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Overcoming Baltimore's indifference to homelessness

Several homeless advocate sit in the middle of the southbound lanes of Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard to protest the closing of a homeless encampment. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun)

It's likely that some in Baltimore heard that a homeless man died from the cold this month, just steps from City Hall, but I imagine few know his name was Lawrence Alexander. In addition to the 29-degree weather, the city's preference to aid businesspeople over poor people, the patchwork of homeless service providers who are too busy securing grants to focus on their clients, and the indifference of most Baltimorean's to the plight of marginalized people killed Mr. Alexander.

This indifference can be seen on street corners throughout Baltimore. The same day Mr. Alexander died, I ran into a man in Federal Hill asking for money to help obtain a bed in one of the local fee-for-service homeless shelters. He told me "everyone wants to get rid of homelessness by killing us." In seeing the number of people who refused to even turn their head when he asked for assistance, I think he might be right. I understand people have their own reasons as to why they cannot and/or choose not to give money to people asking them for help on the street; however, people's refusal to even acknowledge the presence of these individuals is a denial of our shared humanity. I did not know Lawrence Alexander, but I am sure many people walked by without seeing him before he died.

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Citizen indifference toward people experiencing homelessness appears to have caused government indifference. For example, Baltimore does not declare a "Code Blue," which triggers an emergency response to shelter those without homes, unless the temperature is expected to drop to 13 degrees or lower, factoring in the wind chill. The fact that the city is comfortable with not investing extra resources to ensure no one is stuck in 14-degree weather shows that officials realize there is not a strong public interest in protecting homeless individuals from hypothermia.

Recently, the former Rawlings-Blake administration tried to further absolve the city of its moral responsibility to people experiencing homelessness by attempting to privatize the management of homeless services in Baltimore. Under the plan, which was voted down by homeless service providers last month according to Baltimore Brew, a private contractor would have taken over the city's role in administering federal funds and overseeing the city's network of homeless services. This is the government equivalent of ignoring someone asking for help on the street.

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Like many privatization efforts, the plan was presented as a way to reduce costs and increase efficiency. However, I work in a large nonprofit social service agency, and I can assure you it is extremely bureaucratic and often inefficient. Privatization will not solve the many issues present in the city's response to homelessness; it will only shift accountability for them. Through privatization, the city may feel free of its moral responsibility to help homeless people in the same way many of us absolve ourselves for ignoring a person in need by saying "they would just use my money for drugs." But they're hollow excuses. When a person dies from homelessness, the fault lies with all of us.

While this privatization effort failed, there is nothing preventing the new mayoral administration from pursuing a similar plan in the future. Catherine Pugh appears to have a close relationship with United Way's Vice President, Chuck Tildon, and included him on her transition team. United Way expressed strong interest in securing the $28 million homeless services contract, and it's possible that the relationship between Ms. Pugh and Mr. Tildon could result in a renewed push for privatization. Additionally, the letter that Ms. Pugh gave to President-elect Donald Trump called on him to, among other things, support Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank's Port Covington project with no mention of the city's affordable housing crisis or homeless population.

In her Election Day victory speech, Ms. Pugh noted that "we have 3,000 homeless people across our city and not only is that a problem for them, it's a problem for you." I was encouraged to see our new mayor embrace the idea that we have a collective responsibility for marginalized people in our city. I hope she keeps this in mind and commits her administration to ending homelessness. I also hope that all Baltimoreans realize that we have a duty to offer a helping hand to each other and demand that the city does its part. It is only through collective action that we can ensure that no one freezes to death while we pass them on the street.

Scott Tiffin is a social work student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore; his email is stiffin@umaryland.edu.

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