretionary authority held by local governments is not necessarily good or bad by itself. It is simply a way of measuring where the power lies. The things that can be viewed as either good or bad are the actions which either the state or municipal government decide to take with that previously mentioned power.

Thanks for reading.

- David
Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Planning Today: NYC Offers Homeless Families a Way Out

Though I have been critical of some of Mayor Bloomberg's other methods of reducing homelessness, it looks like this program is quite helpful, albeit small. Though the program is just recently enjoying attention from the media, homeless families in New York have been able to use this program as a way of leaving the city since 2007.

The way that it works is the city employs a local travel agency to book one-way domestic tickets (the Department of Homeless Services handles international tickets) for homeless people in the city to go wherever they have family willing to support them, if they want to, and the city pays for the tickets.

Local social workers help to let people know about this program and their option to move if they so desire. If a social worker confirms that the homeless individual or family has family willing to support them elsewhere, they can then go and have their one-way travel expenses paid for by the city.

This plan would work nicely in many areas, because many people who are homeless while living in a metropolitan poverty pocket may not stay that way for long in an environment with more opportunities for self-improvement or for work. But this plan is especially effective in a city like New York.

New York is a city that many people think of when trying to decide on a destination to start a new life. That's the city that people go to when they want to move out of their small town and make it big. But, life in New York City turns out to be a lot different from this glamorous version of the city that people normally think of. And many people end up finding out the hard way without having enough money set aside to make the return trip home.

Also, did I mention that the city ends up saving a lot of money by paying for one-way tickets to a family member as opposed to the upkeep cost per family in a NYC shelter?

Thanks for reading.

- David
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I graduated from the University of North Florida with a BA in Political Science, double-minoring in Public Administration and Urban & Metropolitan Studies. Starting in the Fall of 2010, I'll be pursuing a Master's degree in Urban Studies and Planning from the University of Maryland - College Park.