Leave Baltimore's homeless encampments alone

In his Nobel lecture, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. decried our tendency to make poverty invisible and exhorted us to expose injustice in order to heal it. In 2011, Baltimore City destroyed an encampment on the King parade route so that marchers would not see our most impoverished neighbors. And this year, on Jan. 12th — days before King’s birthday — city officials again demonstrated that their values and policies are the antithesis of King’s, announcing the destruction of new communities created by folks who cannot find housing, again making poverty invisible.

Destroying encampments is not an effective method of dealing with homelessness. As the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness stated definitively in 2015, "The forced dispersal of people from encampment settings is not an appropriate solution or strategy, accomplishes nothing toward the goal of linking people to permanent housing opportunities, and can make it more difficult to provide such lasting solutions to people who have been sleeping and living in the encampment.”

Indeed the Mayor’s Workgroup on Homelessness reported in October that “[F]orcibly closing encampments further traumatizes vulnerable persons. Improperly engaging individuals and failing to support them in moving toward permanent housing is likely to result in the encampment returning or moving to a new location.” Why then would the mayor reject her workgroup’s recommendation and undertake an action doomed to failure?

In Baltimore there are 38 affordable housing units available to every 100 impoverished families. Consequently, 150,000 eviction notices are filed annually and thousands of our neighbors — generally those with the lowest incomes — can find no housing whatsoever. At best, 2,928 shelter beds are available for no fewer than 15,000 people who experience homelessness each year.

Some of the thousands of folks without housing find safety, security and warmth by establishing makeshift communities. Residents of these “tent cities” generally report that the inhabitants look out for each other, sharing resources and information. Community members provide each other with support and security where little of either exists.

Many people living in tent cities feel safer there than they do in emergency shelters because they can better tailor their environment to meet their needs. Negative experiences with emergency shelter are common, and tent dwellers are exchanging the comforts of modern life (such as running water and heat) for a community experience that provides a feeling of safety and security. Clearly, destroying these communities without providing permanent, affordable housing for each resident merely makes the lives of the community members immeasurably more difficult.

The only benefit of encampment destruction is to temporarily ease the anxiety of those privileged to have a real home. The sight of our neighbors living in tents or cardboard boxes troubles most of us — as it should. And as King observed in 1964, “just as nonviolence exposed the ugliness of racial injustice, so must the infection and sickness of poverty be exposed and healed — not only its symptoms but its basic causes.”

We urge the city to heed King’s exhortation. Rather than banishing homeless folks from our sight, let us respond in an effective — not to mention humane — manner to our vulnerable neighbors. Leave encampments alone; focus on developing affordable housing in Baltimore. That is a legacy of which King would be proud.

Lauren Siegel (lauren.siegel@ssw.umaryland.edu)and Jeff Singer (jeff.singer@ssw.umaryland.edu) are adjunct instructors at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, teaching social policy and community organizing. Both have served as homeless outreach workers since the 1980s.

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