Richard R. Troxell is President of House the Homeless, an educational and advocacy group that was founded in Austin, TX in 1989. Their mission is education and advocacy surrounding all issues of homelessness.
Richard has been striving to end homelessness since he first saw it come into existence as a mortgage foreclosure preventionist in Philadelphia in the 1980s. His work has been recognized by HUD, Texas Governor Ann Richards, the Pennsylvania Senate and the United Nations. He has also received the Five Who Care Award and the JC Penny Golden Rule Award, among countless others. Having designed a paradigm change for homeless service delivery, he secured $100,000 from former Texas Governor George Bush for the jobs component.
He’s the author of Looking up at the Bottomline: The Struggle for the Living Wage, an intense personal, political, and educational guide through the last 30 years of homelessness in America. According to the US Conference of Mayors, a person working 40 hours a week, at a minimum wage of $7.25, doesn't have enough money to afford a one-bedroom apartment anywhere in the United States.
Richard, thank you for being on the show. And thank you for the work you do and sharing your story and the story of many others in your great book: Up at the Bottomline: The Struggle for the Living Wage
Thanks to you and your listeners for this great opportunity be on your show.
Usually, I jump in at this point and ask about the guest's work and their solutions. If it's ok, I'd like to create a little context for you, your passion and the solutions you offer in your book.
What is homelessness?
Simply, homelessness is lacking a fix, permanent place of residence. Homelessness is something that did not exist in this country when I was growing up. I’m 59, I’ll be 60 this week. It’s a phenomenon that developed through a series of events as most things do.
Following WW2 when we had devastated Germany and Japan, we...America set out to rebuild those countries. We created the Marshall Plan and basically used a lot of our doallrs to help rebuild these two nations.
The effect it had was a very specific effect. In the early 80’s, both of these nations started to come online from that industrial revitalization, especially the steel and auto industries. And, America started losing market share. There was an immediate wake-up. Their factories were all automated while we used one-on-one, people power.
The corporate response was to try to get back market share. And it manifested itself with factories closing. A lot of factories closed. These were big factories.
Then there was a shift to try and find cheaper labor and try to keep the numbers up. These people, these hard-working Americans, who had been earning $23.00 an hour and had come to the cities to get these jobs were now facing...something they had never experienced before in their whole lives. They needed support.
Against their desires and wills they needed to take government support starting with food stamps. This is a temporary stop-gap bridge, a governmental measure. It went on long enough that these men who would never even mouth the words could conceive of ever going on welfare then took that next step.
They were talking to their families and they would take them in and double up and hold on as long as they could. This would happen until they could not sustain both families in one household. And they moved out.
One thing led to another and they ended up in marital frustration and money makes the world go round and it also adds a lot of frustration. And we started to see this happening coupled with the energy crisis, double digit inflation, the end of the Vietnam war, veterans like myself returning from the way putting more pressure on the job market. And, so there was a number of things all converging all at the same time.
And at this time President Reagan was in office and he made an observation about these places like Detroit, LA, West Philadelphia, etc and that we were warehousing our poor people in thee places, high-rises, ghettoes they came to be known. And it was economies of scale, it was cheaper housing for the poor. And he made the very clear observation that this was not a good way, people were hurting each other, selling drugs to one another; it was an abusive way to conduct ourselves as a nation.
Everyone agreed with him.
The problem was as he convinced Congress to withdraw the funding for these problems the buildings would begin to deteroriate, housing authorities would lose their buildings, people would lose their buildings and they would go on out to the street quite literally end up on the street trying to survive.
This came at the same time that Legal Services Corporation made the observation that we were doing the same type of things in our mental health institutions. We were warehousing our seniors with alzheimer’s and people with mental health concerns and underpaying the workers there and the lawsuits were brought. And it coincided with the introduction of psychotropic drugs. Things like Lithium. They thought they could treat people on an outpatient basis.
We opened up our mental health institutions.
And in fairness there was the move for fairness and amelioration in a positive way. But, there had been no plan for what do we do when we close the high-rise apartments and the mental health institutions.
We all kinda had vague unreal concepts in our mind. People will get their stuff and move on down the road and it will be alright.
And, today there’s 40% of the people who are homeless have mental health concerns. And, so, the word homelessness is a result of these negative convergences.
And as I said when I grew up there were no homeless. And now in any city, any town you have people needing things, needing resources, wanting jobs and trying to find work.
The next three questions are questions I ask in business all the time. They are a great way to align priorities and tactics. But they may sound extremely callous here. But I think some of our listeners, in fact a lot of people may not connect the dots. Those questions* are:
- What's in it for me?
- Why should I care?
- Why should I believe?
What's in it for us, as individuals and collectively as a nation to care about homelessness?
Why should we believe its resolution will have any impact on our communities?
My point in asking them is to bridge the disconnect we have, I have, on homelessness and its impact on our lives, our families, our communities, our economy.
We are a nation of practical people. We are a nation about the business of business. I think these are honest questions. Everything begins and ends with us as individuals.
I would just say that when you started your introduction you mentioned there were 760,000 people experiencing homelessness each night. But beyond that 3.5 million people will experience homelessness this year.
The way that this manifests itself...we started to see people in urban areas who had lost their job and were still looking for resources. And they begin to migrate where there were resources. They’re in urban areas, near university areas because there’s more people there. They need a place to be. They’re in our parks. They’re in our woods and abandoned buildings. 3.5 million people homeless this year again.
When we got on the phone we were talking about our families’ situations. And I mentioned my daughter Colleen and I don’t want her going into a park and being approached by a stranger who is asking for her help. I understand the lack of resources. But I’m uncomfortable with that. I don’t know if any of your listeners...are comfortable with that. That’s scary.
That doesn’t mean I don’t want to help. It means I don’t want that setting. They’re sleeping urban areas, doorways of our business. In Austin, we have an entertainment district where people want to relax, come in and catch the show. And you have them being affronted and confronted by homeless people who are needy and want help.
That puts the businesses in an extremely bad place, an awkward place. They’re trying to make their ends meet, meet their mortgages. And here’s a new demand for help.
Most folks are very religious. We go to church and put money in the plate. We’re a world of professionals and we’re very focused on certain areas. I don’t know anything about doctoring or lawyering. I’m very specific to what I do. And you expect the guy next to you to what he does to the highest possible level.
One of those guys next to us is what we call “government”. And we’ve been paying our tax dollars and you need to take care of these other pieces so we can get about our business and spur the economy and create jobs and help pull the people back in.
When I look at our society, I think of it in the whole form. Imagine our socioeconomic as a yardstick. That’s made up of 3 one foot sections. The right foot is my daughter and her youngest sister. She’s in school and trying to get education; that’s her job. She thinks her job is to drain my wallet and get an education...SMILE. On the far left, that’s the foot her grandparents are in. They’re done; they’re retired. They have worked hard all their lives. So, they’re not contributing anything into the system as well.
That leaves just the middle foot, the worker foot to sustain itself and the other two-feet. That worker foot, that’s the foot where people are falling out of and becoming homeless. Because God isn’t making homeless people.
Right in the middle foot and the problem we’re seeing the future is that foot is shrinking. About 7000 people a day, I’ve heard is the figure more recently, as the baby-boomers go into retirement.
You have greater and greater strain on that yardstick. As the middle foot shrinks and as the weight of the middle foot continues to increase and the weight of the retirement continues to shrink then you have incredible weight on the middle foot. That yardstick could snap on us.
Who are these people? We have to understand that the homeless are landscape workers, elderly aids and security guards, garage attendants, manicurist, ambulance drivers, dry cleaner workers, hotel workers, store clerks. Anybody working as a theater attendants, nurses aids, poultry workers, childcare workers who we’re not paying enough to take care f our most prized possessions....
And so, unless we address the root causes of homelessness then the ability to sustain our society at the very most basic level is endangered.
The one thing that every single one of these jobs has in common is you can’t outsource them. you have to be there to serve the child in the cafeteria line. You have to be there to clean that urinal. You have to be there to work that field, to turn down the sheet in the hotel room.
So, these are the most precious American jobs that will never end up in India. And yet, these people are in a position, we’re paying them less than they need to be housed.
As a result these people are falling out of that workforce and into homelessness.
That’s why we should care.
We might spend the rest of the show listening to your answer for this next question. And if we did that would be ok. What was your inspiration for writing this book. That one moment where you said....I gotta write this book to show people.
I created this program...I was in Philadelphia working as a mortgage foreclosure preventionist. I was trying to help those guys in the steel industry and auto industry up in Pennsylvania who had lost their jobs and their houses were going into foreclosure.
And as I started working with these people, my mother became ill. She ended up with congestive heart failure and I left Philadelphia and came down here. I created a job for myself and tried to work with the people who’d become homeless and disabled.
I was very focused on trying to help these people get back up and out. I had it in my mind that I could as a pragmatic, business person, create a plan, a pathway...to get out of homelessness. I wanted to go to business leaders and say “I want to create a pathway for these people to get out of homelessness. I call the plan Project Fresh Start.”
Envision with me this chart. Everyone on the left side is abjectly homeless; they’re living on the street and in the woods. What we want to do is move them through a series of steps, across the chart to the right side and enable them to have a job and have a house.
I set out to do this. I had to identify what are the steps. I realized there are different folks that make this up with different problems, what we call homelessness. I bourght them through outreach and intake system. I brought those who had alcohol problems and put them through a recovery program so they could peel off a treatment and resident program. Then, resume preparation and interviewing skills. And finally job placement. Then transition into housing.
All the time we’re trying to deal with healthcare needs and civil/legal needs. And all the time underscored with what I call a nurturing component. It could be a formal church or making sure they’re connected with somebody, a big brother or big sister. If they’re an alcoholic, making sure they have have a sponsor. The one thing we know about people experiencing homelessness, these people have all burned their bridges. They have asked for help all the way. They are pretty disconnected. We have to wrap our arms around these people in the name of God and fellowship and friendship and say “I’m ok, you can be ok; let’s make this work.”
That was the whole of the chart. And I managed to put people together who could provide these services. I didn’t have quite enough pieces. One of the pieces missing was the job readiness.
I went to then Gov. George Bush. Laid the map out. Said this is the problem and the perceived fix. He gave us a $100,000 for this model to put this component in that chart.
I put 20 guys through the program. I had 18 successful people come out of this program. Now, the rate of recidivism for alcoholism is so high people don’t count the statistics.
We started patting ourselves on the back and saying “look at what we did.” And we kept monitoring the program. A lot of programs don’t monitor on down the road. We wanted to, to see what happens and tweak it or if it’s a failure stop it. So, I noticed a deterioration in the success of these people. They started falling out of the housing we had put them into. In 3 months, there was only 15 people and in 5 months there was 9 people and 10 months there was like 3 people in the program. And at the end of a year there were no people in the program.
They had all gone through the program. They had all done this, gotten these things, where they articulate to an employer about this where I am, these are the problems I’ve had, this is what I’m willing to do for you...and got that job and got into housing.
And all of it fell apart. I stood back and was dumbfounded. This is a business plan. I’ve got financing. How could this not work.
I stood back and realized I needed to understand this more. I realized this is a question of poverty. The housing that we put them in, the day to day lives that we put them, outstripped the wage or SSI or disability payments, the minimum wage wouldn’t sustain them. So, they fell out of that housing.
The last Mayor’s cconference issued a report which said people can work 40 hours a week and not afford a one-bedroom apartment in my town. They keep issuing a report that says this is a problem.
The Federal Minimum Wage has not set a minimum standard that someone can work a full 40 hour week and get the minimum of food, shelter, clothing.
And it was at that moment that I said...Well, then I’ve got to fix the federal minimum wage.
You describe the Universal Living Wage. Why is it universal? Why is it Livable?
The best way to describe this is to describe the federal minimum wage. It’s a federal standard created by both houses of Congress following the Great Depression. As they came out of that they stood back and said "Geez. What just happened? Let’s try to break this down, what just happened, and try and make some changes and effect it in such a way that this cannot happen again.
What did I see? Well...I saw millions of men wandering the nation looking for jobs.” That was the dynamic. Of course it was men because then. And even if they got a job everything was hand to mouth. And we can see that in the newsreels and monuments that were erected in that time.
“You know what? We should have a standard that’s across the board for everybody. So if somebody works and they put their shoulder to the wheel then they should be able to afford those basics.”
And they did. it was in 1938. The Fair Labor Standards Act was the part that created the federal minimum wage. It was initially set at $.50. That was what was required. But they set it initially at $.25. But, that’s ok because it set a standard that worked pretty darn well until the mid-80’s.
When I was growing up you could go on a construction site and tell a guy “I can do that”. He’d look at me with my hammer in my tool belt and know I couldn’t do it. But he knew I was willing to work, get a hammer and put through a loop on my belt and he’d give me a job.
And that wage let me get a spot. We had these things called YMCA, Young Men’s Christian Associations, and they were all over the country. You could go in there and put your money in there and get a room for the night.Stash your stuff there and get up in the morning, go down the hall, get a shower and go off to work.
And, those YMCA’s made it possible for me as a young man to make it. We’ve since lost all those. They’ve been destroyed or converted. The ones that are left don’t offer the same type of service.
But the dynamic that started happening in the ’80’s was we started having these booms. You’ve heard the term boom or bust. Well, some urban area would have just a bonus for a couple of years. Part of those things was the onset of technology. Some of those things would go on for awhile and then they would go bust.
And in the boom times, prices inflate. And when the bust comes, everything drops, the prices drop...except the price of housing.
In fact, in the commercial industry, they’ll let that property sit fallow until they get their asking price. College kids come in and get these apartments and they’ll offer a microwave or inducements. But they have low overhead. The cost of housing by having it inflated over time has allowed it to move away from what the minimum wage can allow someone to afford.
You can work a full 40-hour work week and still not be able to afford a roof over your head.
We have 3.5 million people who will experience homelessness this year. And at least half of them will experience because of this dynamic of economics. The number may be greater.
We know for sure, at least half of them, that many people out of our workforce that could be in our workforce is a big mistake. That’s not what we need to do.
What we tend to do, even when you go before the SBA, you have a plan. They’ll say:
“Oh, let me see you business plan, Bob."
And Bob will say:
“Oh, Ok, John. I’m going to spend $.20 on manufacturing, $.20 on transporting and $.20 on warehousing, etc and down here on the people I’m going to spend...$.05.”
And they say:
”Well that sounds good to me. Give it a shot.”
The problem is within the first 4 years 3/5 of small businesses fail. I think it can be put right at the doorstep where you have unstable businesses created around minimum wage workers. Their own personal situation is not stable. And when they’re not stable that means that business is potentially destabilized.
What we do with the Universal Living Wage is to take that federal minimum wage and change the paradigm for what’s going on there. Paradigm is the big whole thing of it.
Right now the federal government says the federal minimum wage is $7.25. Right now I don’t think there’s a listener out there that thinks $.7.25 is going to get you an apartment in NY City or Santa Cruz, CA. It may get you closer in Iowa, in a couple of places.
They have a one-size fits all dynamic. We are a nation of 1000 economies. So, what I’ve done is when I tweak the federal minimum wage I use a 3-prong formula that insures that if somebody works 40 hours a week that they can afford the basics: food, clothing, shelter. That would work anywhere in the entire US based on where the work is done.
Now, since we have created this concept and have been pushing the federal government and the US military about this, the US military have changed their pattern of pay realizing they are moving their people around the nation and realizing the military families are not maing it. The number one fastest growing faction in homeless is single women with children; and they had to do something about it.
And so, they embraced our concept of looking at our concept of looking at geographical considerations.
“Well, this is what it costs me to live here."
So why would you only pay me the $7.25 when it’s going to cost me twice as much to live here?
The federal government has created locality pay for its workers. It costs more to live in Sarasota than it did in Newport News. They’re ok.
We’re talking about just the basics. We’re basing this on an efficiency apartment, which is one step below a one-bedroom apartment.
All we’re saying is you have a worker and spend no more than 30% of their income on housing; that’s the federal standard, the national banking standard, too. And use the HUD Section 8, which is the federal guideline fur business and employers and this would afford them the basics: food, clothing and shelter. That’s no matter where they live in the U.S.
Most of the federal laws you cite are from the Great Depression era. The Marshall Plan was initiated in the late 40’s, early 50’s. What's interfered with their intent and execution these days? Somewhere along the line we got off-track with their initial good results.
We have described what the whole dynamic is in homelessness, an albatross around our necks. If you look at that, homelessness, it is the anti-thesis of being housed. It is the opposite of being housed. What we’re lacking is truly affordable housing or being abel to afford housing.
When I was growing up my affordable housing was at the Y. It gave m e a place to stand. It didn’t guarantee me anything. But without the Big O, Opportunity, nobody is going to climb out from underneath the bridge.
What we need to do is the same promise that Congress came up with in the 30’s. If you work hard, you should be able to afford some kind of housing other than underneath a bridge. And so, that worked out pretty well until the mid-80’s. but what they had failed to do, even with the best of intentions, was to index it to the cost of local housing.
The number one, the most significant item in a household budget is...housing. If you make work relate to the ability to get that housing, as we have done, then you have addressed it. What they have failed to do was to index it to anything. As the cost of housing went up and up and up, there was schism with the dollar and the ability to afford that housing. And so, all we’re doing is linking it to that. Using existing government guidelines, you shouldn’t spend more than 30% of your income on housing.
That’s the very simple, clean, clear answer. When they set a minimum based standard for wage in response to the Great Depression, they failed to index it to the cost of local housing.
And what makes it universal is that in another country they can do the same thing. Maybe housing isn’t the biggest item in a family’s budget; maybe it’s food. Well then you can index that to the cost of food.
Let me talk about immigration. When the people marched in the streets a few years ago and people were waving flags and there was big thing and they were in every city. You look at the pictures and there were all these Mexican flags. And people in America were saying:
“Hey, hey, hey. What’s this about? Are we being invaded by Mexico?”
And the next day those flags were gone.
What that told us was those people’s hearts were in Mexico. The rule of 8 comes into play here. 8 people, living in an apartment, sending 80% of their money back home to La Familia. They don’t want to be here. And they won’t be here if back in Mexico there was a living wage being paid. You don’t see people pouring over the northern border.
If we at the presidential level we decide to send 1000 business leaders and have a business exchange program, train them with good concepts, we help inject some business where they can work and export some stuff to us. You’ll see the whole immigration issue disappear.
What we need is economic stability. We need to be smart. We need to be strategic. And we need to take action.
Leaders are readers. Jim Rohn says that. I just quote him. You're an inspiring leader. What are you reading, serious or for fun?
I just put down John Grisham's Ford County: Stories. This was interesting to me. It was about Ford County in Mississippi where he immerses us in the workings of a small town. This was a series of short stories. That was fun.
I’m looking at Short Story Masterpieces with Faulkner and James Joyce, the classics. I’m having fun getting through there.
I’ve been looking at Doris Kearns Goodwin. She wrote the Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. It's a fascinating read. He had some really stiff competition as he headed towards his election. So, he made him his cabinet. He’d rather have them working for him rather than against him. They were the smartest people he knew. That’s call The Team of Rivals.
I’m working on American Lion which is about Andrew Jackson in the White House.
You mix these things with the daily newspaper and you see it going on.
Where do we go from here? What can we do? how can we help?
The first thing is I have a couple of websites. But all things run from the House The Homeless site. We look at all the issues and then we blog about those.
Universal Living Wage site gets as deep as we can. There was a report by the Bush Administration about the connection between poverty and violence in families. That could be found there. There’s some great in-depth information there. And you can learn about our two days of national action to promote the universal living wage.
Finally, this is the place I’d start and that’s to get my book. 100% of the money goes back into this initiative; I don’t keep any money. This about truly believing that I want to leave this world a better place for my daughter. And this is how we can do it.
I’ve traveled the world. I’ve been on expeditions in Ethiopia, on the river in the Amazon and this is the greatest country. This is about just tweaking a few things. IF we just did this we could get a better product. And isn’t what this is all about? Getting a better product called America.
Next Guest: Dan Hill, author of About Face: The Secrets of Emotionally Effective Advertising.