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City homeless can't just be swept away

The city has decided to clear a homeless encampment on Guilford Avenue at the end of January. City officials plan to offer dormitory style housing to those living in tents. (Baltimore Sun video)

Here’s a pitiful tale of titles: “Where do you go from nowhere?” That’s the unvarnished title of the first and only statewide study of homelessness in Maryland based on survey data gathered from every county and hearings held around the state throughout 1984 and printed along with 64 recommendations in l985. Other titles randomly selected: “No journey home,” a Baltimore Sun 2014 editorial detailing yet another attempt to clean up a tent city under the Jones Falls Expressway and “Will we end homelessness?” which was a Sun editorial from last October about the $350 million Mayor Catherine Pugh had pledged to raise in order to significantly reduce homelessness. Then there is “Clearing out Baltimore’s homeless — again” (Jan. 18), the recent Sun editorial soberly warning of the inevitable damage created by the repeated dismantling and removal of homeless encampments. It also reminds readers of the complexities involved in effectively and humanely addressing the problem of chronic street homelessness in the severely under-resourced and over-taxed public and private sectors charged with this responsibility.

Of course, this is also a tale of unremitting dedication and persistence in the face of drastic retrenchment in federal, state and local funding for low-income housing and community development over the past 30 years. This cannot be stressed too strongly. Also, the attention now finally being paid to many of the critical systemic failures contributing to the ever growing numbers of families and individuals in our city being swept inexorably into poverty, offers hope.

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However, there are ironies in this dawning recognition which must not be ignored. For instance, salutary as it is, the $350 million pledged by Mayor Pugh to end homelessness seems somewhat implausible given that among the many issues pertaining to the severe lack of affordable rentals in the city, the Affordable Housing Trust Fund remains unfunded. It was established in Baltimore over a year ago by the work of thousands of Baltimore citizens concerned about the increasing lack of affordable housing in the city who collected close to 20,000 signatures in order to successfully get this issue on the ballot in November 2016.

It is ironic that the steady growth of temporary sheltering initiatives in the city over the past three decades has thrown the sharpest light on the corrosive impact on human resilience that the conditions of poverty exact. Those who provide services to the homeless in shelters know firsthand and every day the array of critically needed supports, both emotional and practical, required for individuals or families to exit the widespread poverty and neglect found in so many of the city’s communities. In light of this, it is further ironic that at the very time the Obama administration’s HUD funding finally shifted its emphasis to permanent rather than temporary solutions to homelessness — something that many of us advocated since the early 1980’s — homeless providers are now faced with an astonishingly ignorant HUD leader. Secretary Ben Carson has uttered statements worthy of the Gilded Age such as “poverty to a large extent is a state of mind.” More importantly and frighteningly, he is proposing to cut $6 billion from an already severely diminished HUD budget, entailing serious cuts to homeless services.

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We have seen and heard recently many worthy exhortations to “change the narrative” regarding Baltimore and its fate as a thriving city (“To change Baltimore, change the narrative,” Jan. 17). Rather than changing the narrative, now more than ever is a time when we as citizens must hold ourselves and out publicly-elected officials to account as we undertake the exacting work to better understand and change the systems that create poverty and homelessness in our communities.

Jane Harrison, Baltimore

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