SUBMISSION: An open letter to the Sarasota Community

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Guest Contribution by Jeremy Weir Alderson

Creator of the Homelessness Marathon

The Homelessness Marathon was a 14-hour live broadcast aired at WSLR 96.5FM on Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2014. It aimed to bring the voices of Sarasota’s homeless to the forefront of the discussion on homelessness.

Starting on the evening of Tuesday, February 17th, through the good offices of our local host, community radio station WSLR, we will be originating the 17th Homelessness Marathon from Sarasota.  It is a 14-hour-long, live national radio and television broadcast focusing on homelessness and poverty.  We’ll be talking all night with experts, politicians, advocates, callers and, above all, with homeless people themselves.

We’re not coming to Sarasota to attack it.  We know that no city can solve homelessness by itself, we’ve been in much worse places (Fresno, you know who you are), and we are encouraged that Sarasota has already begun a community-wide dialog about how best to deal with homelessness.   We want to contribute to that dialog, but before we can do that, there is something you should know: The single piece of information about the homeless that Sarasotons have either most passionately embraced or vehemently rejected, is almost certainly fake.

By this I mean the assertion by Dr. Robert Marbut, the pricey consultant hired by Sarasota, that 93% of the money given to panhandlers goes to alcohol or drugs.  This statistic has been put up on signs downtown and made the subject of countersigns, but here’s why I don’t believe it’s true.

First, I consulted with 6 of America’s foremost institutions and experts in the field of homelessness*.  None of them knew of any data that would substantiate that 93% claim.  I could only find one survey, conducted recently in San Francisco.  It asked 146 panhandlers what they spent their money on.  94% said they used some of the money for food, while only 44% said they used some of the money for alcohol or drugs (undoubtedly a much smaller figure than among housed people).  That’s 44% who spent even a nickel on alcohol or drugs, not 93% of their money.

After finding no published evidence to support Marbut’s figures, I interviewed Marbut himself. He acknowledged that his 93% figure was not based on anything he had read.  Instead, he said, he came up with that figure through his own research.  He said he had done two studies on this issue, one in San Antonio, TX in 2009, involving 150-200 homeless panhandlers and the other in Pinellas County, FL involving 250 panhandlers.

According to Marbut, the methodology was to give money to panhandlers and then follow them to observe what they did with it.  He reports that they went off to make purchases “almost immediately when they finished [panhandling]” and that “in San Antonio we actually followed right to the location of purchase.”  Researchers were able to see what was purchased, he said, and one could “easily verify the price.” But could such a survey really have taken place?

Unfortunately, homeless people all across the country are frequent targets for random violence.  If you were homeless, what would you think if a stranger came up to you, asked if you were homeless, gave you some money and then started following you around?  What would you think if you were a homeless woman being followed by such a stranger?  Would your first instinct be to go to a liquor store?

Marbut further claims that “a couple of times we had to go too, in case it might be bought under the counter, and you’d have to ask the store owner what it is.”  This is hard to imagine.  An under-the-counter transaction is an illegal transaction, so how could a researcher just walk up to someone and ask the extent of an illegal transaction, much less confirm that the perpetrator is the store owner?  And if the panhandling money was spent

on drugs, were Marbut’s observers able to watch homeless people buy crack or heroin and then ask the dealers how much it cost?  In a November 2014 interview on NPR, Marbut also claimed that some of that 93% went to prostitution.  Are we to believe that Marbut’s researchers were also able to learn how much panhandlers paid prostitutes?

The reason there’s virtually nothing in the literature about what panhandlers do with their money is because such research would be almost impossible to do. You’d have to show me the evidence that Marbut ever did it, and funnily enough, he doesn’t have any.

According to Marbut, these studies, involving hundreds of subjects in two cities, left no documentary record whatsoever.  They were never published, and he cannot produce a single sheet of paper to show that they actually took place. He explains this by asserting that, with his studies, “the purpose is not to meet an academic rigor, the purpose is to determine policies” Apparently, he thinks it is self evident that, if all you’re doing is making policy recommendations to govern the lives of poor and desperate people, you don’t need to be particularly careful about how you gather information.

Marbut claims that, for his second study, he was assisted by students from Eckerd College.  When asked for their phone numbers he says, “I could try to find them.  I don’t know if I can.”  When asked who he worked with at Eckerd College he says, “I don’t even have the name anymore.” When asked for any evidence at all, he says, “TV stations have gone off and replicated [our work],” but he doesn’t know which TV stations, because “I don’t keep an archive or anything like that.”

In point of fact, Marbut does keep an archive.  Right on the Marbut Consulting website there is a subject heading entitled, “TV News Clips.”  It contains mostly broken links to television news stories that don’t verify anything about his research.

Marbut also said that there might still be some of his research files with “raw data” at Haven for Hope, the homeless organization he was affiliated with in San Antonio.  But in response to my query, Laura Calderon, Haven for Hope’s media liaison, wrote that, with regard to how much money panhandlers spend on drugs and alcohol, “current management is not aware of any study that was done to quantify the problem.”

The saddest part of this bamboozlement is its impact.  Marbut’s invisible studies weren’t just fodder for a controversy about downtown signs.  They were also a key piece of evidence in support of his plan for Sarasota.

The first of Marbut’s “Srategic Action Recommendations” is to “move from a Culture of Enablement to a Culture of Engagement” and he states plainly that giving money to panhandlers “actually perpetuates and increases homelessness.” Essentially, he recommends making life more difficult for homeless people, to pressure them into services (which may be bad or inadequate).  But should homeless people be pressured on the say so of someone who concocted nonexistent research to justify his position?

Sarasota, please allow me to offer you a different vision of what should be done for homeless people.  I don’t get paid to do my broadcast, and I’m not charging you a cent. This is free advice from someone who has traveled all over this country looking into the face of homelessness and the faces of homeless people.

Let me begin, not with an inflated false fact, but with a true one that’s too much ignored:  Homeless people in the United States are, overwhelmingly, citizens of the United States, just like the rest of us.  Whatever we do to them sets a precedent for what can be done to us.  And ironically, while we have been noisily focused on whether or not to make illegal residents legal, with practically no notice at all, we have been making legal residents illegal.

The government must not be in the business of declaring whole classes of people rights-less, herding them like Cherokees on the trail of tears, and then forcing them onto the rarely merciful mercy of the state.  Yet this is what is being done in Sarasota and countless other cities across America, because there is no legal place to be homeless.  People who sleep on the street are ticketed for minor but inevitable offenses, and then, when they cannot pay their fines, they are subject to arrest.  In other words, in Sarasota, as elsewhere, you can be deprived of your freedom for the crime of being poor.  This is the first thing that must change.  There must be land in Sarasota where even the poorest of the poor can live as free citizens.  It will literally be the land of the free, just like America is supposed to be.

If there is no other place they can be or want to be, homeless people should be given a legal place where they can pitch tents or park cars, if they’re lucky enough to have them. Showers, trash pick-up and porta potties should be provided. These tent cities should be regular neighborhoods, where the police can patrol, the fire department can make safety checks, and residents can come and go freely.

There is good reason to believe, based on real, not made-up, research, that such a plan would save Sarasota tons of money compared to the police, court, and emergency service costs of the present system.  And there shouldn’t be any doubt that this can work.  There are tent cities all over America that homeless people have erected on their own, and the number one reason why they fail is because the police intervene, not because homeless people can’t lead orderly lives in tents.  I once interviewed the manager of a municipally-sponsored homeless camp in Ontario, California, who said they quickly realized they had budgeted more than was needed for security.

In Sarasota, a woman named Vallerie Guillory offered to run a tent city on land that someone else had donated for a rent of $1 a year.  This would have been a start in the right direction, but Sarasota would not allow it.  That was exactly the wrong thing to do.

Yes, once there is a legal space for every homeless person, there will still be problems to address, and there will still be the same challenge of finding ways to move people into permanent housing.  But homeless people, our futures, and Sarasota’s finances will be a lot safer in the process than they are now.

If you want to participate in an honest discussion of this plan or any other aspect of homelessness, tune in to WSLR, 96.5 FM in Sarasota, starting at 7:00 p.m. on Tuesday, February 17th.  Everyone’s welcome to speak their piece, either by calling in (877-662-6398 for general public; 866-533-8688 for those who are homeless, formerly homeless or afraid they’re about to be homeless), or by stepping up to the street mic at our broadcast site within WSLR’s Kumquat Court complex.  On the Homelessness Marathon, the truth speaks for free.

* – University of Wisconsin Institute on Poverty; Urban Institute; National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty; Michael Stoops, field director for the National Coalition on Homelessness (which is working with us on our upcoming broadcast); Paul Boden, field director for the Western Region Advocacy Project (and a member of the Homelessness Marathon’s board); and Dr. Dennis Culhane, the Dana and Andrew Stone Professor of Policy at the University of Pennsylvania.

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