Don't ignore homeless

January 02, 2001|By J. Peter Sabonis

TO ME, THE battle between homeless advocates and Mayor Martin O'Malley over feeding the homeless in front of City Hall is about the message, not the meal. As a lawyer for the homeless for 14 years, I've participated in or orchestrated similar feedings. All were conducted as petitions to government for redress of a grievance.

Certainly, my direct service to the homeless has made me all too aware of their personal failings. But I also understand public policy that favors tourists over residents produces low-wage service jobs, demolishes rooming houses and other affordable housing and robs city coffers of money for substance abuse treatment and other services. In short, I've learned that homelessness is the combination of human frailty and misguided public policy.

Over the years, I've seen the city continue its wayward policy course then claim as its own the efforts of organizations funded with private, state or federal monies that ministered to the homeless left in the wake. Last week's announcement of $27 million in federal money is the latest example of that.

Yet, I didn't realize until I read historian Jo Ann Argersinger's account of Baltimore during the Great Depression, "Toward A New Deal in Baltimore," that the gatherings at City Hall continue a tradition of advocacy by and on behalf of the poorest of the poor. Sadly, I learned the city's indifference and antagonism toward the homeless also is traditional.

During the Great Depression, the unemployed overwhelmed the city's major private agencies and repeatedly marched to City Hall. City officials, however, distinguished the homeless unemployed as a dysfunctional group different from other destitute people. Amid an infusion of state-funded aid in the early 1930s, a city advisory group recommended that transients be "weeded out" and "anti-drifter" measures adopted.

When the federal Transient Division made funding available for homeless aid in 1933, Baltimore's response was slow, characterized by indifference, political infighting, anti-radicalism and racism.

Despite the lethargy, about 40,000 people applied for assistance with the city's Transient Bureau within two years. Shelters quickly overflowed and neighbors complained about the persistent presence of "loafers" and "Negroes." Near the seamen's shelter in East Baltimore, a group of local businessmen organized to have the "foul, insulting, and disgraceful" element removed from the area. Eventually, three camps and two farms were established outside the city for the homeless.

Federal cutbacks in 1935 prompted clashes between homeless protesters and police, with the latter warning that homeless people seeking assistance at police stations would be fingerprinted and searched. When the city refused to fill the gap left by the federal cuts, conditions became so bad that a federal survey placed Baltimore among the worst examples of local treatment of the homeless, noting that "hit-or-miss private aid is largely the rule." The crisis was abated through the job opportunities provided by World War II and the advent of federally subsidized housing in the 1940s.

When homelessness re-appeared in the 1980s, the city repeated its Depression-era lethargy, responding with less than $100,000 annually in direct aid while comparable cities spent millions. Again, hostility to the dispossessed was the dominant local spirit.

The city's first tax-benefit district, the Downtown Partnership, saw the homeless as a threat to tourism and quickly won passage of an anti-panhandling law. When the partnership's safety guides, in concert with the police, began moving the homeless from street corners in 1994, litigation ensued. While the police settled out of court, the partnership sought and found absolution from a conservative federal judge.

City funding for homeless services dropped to $43,000 in 1999, the end of a decade when responsibility was shifted from a cabinet-level agency to Housing Commissioner Daniel Henson. He railed against public housing preferences for the homeless until they were eliminated, then reduced its supply via demolition. Discontinuing wintertime policies that guaranteed transportation to and a place in a homeless, Mr. Henson then pushed a plan to segregate and isolate the homeless at an "urban campus" service site.

Now Mr. O'Malley brings a new twist to an old theme. Henceforth, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and comforting the afflicted cannot take place within sight of City Hall, but must be within sight of the city jail.

Certainly, the jail site is more symbolically consistent with Baltimore's historic attitude toward the homeless. But the City Hall site ensures that City Hall will be reminded frequently and visibly that public policy helped create the problem of homelessness, and public policy is the keystone to its solution.

That reminder was in evidence last week when the city announced it upped its homeless aid to $252,000.

J. Peter Sabonis is the executive director of the Homeless Persons Representation Project, a non-profit Baltimore organization that provides legal services to the homeless.

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