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A homeless family's struggle to access resources in Baltimore

Homeless young people can receive help obtaining ID cards from the MVA and information from lawyers at an event at the YES Drop-in Center. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun video)

I’ve spent yet another day making phone calls. Call after call after call. This was after I figured out that showing up in person is only a waste of time and gas and an exercise in extreme patience.

It’s to be expected that in any big city organizations that aim to help the less fortunate would be overwhelmed and their resources stretched thin. But the level of disorganization, incompetence and apathy that you’re subjected to when trying to utilize these resources here in Baltimore is shocking.

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My family and I are homeless and have been for some time now. Our close-knit unit consists of an angel of an 8-year-old girl; the most patiently attentive 21-year-old son you’d ever want to have; an almost too adorable, non-verbal autistic 4-year-old boy; and me — trying to hold us all together.

It’s harder than hard. Caring for a developmentally disabled child as a single parent is tough enough. Caring for a developmentally disabled child when you have a chronic physical disability yourself is nearly impossible. This is why our family unity is so important. My oldest son helps with all the physical aspects of my special little one’s daily routine that I struggle to do.

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Baltimore’s latest effort to get the most vulnerable families into permanent housing and off the streets, out of shelters and no longer couch surfing involves an obvious solution: Pairing them up with vacant apartments in the city’s public housing complexes.

My youngest son has severe meltdowns when he’s subjected to strange surroundings, something he’s had to endure a lot because of our instability. My older son is the only one who can pick him up and keep him from hurting himself when he throws himself on the floor in a fit of terror and confusion. These are real-life, everyday occurrences that trained, paid caseworkers do not take into consideration whenever I apply for assistance. As soon as it’s known that I have an adult child, the only option is to split us up, put us in separate shelters and cause further instability. To them, I’m just another case number, not a person who’s part of a family with unique needs. And most don’t even consider my son’s disability as a medical ailment at all, as if a safe and secure home shouldn’t be a priority for a child that can run away but cannot speak. And I can’t afford it on my own; I’ve tried. Safety and efficiency — and two bathrooms — in this city requires upward of $1,200 per month and having good credit. I have neither.

So I’m back to reaching out to various agencies and programs for help — all the ones that claim on their websites that they provide such services for people in my situation. And they do, just as long as you check off all the right boxes. Or know the right people. In my experience, the overflow of homeless services organizations and people in need in Baltimore, all shunted to the Mayor’s Office of Human Services, are causing a bottleneck effect where very few people are actually receiving services after navigating through the confusing maze of shuffled calls and appointments. Living under the pressure of homelessness is complicated enough; the city shouldn’t be making it harder for its most vulnerable residents.

If I could’ve known a car breaking down, leading to the loss of my part-time job, could cause me to spiral into this abyss with no foreseen way out in the near future, I would’ve thought twice about moving to a city like Baltimore, despite the riches it offers in the areas of autistic diagnosis, education, research and therapy. Even though my little one has made great strides in behavior and communication in the past two years, the cons of our living situation are starting to outweigh the pros in other aspects of life.

The mess at City Hall belies the fact that many Baltimoreans are moving full speed ahead to make this the Charm City of our imaginations. In the midst of darkness, that is a source of hope and a testament to resilience.

In a last ditch effort for financial stability and security, I’m dedicating myself to an intensive three-month IT training course. I have no idea how I’m going to work out school aftercare or transportation or study time, but something’s got to give. I have to try. At this point, I have nothing else to lose.

I hope that by the end of the year, I won’t be in need of the assistance that I can’t seem to obtain anyway. But I do hope the city performs of a complete overhaul of the way the system is structured, trains workers to be more empathetic and resourceful, and becomes more transparent and truthful about available services. It’s time to hold those in charge accountable and to make the necessary changes to be a voice for the voiceless.

Tonya L. Johnson (onmyway325@gmail.com) lives in Baltimore.

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