These past 15 months have highlighted structural injustices that have been too long accepted and perpetuated. Among them is the privilege of many to “isolate at home,” while others don’t even have a home. Data tell us what we’ve heard time and again: Black and brown communities experience higher rates of illness and death from COVID-19, limited access to vaccines, adverse treatment from law enforcement and little expectation that their government will acknowledge and equitably address their suffering.
It shouldn’t have taken more documented health disparities or a knee applying deadly pressure on a neck to identify the racism woven into our institutions, our systems, our policies and ourselves. As writer Ibram X. Kendi recently urged attendees at the 2021 National Health Care for the Homeless Conference and Policy Symposium: “If you do not challenge the status quo, you allow the status quo to persist. It’s no longer enough to be ‘not racist.’ We must be actively anti-racist.”
With as many as 200,000 renter households in the state at great risk of eviction and homelessness, we call upon Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration to recognize the humanity of Black and brown Marylanders with three immediate steps. These are among the actions that local coalitions and residents most affected by this pandemic (and every other major health crisis) are seeking.
First, Maryland must reverse its decision to discontinue supplemental unemployment assistance two months before the Federal program is set to end in early September. The cavalier response of this administration to the concern and fear of our neighbors facing the most severe outcomes of the pandemic should alarm us all, and we join community leaders in calling it out. These modest payments can mean the difference between stability and devastation. Let the emergency federal benefits run their full course.
Secondly, Maryland must enact a meaningful moratorium on eviction and foreclosure through the end of 2021. Federal and state half-measures of the past year haven’t stopped evictions outright. Hundreds, if not thousands, of evictions have been documented throughout the pandemic. And a true moratorium should not require people in dire circumstances to “prove” in a courtroom that they are adversely affected by COVID.
And finally, the administration must use Maryland’s considerable federal relief dollars to pay the back rent of low-income families facing eviction. Incremental expansion of cash eviction prevention programs helps, but ultimately tinkers around the edges of more fundamental realities. Even those who have benefited from court stays of eviction cannot magically produce cumulative payments when the rent comes due. And a grossly disproportionate percentage of those facing unpayable back rent are Black and brown. If we’ve learned anything from a pandemic it’s that we must take action to recognize housing not merely as a market commodity but as a fundamental human right.
We echo the voices of activists and community organizations in calling for Maryland to take these three steps immediately to prevent further harm. But we can’t stop there. Far more must done to expose and dig out the roots of racial inequity.
We are witnessing in real time how homelessness happens — and for whom. A return to “status quo” should not be an option; the status quo creates poverty and racial disparities. Instead, we must enact public policies that strengthen and support communities that suffer the greatest harms and burdens. This, at least in part, is what Dr. Kendi means when he says we must be “anti-racist.”
The problem we face isn’t homelessness itself — and certainly not the men, women and children experiencing or at risk of it — but the systems, budgets and public policies designed to produce it. We have the power and responsibility to prevent more trauma in the short term while promoting, and funding, equitable access to affordable housing, quality health care and livable incomes for us all.
Also contributing to this op-ed are: Baltimore City Councilman John T. Bullock; Lisa A. Cooper, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Equity and the Johns Hopkins Urban Health Institute; Letitia Dzirasa, Baltimore City Health Department commissioner; Susan Elias, executive director of Moveable Feast; Tara Huffman, director of the Criminal and Juvenile Justice Program within the Open Society Institute-Baltimore; Charisse Lue, a staff attorney with the Public Justice Center; Brandon M. Scott, mayor of Baltimore; and Randi Woods, senior director of Community Care Coordination at Sisters Together and Reaching, Inc. The contributors are among the panelists in a yearlong Community of Practice on Homelessness, exploring racial disparities in health care, housing, policing, food access and the fields of criminal and restorative justice throughout seven 90-minute sessions. Recordings and highlights are available at www.hchmd.org/community-practice-homelessness. Views expressed are those of the co-signers and not necessarily the organizations they represent.