Houstonian Corner (V13-I45)

November 3, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Needs Outweigh Resources for State Infrastructure

Former Transportation Secretary calls report ‘blinding flash of the obvious’

The message was clear from two committees reporting to the Texas Transportation Commission on Thursday – there are no one-size-fits-all solutions to the state’s infrastructure needs and the wants and needs for creation and maintenance of highways throughout the state are much greater than the state’s ability to finance them.

In addition to the committee reports, the Commission also heard an update on the Texas Department of Transportation’s (TxDOT) ongoing modernization plan. “The process is beginning to move forward,” said Eric Gleason, TxDOT’s Director of Public Transportation. He said implementation of some of the projects is coming into focus and “the pace is quickening.” However, Gleason, noted that human resource availability to put some of the recommendations into place timely while continuing to fulfill day-to-day operations of the agency is a concern.

Three members of the Strategic Research Program Advisory Committee testified before the Commission Thursday. According to Rick Collins, director of the Research and Technology Implementation Office at TxDOT, the committee is charged with making recommendations to TxDOT regarding research topics that should be explored relating to transportation in the state. Those research projects will be awarded to universities throughout the state who respond to an upcoming request for proposals. Through these topics and the research, the committee will help prepare the department for some of the challenges the state and TxDOT will face in the future.

The committee held its first meeting in August and told commissioners this week that they quickly realized there was a lack of sustainability for maintaining and creating new infrastructure.

Committee member Mary Peters, former U.S. Transportation Secretary, said the committee’s report might appear to be a “blinding flash of the obvious.” She said it would be important not to reinvent the wheel but to “bring data to bear and focus on where this industry and the state can get more money” for its transportation infrastructure needs.

Another committee member, Ken Allen, told commissioners that as the committee was putting together its “wish list” for research projects that might result in a better way to use transportation funding for more projects, it narrowed the scope to three subjects, which he said were “deliberately kept very broad for the researchers.”
 
Among the topics was what he called “demand leveling,” or getting the most out of existing infrastructure, as well as innovative financing options and “managing the decline,” or prioritizing the use of limited funds. Regarding funding, Hall said the question becomes “how to best spend the money we have,” which he said would have to be “spent incredibly wisely.”

Similar messages were brought to the commission by Tim Brown, Bell County commissioner, who serves on the I-35 Advisory Committee.

Brown told the Commission that his group initially came up with little more than a list of projects. However, he said that illustrates that there is no one-size-fits-all solution because the solution changes from one geographic region to another.

Saying a variety of rail components will have to be part of the future solutions for the I-35 projects, the county commissioner said it became glaringly obvious that “we’ve got to find some more ways of funding those projects.

“Funding seems to be the common denominator we keep coming back to,” he said. Brown noted that the committee came up with “appropriate solutions, but no funding stream.”

The challenge for the committee, he said, is to “identify what needs to be done” and then come back to try to find ways to fund it.

“Transportation is so important that we’re going to have to get serious about funding,” said Brown.

In other action, the Transportation Commission took action to add Interstate 69 to the state highway system, allowing TxDOT officials to label the first Texas stretch of the nearly 1,000-mile interstate since I-69 received federal high-priority route designation more than a decade ago. This action will allow TxDOT to add the concurrent designation of I-69 to a 6.2-mile section of US 77 between I-37 and SH 44 in Nueces County without additional funding, right-of-way or construction because the existing highway already meets interstate standards.

Well Attended ICNA South Central Region Conference

Theme: Quran – The Scripture That Saved The World

picturehouston

Sheikh Omer Suleiman Speaks at the Sixth Annual ICNA-MAS Conference at University of Houston

Thousands of Muslims from the US South Central Region (Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Kansas) attended the 6th Annual Conference of the Islamic Circle of North (ICNA), and the Muslim American Society (MAS) at the University of Houston, on Saturday October 22nd.

Theme of the conference was: Quran- The Scripture That Saved Humanity. A parallel Youth Conference was organized by Young Muslims (YM), on the subject of “Peer Pressure – Peer Power”.
Prominent speakers and scholars spoke, including Sheikh Nauman Ali Khan, Sheikh Omer Suleiman, Imam Khalid Griggs, Qari Qasim Mazhar, Dr. Mohammad Yunus, Mustafa White, Hafiz Tauqeer Shah, Dr. Shahid Rafiq, Dr. Mohammad Shalaby.

Speakers were quite interactive and their presentations were practical, inspirational, and made the people happy.

Some of the subjects that were discussed and presented included: “Islamic Sharia: A Divine Legal Framework for a Prosperous Society”; “Speaking to Your Lord”; “Quran: Theory and Practice”; “The Vision & Mission”

In the Youth conference, the various themes that were touched included: “Jumping on the Bandwagon”; “A change is gonna come”; “What about you?”; “Take-home Message”; and “Will you be Missed?”

At the eve of Eid-AL-Adha, the bazaar at the conference had many Islamic Garments and Gifts stalls.

By the Grace of God, a successful fundraising for ICNA was done by Sheikh Omer Suleiman, where around $100,000 were raised for the Learning, Dawah and Community Services funds of ICNA.

For more information, one can visit www.ICNASouth.Com

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US Cuts UNESCO Funds After Palestine vote

November 3, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

The Obama administration is cutting off funding for the U.N. cultural agency because it approved a Palestinian bid for full membership

AP

WASHINGTON: The Obama administration is cutting off funding for the U.N. cultural agency because it approved a Palestinian bid for full membership.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland says Monday’s vote triggers a long-standing congressional restriction on funding to UN bodies that recognize Palestine as a state before an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is reached.

Nuland says UNESCO’s decision was “regrettable, premature and undermines our shared goal to a comprehensive, just and lasting peace” between Israelis and Palestinians.

She says the US would refrain from making a $60 million payment it planned to make in November.

But Nuland said the US would maintain membership in the body.

The Palestinians want full membership in the UN, but Israel opposes the bid. The US says it would veto a vote in the Security Council.

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School Districts struggling to pay for needs of uprooted kids

September 24, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

TIDAL WAVE OF HOMELESS STUDENTS HITS SCHOOLS

By Karl Huus, MSNBC

OXNARD, Calif. – Nine-year-old Daniel Valdez is absorbed in “The Swiss Family Robinson,” the fictional story of a family shipwrecked on a tropical island. In real life, he and his family also are marooned, but there is little romance in their tale of survival in this seaside town northwest of Los Angeles. Daniel, his mother and five brothers, ages 1 to 17, live in a garage without heat or running water in a modest, low-lying neighborhood that sits between celebrity-owned mansions in the hills and the Pacific Ocean. Each morning, they arise at 6:30, get dressed and then leave quietly; they return only after dark — a routine born out of the fear that detection could mean the loss of even this humble dwelling. Daniel and his brothers have been sleeping in the garage for more than a year — members of what school officials and youth advocates say is a rapidly growing legion of homeless youth. While the problem may be worse in economically stricken regions like Southern California, where foreclosures and job losses are taking a harsh toll on families, anecdotal evidence suggests it is a growing issue nationally and one with serious ramifications for both a future generation and the overburdened public school system.

Research shows that the turmoil of homelessness often hinders children’s ability to socialize and learn. Many are plagued by hunger, exhaustion, abuse and insecurity. They have a hard time performing at grade level and are about 50 percent less likely to graduate from high school than their peers. “Homeless children are confronted daily by extremely stressful and traumatic experiences that have profound effects on their cognitive development and ability to learn,” said Ellen Bassuk, a Harvard Medical School psychiatry professor and president of the nonprofit National Center on Family Homelessness. “They tend to have high rates of developmental delays, learning difficulties and emotional problems as a product of precarious living situations and extreme poverty.” Mary Aguilar, Daniel’s mother, said she believes the family’s tenuous existence is largely responsible for her son’s struggles with his third-grade lessons.

“He’s depressed a lot,” she said of Daniel, whom she says has been the most affected of her sons by the loss of their home. “He does his work for class, but very slowly, like he’s thinking. He worries a lot about living like this.” Under federal law, schools are charged with keeping homeless students like Daniel from falling behind their peers academically. This can mean providing a wide range of services, including transportation, free lunches, immunizations and referrals to family services.. But with insufficient federal funding and budgets that are severely strained, many schools are struggling to meet the rising need. In Vista, Calif., about 35 miles north of San Diego, the population of homeless kids in the local school district reached 2,542 this year — about 9 percent of the student body and nearly 10 times the number just two years ago, said Rebecca Benner, the district’s homeless liaison.

“It’s like a tidal wave this school year,” she said. Benner’s role as homeless liaison — only part of her job providing student services — is now full time, as she scrambles to register homeless students for free lunches, arrange for transportation, provide P.E. uniforms, line up counseling and cover SAT fees. “It was supposed to be one small piece of my day,” she said. “… Now it’s almost insurmountable to get to the bottom of the phone messages.” Hard-to-get numbers – The number of homeless people in the U.S. is the subject of much debate and disagreement. An annual one-night count, performed by social service organizations and volunteers who then report to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, attempts to tally the number of people living on the street, in cars or makeshift tents and in emergency shelters.

The most recent survey — conducted in January 2008, before the full brunt of the recession hit — tallied 759,101 homeless Americans. Roughly 40 percent of them — or about 300,000 — were families with minor children, according to the survey. Advocates for the homeless say a more reliable picture of what is taking place comes through a separate count conducted in public schools, in which the definition of “homeless” is broader. Under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, “homeless” includes not just children who live on the streets, but “any individual who lacks a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.” In addition to those living in shelters or cars or sleeping on the street, that figure includes children whose families are doubled up with other families or living in trailers due to economic hardship, those who live in substandard housing and kids awaiting foster care placement.

In 2007-2008 — the last school year for which data is available — the nation’s 14,000 public school districts counted more than 780,000 homeless students, a 15 percent increase from the previous year. “I think that was the beginning of seeing the foreclosure crisis impact,” said Barbara Duffield, policy director of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. In a voluntary survey late last year by the association and another nonprofit, First Focus, 330 school districts reported that the number of homeless students appears to be far higher, said Duffield, co-author of a report on the survey published in December. She estimated that the number of homeless students is now close to 1 million — exceeding numbers in the period right after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

“It’s this year, 2008-2009, that the rug was pulled out from under many school districts,” she said. Stimulus package to boost funding – Federal funding for schools to provide services fo r homeless kids is allocated through McKinney-Vento, a 1987 law that was bolstered by the No Child Left Behind legislation of 2002. “Under McKinney-Vento, every district is required to have a liaison with the responsibility to identify homeless kids,” said Duffield. In addition to the staff, the school districts are responsible for providing a number of services, which can include everything from meals and clothing to athletic uniforms and educational field trips. One of the biggest costs in serving homeless kids is providing transportation to and from school, required even if the kids move out of the immediate area, she said.

The law included funding, but school districts must apply for grants to tap into it. Duffield estimated that only about 6 percent of the nation’s school districts received money through McKinney-Vento last year, though many more applied. This year, schools were slated to receive $64 million to aid homeless students under the act. The newly passed federal stimulus package will add $70 million more in funding. That will be a big help, Duffield said, while maintaining that the program “was woefully underfunded” even before the economic crisis pushed more people over the brink. Duffield is now combing through the rest of the $787 billion economic stimulus package to see if funding in other categories might be used to help homeless students.

For instance, the stimulus package includes $79 billion for a “State Fiscal Stabilization Fund” — about 80 percent of which is earmarked for K-12 education and is intended to offset state cuts in education funding. The stimulus also adds $13 billion for Title I, the biggest federally funded education program, for schools that have large concentrations of needy students. Under some interpretations, these funds cannot be used to pay for transportation or liaisons for homeless students. “(But) if the district identifies transportation, liaisons, social workers, gas cards, backpacks or shoes, they ought to be able to use their funds for that, because those are literally some of the needs,” Duffield said. “We’re looking for flexibility.”

Responses to the survey of school districts illustrate the variety of challenges that come with providing for homeless kids. The Wisconsin Rapids Public School District, which serves 5,700 students in the state’s rural heart, counted 160 homeless students, a 50 percent increase over two years ago.

“One of the biggest challenges is transportation,” Heather Lisitza, the school district’s homeless liaison, was quoted as saying in the report. “Our city has only one taxi cab service and no public bus system. Another challenge (is)… we … have long, cold winters, all students need proper outerwear to go outside — snow boots, hat, mittens, snow pants and a winter jacket that has a working zipper or buttons on it. This expense adds up quickly and it is hard to provide to the increasing number of homeless students.”

More families pushed over the edge – School districts also say they are seeing more students from middle-class, working-class and working-poor families being pushed into homelessness. Among them are Martin and Luz de la Rosa, who arrived one recent afternoon at the Ventura County (Calif.) Community Action Center, a facility that primarily serves chronically homeless men, for an appointment with a social worker. The de la Rosas explained that they were seeking government assistance for the first time because they and their eight children — ages 3 to 16 — were just days from being evicted from their apartment. Clutching a Bible, Luz de la Rosa said she lost her job at a small jewelry store as the recession kicked in. Then in November, her husband was laid off from the small Oxnard machine shop where he had been earning $19 an hour.
Martin said that left him with two untenable choices — continuing to collect unemployment benefits of $1,600 a month or taking a job at minimum wage, neither of which would cover rent for a home big enough for his family. The de la Rosas said they wouldn’t mind moving into a two-bedroom apartment, which is all they can afford here, but landlords won’t allow that many occupants. Social worker Delores Suarez said she would like to place them somewhere together, but at the moment, there is simply not enough emergency housing available. “They are probably going to end up split up among relatives” and attending different schools, she said. Other homeless parents said that some schools are either unaware of their obligations to help or aren’t eager to provide the required services because of budget constraints.

Next in Suarez’s appointment book was a 35-year-old woman named Sylvia, who declined to provide her last name. She said that after a divorce three years ago, she lost her home to foreclosure and then couldn’t keep up with rent when she was laid off from her job at a car parts factory. She and her three kids then moved in with a friend. “When the school found out we had moved (away from the neighborhood) … they wanted to remove the kids from school,” she said. Only after she met with district officials were they allowed to continue to attend, she said. Identifying the homeless – Compounding the problem of getting school districts to live up to their responsibilities is the fact that many homeless families are unwilling to acknowledge their living situation and therefore don’t receive services that could help them, said Susan Eberhart, principal of the Sheridan Way Elementary School in Ventura.

“People have to identify themselves as homeless (in order to get help), but that frequently doesn’t happen,” she said. “When the school found out we had moved (away from the neighborhood) … they wanted to remove the kids from school,” she said. Only after she met with district officials were they allowed to continue to attend, she said. Eberhart said she and her staff are accustomed to kids who are struggling at home — nearly all of the school’s 514 K-5 students are poor enough to qualify for free breakfast and20lunch. Although 86 of them were identified as homeless in the last survey, she guesses that, based on telltale signs, at least 100 meet the criteria.

“They have no place to keep stuff, so their backpacks are very full. Their clothes are not clean. They haven’t had a haircut, haven’t seen a dentist,” she said. “… Maybe a kid has asthma and is out of meds.” Eberhart said she is swamped by the scope of the problem. She no longer has the assistance of a county social worker who used to handle much of the load — a budget cut caused the county to eliminate that resource. Now she is urging people to ask for help — and prodding community organizations to help fill the gaps as she identifies them. “Some families are sort of floating, she said. “If we can get them to land, we can provide … continuity.” While the stigma of homelessness prevents some from acknowledging their plight, others have more immediate concerns, said Beth McCullough, homeless liaison for the Adrian Public Schools in economically battered southeast Michigan.

Families with children living in emergency shelters, pop-up campers, cars and tents can be charged with neglect by Child Protective Services workers, and there have been instances where parents have lost custody, she said. Fearing the loss of their kids, she said, “parents call in and say their kid won’t be in school because they are going to Disneyland for a week, when the fact is that (they) don’t have a way to get them to school. Or20parents will tell kids to lie about where they live.” Homework in pandemonium – For Mary Aguilar, the Oxnard woman living with her kids in the garage — which she rents for $150 a month from a cousin — the assistance her kids might receive at school is not worth the risk that other children will ridicule them if their living arrangement becomes known..

So she tries to help them stay on track, though it’s a daily struggle. Daniel recently missed several days of school because of yet another cold — a common ailment, his mother said, because the garage has been especially cold this winter. Normally she walks three of her sons to their elementary school, but some days heavy rains have kept them home. For now, the family has few prospects for better housing. The family became homeless after Aguilar’s boyfriend, father to the two youngest boys, left about a year and a half ago, and Aguilar could not pay rent. When an opportunity came to sign up for emergency housing five months ago, she lined up at the courthouse before dawn. For that, she got her name on a waiting list of about two years.

She has applied for jobs in stores and fast-food restaurants and come up empty-handed. She is exploring a work rehab program offered by the state. Meantime, the family gets by on about $1,300 a month in food stamps and cash aid — but no child support from the boys’ fathers. For now, the routine remains the same. After school, Aguilar and the six boys go to her20mother’s apartment, where her brother and sister also live. Aguilar’s family can’t stay overnight — that would put the others at risk of eviction — but it is a place to eat and for the boys to study.

But Daniel’s 11-year-old brother, Isaac, said he’s sometimes too distracted by the pandemonium of 10 people and the television to do his homework. “Then he tries to do it when we get back to the garage, but the light keeps everyone awake,” said Aguilar. Isaac has fallen behind a grade, and Aguilar’s eldest son, 17-year-old Joshua, is attending a remedial program for drop-outs. Aguilar is pleased that Daniel has so far been able to keep up with his grade level. Unaware of the tough odds he faces, Daniel says he plans to finish high school. Like other boys his age, he still has big dreams — of becoming a basketball star and working at something important someday. But first and foremost, he dreams of “a very beautiful house … with a room of my own.” The walls would be decorated, he said, “with posters, and pictures that I have drawn, and tests that I did in school.”

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