Standing in the center of downtown Baltimore's economic hub, amid blocks of hotels that house tourists, about 100 advocates called Saturday for adequate and affordable housing that they say has been unjustly denied to the homeless.
Chants of "housing is a human right" rang through the Inner Harbor's McKeldin Square, as demonstrators kicked off the fifth-annual "Sleep Out for Housing Justice." The event was organized by the advocacy group Housing our Neighbors.
The organization brought together current and former homeless people, advocates and supporters for the event that included a march to City Hall where they planned to have a community meal, a public forum, and eventually camp out for the night.
For some in attendance, the memory of what it was like to bundle up on the streets of Baltimore was fresh.
"A bench is not a bed, and no one deserves to be sleeping on them or in the streets in the cold weather," said Sidney Bond, a city resident and Housing Our Neighbors organizer.
From 2009 to 2011, the former security guard faced homelessness after he got sick, lost his job and "in a blink of an eye, I lost everything." Now that he's secured housing, he vowed that he would continue to fight for those who face what he did.
"People who need housing in this city are more important to me than anything," Bond said. "Instead of spending money on things that aren't necessary, like the Grand Prix or more hotels, they can take money and spend it on people who need help."
The group chose Baltimore's Inner Harbor for the event to put the needs of the city's disadvantaged on display, said Mark Schumann, spokesman for Housing Our Neighbors.
"We want to show that Baltimore is not as it appears at the harbor—it's not all wealth and happiness," said Shumann, who was homeless for three years while on a waiting list for public housing.
He said that too often the realities of the city's homeless population are hidden. For instance, the homeless count is usually low because it doesn't include people like him, who chose to sleep in abandoned buildings rather than shelters.
Now, he has a small house – and his most prized possession, his cat — that he believes everyone should have the chance to experience.
"One of the blessings of moving into my house was having a living creature who loves me unconditionally," he said. "A lot of people just need that."
Housing our Neighbors estimates that more than 4,000 people experience homelessness in the city on any given night. The group said the city continues to make decisions that make affordable housing harder to access. Members highlighted the city's plan to spend $22 million to demolish vacant homes in the next two-and-a half years, while more than 30,000 people are on waiting lists for public housing.
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City officials have said they have been working to provide services and housing for the disadvantaged as part of the mayor's 10-year plan to end homelessness.
Matt Quinlan, a student at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, said that he supported the sleep-out because housing "is not a human right in the city right now."
"We give [developers] handouts, when my friends and colleagues are in shelters," even though they're working, Quinlan said. "Until there's a shift in thinking, nothing's going to change."
In an email Sunday, spokeswoman Caron A. Brace said Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake agrees more has to be done, "which is why the mayor has been steadfast in working to assign hundreds of housing vouchers, streamlining efforts to assist families facing eviction so they don't end up on the street, and coordinating with our community providers to provide emergency sheltering services, particularly as temperatures are getting colder.
"We have to both provide services to those in need and make smart investments to support jobs, economic growth and stable communities," Brace wrote.