Housing the Homeless

Below is an excerpt from the "Overview" section of the CQ Researcher report on "Housing the Homeless" by Peter Katel, December 18, 2009

Leida Ortiz was getting by. She lived with her sister and both of their children in an apartment in Worcester, Mass. Then, in the spring of 2007, her factory-worker father was diagnosed with stomach cancer, so Ortiz moved back into the home her parents owned to help her mother care for her father.

After he died, in December of that year, Ortiz and her mother couldn’t afford the mortgage payments on the house. A move back to her sister’s didn’t work out, so Ortiz and her two children began sharing an apartment with a roommate. But she wasn’t making enough from her part-time job as a nursing assistant to kick in her $400 share of the rent.

The roommate asked her and her 11-year-old son, Joseph, and 5-year-old daughter, Angelina, to leave.

“I became homeless in July,” Ortiz said. “I cried every night, wondering if my kids were going to end up in different schools somewhere else. We were living out of our bags. We didn’t know where we were going to end up next. The kids, they see that you’re stressed, they get stressed. They see you putting yourself to sleep every night crying.”

Speaking at a Capitol Hill briefing held by an advocacy group in early December, Ortiz recounted a happy ending to her family’s two-week stay at a motel. She urged the assembled housing advocates and congressional staffers to work to expand the “prevention and rapid rehousing” program that she credited for her family’s rescue.

Now working three part-time jobs, the 30-year-old Ortiz hardly fits the picture of “homeless” that hit the national consciousness in the early 1980s – seemingly unemployable people suffering mental illness or addiction or both. But in an economic climate shadowed by massive unemployment, some experts see working families facing threats to their housing stability that easily can escalate into homelessness, as in Ortiz’s case. “When you’re going into a recession starting with a limited supply of affordable housing, with families who are precariously housed and at risk, it’s the perfect storm for families,” says Mary K. Cunningham, a housing specialist at the nonpartisan Urban Institute think tank.

In 2008, homelessness among people in families rose by 9 percent over the number from the previous year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) reported in an annual survey on homelessness.

Overall, about 1.6 million people slept in homeless shelters or other temporary housing in the United States in 2008, the report said. Whether that rough estimate shows an increase or decrease from the 1980s can’t be determined, Cunningham says, given the vast differences in methodology from then until now.

Whatever the case, housing advocates are united in the belief that government action can eliminate homelessness once and for all. Conservatives tend to be more skeptical, though ideology isn’t a reliable guide to views on homelessness.

“It is immoral,” Cheh Kim, a staff member for Sen. Christopher Bond, R-Mo., told the Capitol Hill briefing. “People need to understand that anybody can slip into homelessness. Just go into shelters and talk to people and realize that a lot of them were middle-income, or owned small businesses, and because of one little thing in their life, they just fell down.”

To be sure, Kim’s overall view was that Congress has been responding effectively to the persistence of homelessness. A major piece of evidence: a $1.5 billion appropriation in mid-2009 for a new Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP).

But Joel Segal, a staffer for Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., argued at the briefing that congressional attitudes remain an obstacle to a definitive solution to homelessness. “A majority of people in Congress do think that homeless people want to be homeless,” Segal told Kim and the rest of those present. “That’s who they see in the streets pushing the baskets. Trust me on this – they do not know who’s in those shelters, because most members of Congress are raising money from very wealthy donors.’ “

Notwithstanding the staffers’ emphasis on shelters, the growing consensus among advocates for the homeless is that a danger exists of policy makers focusing too heavily on shelters. That approach, they say, would effectively mean continuing to channel mentally unstable and chronically homeless people into shelters instead of expanding a newer strategy of building permanent facilities designed to meet their needs. And families in unstable housing situations – perhaps “doubled up” in relatives’ homes – should be kept out of shelters in the first place.

“What we’ve learned over the past 10 years is that building up a bigger shelter system is a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy,” says Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

A number of sources report rising housing instability among families. HUD experts studying present-day trends see a link between the economic crisis and the growing number of families in shelters. The National School Boards Association said in January 2009 that 724 of the country’s nearly 14,000 school districts had already served 75 percent or more of the number of homeless students they’d served during the 2007-2008 school year.

Districts track the trend because the Education for Homeless Children and Youth Act requires schools to provide the same level of education to students without fixed addresses as to all other children and youth. Schools can also use grants made under the law to provide homeless students with medical and dental care and other services.

A constellation of other laws authorizes programs designed for the “chronically” homeless, for households who can’t afford decent housing and for veterans without homes.

This year, Congress added new forms of assistance, including the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing (HEARTH) Act for families facing imminent loss of housing or recently made homeless. The law also promotes the construction of so-called “supportive housing” for the long-term homeless, who need mental health services and similar services along with roofs over their heads.

Meanwhile, about 2 million families nationwide receive substantial help in paying their rents under the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program, in place since 1974 and revamped in 1998. For many housing advocates, Section 8 vouchers represent a speedy way to expand the supply of affordable housing, the lack of which they view as a major contributor to homelessness.

Some conservative policy experts say the problem isn’t a shortage of affordable housing but deeply rooted poverty – a condition they call ill-suited for resolution by housing subsidies. “The idea that housing is unaffordable and that we’ve done nothing about it – give me a break,” says Howard Husock, vice president of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a New York think tank. “What we’ve done to make housing more affordable over the past 30 years is so extensive that I would inquire of advocates what more they would have government do.”

Even so, HUD, which administers three of those programs, calculates that a family with one full-time, minimum-wage worker can’t afford a two-bedroom apartment anywhere in the country.

As a practical matter, a one-earner family means a household headed by a single mother – the population segment that by all accounts is the most economically and socially vulnerable to deep poverty. The HUD annual report says that families in shelters are typically headed by a single mother.

Ortiz, the once-homeless single mother in Worcester, Mass., says that she was able to start turning her life around only after her city’s housing program helped her find an $850-a-month apartment, which she pays for with the help of a $700 monthly subsidy from the “rapid rehousing” program.

Before that, she says. “I couldn’t get more work hours because of my kids getting out of school at 4:10. I didn’t have anybody reliable enough to drop them off for me or pick them up if I did get a full-time job, and after-school programs cost so much.”

Once she and her family got a place of their own, she found a friend who could pick up the children twice a week, allowing Ortiz to work two part-time jobs as a nursing assistant, and one in a party-supply store. In addition, she’s studying for the GED, planning to then enroll in medical-technology training.

“Things are slowly falling into place for me,” she says. “A shelter would have been no way for my kids to live. It’s not the same as having your house.”

The Issues
* Can government end homelessness?
* Should the definition of homeless include people in unstable housing situations?
* Are housing subsidies the best way to help families facing homelessness?

For more information see the CQ Researcher report on "Housing the Homeless" [subscription required] or purchase the CQ Researcher PDF.

Bilingual Education vs. English Immersion

To follow is an excerpt from the "Overview" section of the report on "Bilingual Education vs. English Immersion" by Kenneth Jost, December 11, 2009

Miriam Flores remembers that her daughter Miriam was doing well in her first two years in school in the border town of Nogales, Ariz.

“She knew how to read and write in Spanish,” Flores says of her daughter, now a college student. “She would even correct the teacher on accents and spelling.”

In the third grade, however, Miriam began having difficulties. Her grades went down, and she began having nightmares.

Miriam’s mother has a simple explanation for the change. In the early 1990s, Nogales provided bilingual education – teaching English learners in both their native language and English – but only through the first two grades. “It was the language,” Flores says.

Miriam’s new teacher did not speak Spanish, taught only in English and seemed uninterested in Miriam’s language difficulties, Flores says. “Miriam is a very quiet child, and I thought it was strange that the teacher would say that she talked a lot,” Flores recalls today. “Then Miriam told me, ‘I ask the other kids what the teacher is saying.’ She didn’t understand.”

Flores’ frustrations with her daughter’s schooling led her to join with other Spanish-speaking Nogales families in 1992 in filing a federal suit aimed at improving educational opportunities for non-English-speaking students in the overwhelmingly Hispanic town. The class action suit claimed the school district was failing to comply with a federal law – the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974 – which requires each state to take “appropriate action” to ensure that English-language learners (ELLs) enjoy “equal participation in its instructional programs.”

Seventeen years later, the case is still in federal court. The plaintiffs won a pivotal decision in 2001 requiring Arizona to boost funding for English-language learning in Nogales and the rest of the state. In a narrowly divided decision in June, however, the Supreme Court gave state officials an opportunity to set aside the lower court ruling.

Writing for the 5-4 majority, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said the federal district judge had failed to adequately consider changed circumstances since 2001. Among other changes, Alito cited the state’s decision to drop bilingual education in favor of so-called “sheltered English immersion” as the officially prescribed method of instruction for students with limited English proficiency.

Arizona’s voters had decisively rejected bilingual education in a 2000 ballot measure. Along with similar measures passed in California in 1998 and Massachusetts in 2002, Arizona’s Proposition 203 embodied a popular backlash against bilingual education that had grown since the 1980s. Critics of bilingual teaching viewed it as a politically correct relic of the 1960s and ‘70s that had proven academically ineffective and politically divisive.

The debate between English-only instruction and bilingual education has been fierce for decades. “People get very hot under the collar,” says Christine Rossell, a professor of political science at Boston University and critic of bilingual education.

Those who support a bilingual approach, says Arizona Superintendent of Instruction Thomas Horne, “aren’t interested in teaching the kids English,” but want to maintain “a separatist nationalism that they can take advantage of.” Horne, a Republican, intervened with the state’s GOP legislative leaders to try to undo the federal court injunction.

“When I tell people that the best way to learn English is to be taught in Spanish, they think I’m joking,” says Rossell.

Supporters insist that bilingual education is the best way to ensure long-term educational achievement for English-language learners. “We have gone backwards on educating non-English speakers,” says José Ruiz-Escalante, a professor of bilingual education at the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg and president of the National Association for Bilingual Education. English-only proponents, he says, are “in such a hurry for students to speak English that we’re not paying attention to their cognitive development.”

“The important thing that students need to learn is how to think,” Ruiz-Escalante continues. “It doesn’t matter whether you learn to think in Spanish or in English. Kids will learn to speak English, but they will be limited” in their academic learning.

Out of nearly 50 million pupils in U.S. public elementary and secondary schools, about 5.1 million – more than one-tenth – are classified as having limited English proficiency. The number is growing because of increased immigration, both legal and illegal. The vast majority of English-language learners – nearly 80 percent – speak Spanish as their first language. But schools are also coping with rising numbers of students who speak a variety of other languages, almost all of which have far less similarity to English than Spanish has.

“It’s a growing challenge,” says Patte Barth, director of the Center for Public Education at the National School Boards Association (NSBA). “We have many more children coming into our schools for whom their first language is not English. At the same time, the need to educate every child to a high level is much more important than it was even 20 years ago.”

The imperative for results stems in part from enactment early in 2002 of the No Child Left Behind Act, the centerpiece of President George W. Bush’s educational-accountability initiative. The act mandated annual testing of students in grades 3-8 and required that schools demonstrate “adequate yearly progress,” including closing the achievement gap for English-language learners, at the risk of financial penalties for noncompliance.

The act also withdrew the federal preference for bilingual education over English-only instruction. Even so, Latino advocacy groups that have long complained of inadequate attention to Spanish-speaking students applaud the law’s emphasis on accountability. The act “changed the debate from what kind of education and curriculum to one of how do you best educate these kids,” says Raul Gonzalez, director of legislative affairs for NCLR, formerly the National Council of La Raza. “That’s where we think the debate should be.”

The federal government has no official count on the number of English learners in each instructional method, but the most recent survey by researchers indicates that the majority – about 60 percent – are in all-English curricula. Of that number, 12 percent receive no special services at all to aid English proficiency. The remaining English learners – about 40 percent – receive some form of bilingual instruction using their native language and English. The length of time in the bilingual programs varies from as little as one year to several. And, as Stanford University education professor Claude Goldenberg notes, there is no way to know the amount of support the students receive or the quality of the instruction.

In Arizona, state policy calls for English-language learners to receive four hours a day of intensive English instruction apart from their mainstream, English-only classes. Since the so-called “pullout” policy was implemented in 2008, the rate of reclassifying students from English-language learners to English-proficient has increased, Horne says. “Students need to learn English quickly to compete,” he says.

Tim Hogan, executive director of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest and the lead attorney in the Flores case, says it is “too early to tell” whether the four-hour pullout approach will be more effective than past policies that he describes as ineffective. But Hogan alleges that the policy segregates Spanish speakers from other students and risks delaying graduation by taking class time away from academic subjects.

Hogan stresses, however, that the lawsuit is aimed at ensuring adequate funding for English-language instruction, not at imposing a specific educational method. “We proved that the state funding [for English-language instruction] was totally arbitrary,” he says.

Horne counters that the Supreme Court decision leaves funding decisions up to the state. “The district court judges are being told not to micromanage the finances of the state education system,” he says.

Voluminous, statistics-heavy studies are cited by opposing advocacy groups as evidence to support their respective positions on the bilingual versus English-only debate. But Barth says language politics, not research, often determines school districts’ choice of instructional method. “A lot of it is political,” she says. “A lot of decisions about language instruction aren’t really informed by the research about what works for children.”

Whatever approach is used, many researchers say English-language learners’ needs are not being met. In their new book, Educating English Learners for a Transformed World, former George Mason University professors Virginia Collier and Wayne Thomas – who strongly advocate bilingual education – cite statistics showing a big achievement gap at the high-school level between native English speakers and students who entered school as English learners. Native English speakers have average scores on standardized tests around the 50th percentile, Collier and Thomas say, while English learners average around the 10th to 12th percentile.

Despite decades of attention and debate on the issue, “not much has happened,” says Kenji Hakuta, a professor at Stanford University’s School of Education in Palo Alto, Calif. “The problems of English-language learners persist whether it’s English-only or bilingual education.”

The Issues

* Is bilingual education effective for English-language learners?
* Is “English immersion” effective for English learners?
* Should funding for English-language learning be increased?

For more information see the CQ Global Researcher report on "Bilingual Education vs. English Immersion" [subscription required] or purchase the CQ Researcher PDF.

Rewriting History

This month, the CQ Global Researcher asks: "Can nations come to terms with their own legacies?" Below is the introduction to the December 2009 report on "Rewriting History" by Alan Greenblatt.

Every nation argues about its own history, seeking to find glory and a sense of identity by celebrating its heroes while downplaying the dark side of the past. Nations also argue with each other about the past, with one side's glorious victory still rankling as the other's ignominious defeat. And, frequently, a neighboring country that has been harmed by another's actions complains that the guilty nation is whitewashing the worst incidents. Currently, an attempt to normalize relations between Turkey and Armenia is proving a tough sell due to arguments about a mass slaughter that occurred more than 90 years ago. And Russia and its neighbors are engaged in heated debates about revealing the crimes of the Stalinist era. Like individuals, nations need to confront their own ghosts, but finding the balance between acknowledging past wrongdoing and learning to get along in the present can be a difficult feat. Such conflicts raise a fundamental philosophical question: Is historical accountability a human right?

(Note: To see how countries have dealt with historical controversies, click on the image to the right to view a larger version.)

The Issues:
* Can nations cover up atrocities?
* Is historical accountability a human right?
* Are national identities defined by shared history?

For more information see the CQ Global Researcher report on "Rewriting History" [subscription required] or purchase the CQ Researcher PDF

Prisoner Reentry

Are state governments doing enough to help prisoners reenter society?

Below is an excerpt from the CQ Researcher issue on "Prisoner Reentry" By Peter Katel, December 4, 2009

The basic argument for expanding reentry programs is simple: Virtually all prisoners will be released except those serving life sentences without the possibility of parole or facing execution. But if at least half of them will be returning to prison or jail, reducing that number by helping ex-prisoners gain a foothold in the outside world would be good for them — and for society.

Supporters of expanded reentry programs point out that even as state governments face budgetary strains ranging from serious to catastrophic, they can cut long-term prison costs by spending on reentry instead of on prison space, which is more expensive. States spend an average of $22,650 yearly to maintain one prisoner. [Footnote 11]

However, to make that case to state legislatures, advocates must show hard data on which kinds of reentry programs lower recidivism most effectively. But solid numbers only now are being assembled and reported. Recidivism among New York's CEO program participants, for instance, was 5.7 percent lower over a three-year period than in a control group of ex-prisoners not in the program.

But even without precise statistics on which kinds of programs are most effective, plenty of evidence shows approaches that don't work, say reentry program advocates.

For example, California imposes parole supervision on virtually all released prisoners — but doesn't have money for intensive supervision. The result: 66 percent of ex-prisoners returned to prison in 2003–2004 — compared with a national rate of 40 percent at that time. Two-thirds of those sent back to prison had violated parole conditions, according to a recent Justice Department study, which showed a dearth of reentry services.

“It is estimated that two-thirds or more of all California parolees have substance-abuse problems, and nearly all of them are required to be drug tested,” the study's authors reported. “Yet few of them will participate in appropriate treatment while in prison or on parole.” [Footnote 12]

Former prison inmate and California Republican state legislator Pat Nolan, now vice president of Prison Fellowship, a Christian rehabilitation group, calls the combination of newly released prisoners with drug problems and a near-absence of treatment programs “one of the great scandals of our current California prison system.” [Footnote 13]

Nolan argues that the rigid enforcement of parole conditions such as no drug use means that ex-prisoners get sent back for relatively minor offenses. “Drug possession — bam, you take them [back] to prison,” he says. “This guy can have a job, be supporting his family; he shouldn't use drugs, but do you want to disrupt his life, send him back to prison, for a first [parole] offense?”

But some prison system veterans say more reentry programs won't necessarily produce ex-prisoners better prepared to reenter society. “You can't make someone rehabilitate himself,” says Gary B. King, a 19-year veteran of the Florida Corrections Department, one of the country's biggest prison agencies. “Over the years, what I have seen as the most rehabilitative thing we do is when we hold people accountable for their actions; when an inmate commits an infraction we apply administrative sanctions. The more we make them follow the rules while they're in prison, and do that across the board, the more we prepare them for going back into society.”

King is now a classification officer who supervises individual prisoners' disciplinary records, progress reports and participation in educational or other programs at Columbia Correctional Institute, a medium-security institution near Lake City, Fla. He doubts a stronger emphasis on rehabilitation and reentry would make a big dent in Florida's recidivism rate. Nevertheless, he acknowledges that work-release programs do make sense for some prisoners nearing the end of their sentences, so they can experience the very different world outside prison. “Some inmates inside an institutional setting can do very well because their daily schedule is regimented, and they are quarantined from bad behavior and substance abuse,” he says. “Once at liberty to do as they please and associate with whomever they please, they do not do well. Some inmates do not seem to handle well the responsibility that comes with freedom.”

Yet even Crist, the conservative Republican Florida state senator, argues that the slim chances some prisoners have of staying out of trouble after release shouldn't block the state from expanding reentry programs for inmates who could benefit. “About one-third of the inmate population are hardened; you're going to have very little impact on them,” he says. “Another two-thirds [deserve] a running chance.”

Moreover, some prisoners with violent pasts may do well on the outside. “Somebody can go to prison with a first-degree felony and serve time and have an excellent track record and go through psychological testing and work release and have an excellent chance in the community,” he says.

But some conservative experts who support reentry expansion on principle question how well helping hardcore prisoners reenter can be carried out in practice. “We don't know a lot about what works,” says David B. Mulhausen, a senior policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation's Center for Data Analysis. “Usually, the impact is rather small, and other communities haven't always been successful in replicating it.”

Moreover, Mulhausen is skeptical about what he views as the political leanings of reentry advocates. “A lot of people [favoring] reentry programs really don't like prison,” he says. “They don't give credit to the fact that the drop in crime we've had in the past several years is partly due to incarceration.”

But the Sentencing Project, the leading alternatives-to-incarceration organization, says that while imprisonment plays a role in the drop in crime, that role may be smaller than Mulhausen and others assert. Crime dropped by about 12 percent in 1998–2003 in states with high imprisonment — and declined by the same rate in states in which incarceration diminished or stayed the same.

“There was no discernible pattern of states with higher rates of incarceration experiencing more significant declines in crime,” project staffers wrote. [Footnote 14]

The Issues:
* Are state governments doing enough to help prisoners reenter society?
* Should government or private organizations provide subsidized jobs for ex-prisoners?
* Do reentry programs significantly reduce recidivism?

[11] James J. Stephan, “State Prison Expenditures, 2001,” Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Justice Department, June 2004.
[12] Ryken Grattet, et al., “Parole Violations and Revocations in California: Analysis and Suggestions for Action,” Federal Probation, June 2009, pp. 2–4.
[13] Jennifer Warren, “He found a calling in prison,” Los Angeles Times, July 5, 2007, p. A1.
[14] Ryan S. King, et al., “Incarceration and Crime: A Complex Relationship,” Sentencing Project, 2005, pp. 3–4.


For more information see the CQ Researcher report on "Prisoner Reentry" [subscription required] or purchase the CQ Researcher PDF