Thursday, November 6, 2008

Re: Why is there poverty? - Two Interviews

On Fri, Nov 7, 2008 at 1:11 AM, The Amazing Long <> wrote:
Hi everyone,

Recently we had a chance to meet with Peter Walentisch, the person who is basically in charge of all social services in Williamsburg, to ask him about, among other things, the causes of homelessness and poverty in Williamsburg.  This is part of our greater effort to conduct research on both local and global poverty.  I'm writing to share my notes from the meeting with you.  A caveat: they are as accurate as possible, but may contain misprints from the process of transcribing.

If you're interested in learning more about local and global poverty, considering coming to our regular meetings: 8:00pm on Mondays in Tucker 114.


P.S. The notes are reprinted below, for your convenience.  Also included is a short interview with Prof. Bisconer, an Adjunct Professor of Psychology who also supervises the Colonial Services Board Emergency Department.

Notes from Meeting with Peter Walentisch, Director of Human and Social Services for the City of Williamsburg

First Question:  Why isn't there a homeless shelter in Williamsburg?

Mr. Walentisch emphasized the point that just because we don't see homeless people often and just because we don't have a big obvious building to put them all in, it doesn't mean that people aren't doing everything they can to help.
Williamsburg uses what he called a "scattered-site sheltering" approach.  Because the City is a tourist town, we have plenty of motels, many of which have plenty of empty rooms, especially in the winter when the tourist season dies down (which, conveniently enough, is also when the need for shelter is often at its highest).  So the City has contracts with many of the local motels, which allows them to offer rooms at discounted rates.

When someone comes to social services for help, the social worker first tries to address their immediate needs: putting a roof over their head, and getting them vouchers for food.  Once that is taken care of, they move on to develop a longer-range plan.  An important question they ask at this point is, "What's realistic?"  This also allows social services to address individual needs-- for instance, if the client is homeless due to domestic violence, then they can be referred to Avalon for appropriate assistance.  Another resource available to clients is the Colonial Services Board's shared housing program.  Oxford House and the Substance Abuse Coalition are examples of other organizations that sponsor apartments for the purpose of helping those in need.

Mr. Walentisch discussed the importance of "community wraparound services" which allow better targeting, more individual attention, and greater community contribution.  This is exemplified by groups like the Homelessness Task Force.  They have determined that the need in the community is not for a building, but rather for services.  To build a homeless shelter, you'd have to spend about $300,000 to hold about ten beds, and the shelter would also require round-the-clock staff.

The "scattered site approach," on the other hand, utilizes a network of organizations to more effectively deliver services.  Contributing organizations include the United Way, local churches, social services, and various service organizations (such as "Vibrant Life Ministries"-- CK).  We also have links to groups all over the Peninsula.

Williamsburg is actually participating in the National Alliance to End Homeless' "Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness."  The plans are still in draft, but show great promise.

Second Question:  What are the main causes of homelessness?

Williamsburg is a microcosm of the nation as a whole.  Consider DC and other urban areas, where you routinely see people on the street.  Relatively speaking, we are doing okay in Williamsburg because we are able to put people up quickly.  The homeless population is fluid. 

Who is homeless?  There are three major types:
1) Local residents who are struggling to make ends meet (they often have health issues or job issues and if they can't make rent due to these or other factors, they will lose their apartment).
2) People who are discharged from jails or mental institutions and suffer from a lack of support during the transition back to working life.
3) "Transients," many of whom travel up and down the East Coast seeking shelter.  They end up here because Williamsburg has a bus system.  Note that many homeless people would rather be here than, say DC.

Third Question: What are the main causes of poverty?

-Not having skilled work
-Williamsburg's tourist economy is dominated by unskilled labor jobs
-The cost of living has increased and is still increasing, as is the cost of housing.  Can you make it on $9 an hour?  (There's an incentive to share rooms in apartments, which is fine if you're single, but what if you have a family?).

Try to add up the costs.  For a family of four, how much does it cost to eat?  What is your grocery bill every week?  ($150?).  Day care is also extremely expensive, about $150 a week even, which adds up to $7500 a year (as much as in-state tuition!).

The cost of everything has gone up, and wages don't meet the cost of living.  That is why people are poor.

Even in the middle class, some are living paycheck to paycheck and straddled in debt (when things don't add up, forced to take a loan).  People in this situation are at high risk of sinking into real poverty, because in a family of four, a lost job or a medical emergency essentially halves your family income.

In Williamsburg, we have a seasonal economy.  So someone might work 60 hours per week during the "on-season" and make it okay, but during the off season, they might work, say 20 hours per week and take odd jobs on the side and still not make it. 

In the nation at large, we have a recession-- these are cyclical, in Mr. Walentisch's view, which puts even more people at risk for homelessness.

Mr. Walentisch told the story of a time when he worked at a homeless shelter in Connecticut.  Out in the northeast, homeless shelters tend to fill up quickly, especially during the winter.  So many people are turned away.  One client who had tried pratically every other shelter in the area came to Mr. Walentisch's shelter for help.  Mr. Walentisch had to turn him down as well, which prompted much fuming and uttering of expletives from the client.  So Mr. Walentisch decided to make a bet with him, thinking that his networking abilities and social status could get him a place in a shelter easily.  He bet the client that he would live three days as a homeless person and that he could find shelter for them both in those three days. 
Mr. Walentisch soon found out that for the poor and the homeless, there is often no starting point.  They went to the welfare office, but how could they verify your information and how could they send you checks without an address?  How could they contact you without a phone number?  To rent an apartment, you had to put up $2,000 as a down payment, upfront.  And if you're homeless, looking ragged, wearing the same clothes for days on end, and frustrated from being turned down again and again, how would you look to an employer?  Mr. Walentisch concluded the system simply didn't work.
Eventually, Mr. Walentisch pulled out a couch in his own home for his client.  They helped him shape up, getting him clean-shaven and sending him for some job interviews.  The client needed major, personal intervention.  They eventually got him a place to stay, but all in all it cost them $3,000-$5,000 personally.  Another problem was that even if you get a job, there's still a one month delay before you receive your first paycheck.
"I did not know," Mr. Walentisch confessed.  When you're not eating, you go into survival mode.  You're probably not all that presentable to an employer.  And even if you somehow miraculously get cleaned up, what if you feel miserable?

The Tioga Motel was the cheapest one in Connecticut, at $40 per night.  That's $280 per week, and $1120 per month.  At that rate, how do you save money to get out of the motel?  It's a Catch-22, Mr. Walentisch explained.

People would act crazier just to get into the state hospital.

There is a long process of stabilization for a family, even after all services have been delivered, that takes about 1-2 years.

Additional Questions:
1) How is the system accessed?
2) What are the statistics for this area?  How many are homeless and how many are in poverty?  Where do we find them?

(1) Poverty is a systems-level property.  It is not accountable in terms of individual, business, or group decisions.  In a way, "the system makes the decision for you."  So to answer the question, "Why is there poverty?" one might say, "Because people make low wages compared to the cost of living?"  This prompts the question, "Why do businesses pay low wages?"  One answer to this might be, "Because the cost of their supplies and the delivery of their services leaves them that much room in their budget for wages."  This then prompts the question, "Why are the costs of services and supplies so high?"  And so on.  There seems to be an infinite regression of questions here, which does not point to any one group or individual decision as the root "cause" of poverty which, if eliminated, would subsequently eliminate poverty itself.  To say poverty is irreducible is not to say that one couldn't explain it in terms of its parts (many decisions of many parties), but even in that case, something would be missing.
(2) Even if all social services were operating at full capacity-- say, with infinite volunteer manpower and infinite budgets-- poverty would not be eradicated.  This is because social services are a response to poverty, not a cure for it.
(3) Perhaps poverty should be viewed metaphorically as a disease.  You cannot completely eradicate it from a population (can't stop people from getting sick), but you can minimize suffering and quickly deliver treatment.  So the ideal solution to poverty does not involve identifying the "root cause" (because there is none; it is systemic), but rather it means creating a robust network of social services to quickly lift people up when they fall down.

Brief Interview with Prof. Bisconer (Dept. of Psychology at W&M, Emergency Services at CSB)

What is a Colonial Services Board? 

They provide many services:
1) Emergency Services (usually the first stop)
2) Outpatient care
-Substance Abuse
-Individual therapy (depression, anxiety, family loss)
-Case Management (major depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder)
3) Psychiatric services
-Geriatrics (Alzheimer's)

There are 44 CSBs statewide.  The one where Prof. Bisconer works has jurisdiction over Poquoson, Yorktown, JCC, and Williamsburg

Their fees are on a "sliding scale" based on the patient's income.  They don't turn anyone down, and the fee is $1 if the patient cannot afford the services.

I asked her to estimate the volume of services they provide.  She said on a typical week, she will receive about 75 calls in the Emergency department.  About 40 out of those 75 will be for detox, either from the patient themselves or the patient's family.  About 25 of those 75 will be for major mental illness, which often results from noncompliance and decompensating.  Approximately 35 of those 75 lead to evaluations, of which around 8-10 will be hospitalized.

She mentioned an issue dubbed the "criminalization of mental illness," whereby many of the CSB's patients arrive because the police pick them up off of the streets.  So for instance, someone who is chronically schizophrenic, or a homeless person who is mentally ill, might find themselves at the CSB only after being found by the police.  She suggested that there needs to be a better way to shift from the legal system to the treatment system.

(Consumers by Special Population)
At-risk for Emotional Disturbance   29
Serious Emotional Disturbance   123
Serious Mental Illness   559


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