Baltimore is in the midst of a decades-long national divestment from public housing. Over the past few years, the city has aggravated this crisis through policies that cut access to affordable, public housing. From privatizing public housing to forcing all applicants to be entered into a lottery to secure a spot on the waiting list, Baltimore is making life increasingly difficult for its vulnerable residents.
Most recently, the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, HABC, gave families on the public housing wait list mere weeks to register online or lose their place. The absurdity of requiring online registration for those struggling to meet basic needs appears to be lost on the department.
We are told these changes are done to preserve the assistance programs, yet they seem to function to decrease the perceived need for housing and create unnecessary stress for those struggling with the exorbitant cost of housing. Public housing, tenant-based Section 8 housing, project-based Section 8 housing, and Section 8 set-asides are all programs that provide low-income subsidized housing. Yet for each of these programs, there are different applications and required documentation, and different offices, employees and regulations. It takes an immense amount of time and energy to get on these waiting lists, and almost as much to maintain your place with these constant changes — especially if you are trying to navigate all of this while working, raising a family or experiencing homelessness.
With the resources that the Housing Authority has, they are spending their time privatizing public housing, creating hurdles for applicants and further pushing people into homelessness. There is no subtlety to the tragic irony of those who are behind these decisions. Paul Graziano is both the commissioner of the housing authority and the chair of the city's Journey Home Board, which is tasked with making homelessness in Baltimore "rare and brief." For Mr. Graziano, one job is creating a need for another. And for families in need across Baltimore, this gamesmanship is a gross abuse of a system that already creates and perpetuates poverty and does little to address our thousands of homeless residents.
Last fall, the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program wait list was opened for the first time since 2003. Over the course of nine days, 74,000 people applied for vouchers — in addition to the 25,000 people currently living in subsidized housing in Baltimore City. After a lottery selected the winners, nearly 50,000 people in Baltimore were denied access to even the wait list. Furthermore, of the 25,000 "lottery winners" now on the wait list, only 1 in 3 is expected to receive a voucher.
On Aug. 3, HABC sent the 38,000 people on the public housing wait list a letter stating that they must sign up for an online portal by Aug. 21,or they would be removed from the wait list. After creating panic and anxiety about this upcoming deadline, HABC was pushed to extend the deadline until Oct. 9. The underlying flaw with these purges is that they do not address or even ask why people are on a waiting list for almost a decade before receiving assistance, and what they are supposed to do while they wait.
People are not just falling through the cracks — they are being pushed through the cracks. This summer, the Mayor's Office of Homeless Services oversaw another "eviction" of an encampment along Martin Luther King Boulevard; belongings were destroyed, tents removed, and no one was given housing.
Our system degrades people for needing services, makes them jump through hoops to apply, lets them sit on the wait lists for years, and purges them if they are unable to keep up. This does little more than sell the false narrative that the only people struggling are those who are doing so visibly, in encampments or shelters, and not also the families that must choose between feeding their children or keeping the lights and the water on.
We must rid ourselves of the negative stereotypes about homelessness and individuals who receive subsidies and address the systemic causes of homelessness. When we acknowledge the structural issues with our housing systems, we will be forced to address the problem of affordable housing on the scale needed. Housing must be seen as a fundamental human right if the needs of our communities are ever to be a priority. We must begin to see real public investment in permanently affordable housing.
Katherine Cavanaugh is a member of Housing Our Neighbors, a Baltimore community group comprised of people experiencing homelessness, their allies and advocates. HON member Matt Quinlan also contributed to this article. They may be reached at email@example.com.