HERE'S AN idea that I think Jesus Christ, one of the nicest and most influential guys who ever lived, wouldn't mind me putting forth: Embrace the poor. If a poor family moves to a street near you, bake them a chicken pot pie, introduce yourself, offer to help if they should have a problem, tell them what days to put the trash out, that kind of thing. Do your little part to help end poverty in our midst.
My fellow Baltimoreans in the northeast side of town are having a tough time accepting the idea that the city would like to renovate 10 vacant houses and put poor families in them. Some see this as a bad thing - believing it will hurt property values and lead to an increase in crime. They're afraid, and I understand the fear.
But here's the thing. This is our city. Those of us who have stayed while thousands of others went suburban would like to see the old palatinate survive, maybe even thrive. For those of us who own property within the city limits, seeing Baltimore get past its drug-crime-poverty gridlock is in our best interests. It means our homes will keep their value - maybe even go up in value - because the city will become a desirable place to live for increasing numbers of people.
That's never going to happen if the core of the city remains a poverty-stricken mess. That's why I've delighted in seeing high-rise public housing units go down over the last five years. I'm glad someone - it happened to be the American Civil Liberties Union - said what everyone knew to be the truth: The concentration of the poorest Baltimoreans in federally subsidized ghettos had to end. Not only did it perpetuate the cycle of poverty through several generations of Americans, not only was it immoral, it was illegal.
So the courts ordered the breakup of the government-sanctioned ghettos.
It happened in Chicago several years ago, and guess what? Things got better. Thousands of mostly black welfare recipients moved to dozens of mostly white suburbs. Studies that tracked the families showed they succeeded at finding jobs and their kids did better in school - to a far greater extent than their counterparts who stayed in the city. The Chicago project has been held up as a model of the good that can come from the breakup of the ghetto and the embrace - or at least the acceptance - of the poor by the greater community.
Baltimore has a plan like Chicago's, worked out in federal court a few years ago between the ACLU and the city. It's a good plan, but its implementation has been slow. The city leadership, starting with the mayor, needs to stick to the plan. Martin O'Malley ought to be able to convince his constituents in Northeast Baltimore, where there's relatively little subsidized housing, that their communities can absorb 10 families at 10 scattered houses.
In fact, here and in the suburbs this could be presented as an opportunity for the better-off to do a small part - a very small part - to break the welfare cycle that so many of us supposedly have been so anxious to end.
Maybe Cardinal Keeler and other local religious leaders could get off the sidelines and put in a word for helping the poor improve their lives in this way.
There's been a lot of yelling and screaming about the city's plan to move some poor families to Northeast Baltimore.
But you know what I've learned from watching community groups from that part of town over the years? They yell a lot, and that's good. Not much gets by them.
So, as long as they remain involved and committed to their neighborhoods, as long as they remain vigilant, no family is going to be able to irreparably harm the lifestyles of the people of Hamilton, Lauraville, Beverly Hills or any northeast neighborhood. In fact, studies show - and common sense tells you - that the middle-class lifestyle of maintaining a job and a home, and watching out for the 'hood, rubs off. With a little help, the poorest families can conform to new community standards and even thrive in them.
"The whole idea of deconcentrating poverty is to help lower-income people benefit from stable neighborhoods," says Corry Royer, a resident of the area. "People need to be accepted - or at least not opposed - by their new communities to benefit from them. The silent majority of us in Northeast Baltimore would welcome more economic and racial diversity in our neighborhoods if it's done in cooperation with our community associations and elected ... leaders."
Michael Bardoff, who lives in Lauraville, thinks "good-neighbor councils" could be established to make sure that Northeast Baltimore's neighborhoods are protected from deterioration and remain clean and safe. He and another community activist, Richard Ochs, proposed this idea to city Housing Commissioner Patricia Payne last week, but with all the shouting it lacked a real airing.