Baltimore's homeless: out of sight, out of mind?

Baltimore thinks hiding the homeless solves the problem.

On a recent morning, the city of Baltimore once again tried to shut the poor out of our minds and drive them from the mainstream of our society — in this case, from the verge of Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, where homeless folks were taking refuge from the elements and finding comfort in a small community.

City employees from the police, public works and law departments and from the Mayor's Office of Human Services spent thousands of dollars to discard the tents and meager belongings of folks with nowhere else to go. Some of these individuals had been making progress with outreach workers; now they are dispersed to points unknown — permitting the city to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Ignoring the stricture of Santayana about the penalty of not learning from the past, the city makes the same mistake repeatedly. People experiencing homelessness, driven from affordable housing by decades of destructive market forces and ill-conceived public policies, are forced to create their own accommodations. Homeless service providers and advocates conduct outreach to these sites until the people with power decide that daily reminders of injustice are not good for commerce or civic morale.

Then the city employees are mobilized to move the people and their belongings. As there is no unused emergency shelter capacity and certainly no available permanent housing, the people are scattered and their belongings (including IDs, medication and personal effects) are discarded, along with any progress that the individuals have made toward ending their homelessness.

In the most recent incident, the outreach worker for one encampment dweller who has waited six months for subsidized housing won't know where to find him. Another resident, a veteran, is unlikely to be able to connect with the VA staff that has promised housing. These situations are repeated whenever the city destroys communities, dashing the hopes of caseworkers and their clients.

I visited the encampment hours before police and public works employees. Despite the empty rhetoric of the mayor's staff about accommodations for those being displaced, most of the residents had no idea where they would go once their community was torn apart and the land was "secured" behind a fence. The sense of despair was palpable.

Destroying encampments is the futile and desperate act of a city that will not move beyond its fealty to the wealthy and powerful. This is evident in the subsidies provided to rich developers while thousands sleep on the street, in the practice of shutting off water to ordinary residents while the debts of large commercial concerns mount, in the refusal to enforce inclusionary housing rules that would temper the profits of builders to secure homes for our impoverished neighbors, in the closure of recreation centers while Grand Prix racers received new roads.

In recognition that the fundamental cause of homelessness is the lack of affordable housing, the city's plan to end homelessness asserts, "Baltimore will create a supply of housing sufficient to rapidly re-house homeless individuals and families." That housing is nowhere in sight — since 1992, the supply of public housing has declined by 46 percent (from 18,393 units in 1992 to 9,940 units in 2015) and the gap in housing has grown to only 43 units for every 100 extremely low-income households. To address the housing needs of the 31,252 poorest households for whom no affordable housing is available, the city plans to create 892 additional units of affordable housing by 2020. At this rate, Baltimore will end homelessness in the year 2190.

The mayor recently instructed us, "You know, a child can point out a problem, but that child can't fix it. You need leadership and partnership to fix it, and that's what we're about." Destroying encampments is akin to pointing out a problem; it reminds one of the peek-a-boo game we play with babies who think we have disappeared when we cover their eyes. Creating housing for our neighbors is more like a solution. How long must we wait for that leadership?

Jeff Singer is an adjunct instructor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work; his email is jsinger@ssw.umaryland.edu.

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