One year ago, local activist group Housing Our Neighbors stood with the 14 residents of a tent city in the heart of downtown Baltimore and watched as a city bulldozer demolished tents that had housed people for years. The Mayor's Office of Human Services branded the eviction as, "an effort to push the homeless to get their lives back on track," conveying no understanding of homelessness.
This approach to homelessness and tent cities is both misguided and ineffective. We know what works to end this crisis: a model called "housing first," coupled with policies that increase the supply of affordable housing, health care, jobs and livable wages. The housing first model secures permanent housing as quickly as possible and provides supportive services once a person is housed. The rates of success for individuals transitioning out of homelessness are much higher with this model — and it costs the public less. Today, if you drive by the site of Camp 83 along the Fallsway, you will see that it has been re-occupied. Why? Because homelessness cannot be resolved with bulldozers and wire fences.
At the time of the Camp 83 demolition, Baltimore City had just given $1 million to the Hilton hotel pay off its debts; shortly after, our city closed almost 20 rec centers in poor neighborhoods while giving millions of dollars in subsidies to the developers of Harbor Point. What are our priorities? Prioritizing corporations over the needs of everyday Baltimoreans? Instead of public funds going to wealthy developers, we ought to prioritize funding for the necessities of life: housing, health care and nutrition.
The Housing Authority of Baltimore City is now turning to private developers to sell off 22 of our public housing complexes, which account for more than 4,000 affordable units . Baltimore has seen a 37 percent reduction in public housing units since 1992. Compare this to the over 30,000 people on housing wait lists in our city and we see a need that vastly exceeds demand. We've seen the private market fail us before through its mishandling of pensions, schools and prisons. So, the potential for losing 4,000 more housing units is terrifying, particularly as the residents of these units are almost exclusively seniors and people with disabilities. Why should we let private companies make a profit on our tax dollars? It just doesn't make sense.
We will see more encampments like Camp 83 if we sell our public housing resources. In 2012, for every 100 extremely low-income households, there were only 43 housing units available in our city. By diverting resources toward private development, we are compounding the lack of affordable housing that already drives thousands of people to the streets of Baltimore each night. The privatization of our public goods honors private profits over people's needs and signals the eventual loss of resources that should be afforded to us.
Housing insecurity is not exclusive to a small group of people. It is experienced by senior citizens, veterans, children and others who, on the merit of their humanity alone, deserve to be sleeping in a house that is safe, secure, and dignified. When we bulldoze encampments and sell off our public housing, we are showing a blatant disregard for that humanity.
Our public officials should know that homelessness will end only through a financial commitment to permanent, affordable housing. Studies show the costs of managing homelessness are greater than the cost of ending it through proven solutions like the housing first model. With over 40,000 vacant homes in the city, there is no discernible reason we should have so many tent communities and overflowing shelters. We have the resources to end homelessness in Baltimore, and we must begin to think creatively about affordable housing solutions that look outside the market — including community land trusts and a robust shared-equity housing stock.
Housing Our Neighbors demands fair development and policies that establish the human right to housing. We can end homelessness with a commitment by the city to ensuring a sufficient supply of permanent, affordable housing.
Matt Quinlan is a volunteer organizer with Housing Our Neighbors, a community-led advocacy group fighting to end homelessness in Baltimore. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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