Is this how we end homelessness?

Advocate questions city's commitment after activists are removed from park

November 28, 2011|By Lisa Klingenmaier

On the evening of Nov. 19, Baltimore City authorities took swift and decisive action on the persistent issue of homelessness. Unfortunately, the action they took was not designed to improve the lives of Baltimoreans who experience homelessness. Instead, it was directed against 300 students and advocates who had gathered at War Memorial Plaza to spend the night outside in solidarity with those who go without reliable shelter. The second annual sleep-out — "A Bench is Not a Bed" — was the culminating activity of National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week.

We hoped to stimulate a citywide dialogue about how a community can work together to end homelessness and to demonstrate our ongoing commitment after the symbolic events of the week had concluded. Students distributed blankets and food to approximately 50 people who joined us for the night — folks with no other place to go.

Our student organizing group obtained a permit to use War Memorial Plaza for an event from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. We sought an overnight permit for the space, which was denied. We believed the authorities would condone the activities of "A Bench is Not a Bed," given that they did so during two prior sleep-outs held without overnight permits, one at the Inner Harbor in 2010 and one at War Memorial Plaza in 2007. Unfortunately, we were mistaken. A few minutes past 9 p.m., eight police officers used threatening language, telling attendees they "must leave," were "moving too slow" and would be "black-balled" by the city on any future permit requests if they did not vacate the area immediately.

The forceful removal of 300 students and advocates conducting a homelessness awareness activity is ironic, given the city's commitment in "The Journey Home," a plan to end homelessness in 10 years. Currently, according to the most recent homeless census, more than 4,000 people experience homelessness on any given night in Baltimore City. Yet, our community wouldn't permit 300 peaceful demonstrators to sleep outside in solidarity with them. Earlier this month, officials spared no expense in an elaborate fundraiser for "The Journey Home" plan. But last Saturday night's action brings into question the city's commitment both to that "journey" and to the participation of other voices in the process. While the city did not hesitate to use scarce resources to displace a peaceful gathering about homelessness, it took months to arrange an overflow plan for women sleeping outside of the city shelter because of insufficient capacity.

Homelessness is primarily caused by deliberate social and economic policy decisions made over the past 30 years that undermine people's ability to obtain life's basic necessities. A full-time, minimum wage worker cannot afford a two-bedroom apartment most places in the United States, and federal funding for low-income housing has decreased 58 percent since 1978, in constant dollars. There are tens of thousands of abandoned houses in Baltimore, but the city's waiting list for Section 8 housing has been closed for many years. People line up outside of health clinics and crowd hospital emergency rooms because it's the only way they can get medical care for health problems largely attributed to their homelessness.

Some believe that homelessness is the result of an individual's choice. Tell that to more than 1,000 children in Baltimore who experience homelessness nightly.

However, as speakers pointed out to the crowd at "A Bench is Not a Bed," homelessness is not a complicated problem to solve. We need to increase affordable housing options in Baltimore City and rapidly house all individuals experiencing homelessness. Once individuals are housed, as a speaker who experienced homelessness told the crowd at the sleep-out, "everything becomes possible." Employment, engagement in medical, mental health and addiction treatment, family stability — all are possible, and increasingly likely, after someone is permanently housed.

Affordable housing, combined with public policies around livable wages and universal access to health care, is the solution to homelessness. These goals are featured prominently in Baltimore's plan to end homelessness, and "A Bench is Not a Bed" was organized to foster compassionate conversations on these important issues.

The front page of "The Journey Home" website strongly asks "people in the community to do their part." However, the way city officials (through the police force) responded to our presence sends the message that the city does not welcome the help of students, advocates and people affected by homelessness. These important voices could have been used to advance the goals in Baltimore's laudable plan. Instead, our voices were silenced. We remain eager to participate in the essential work necessary to end homelessness.

Lisa Klingenmaier is student pursuing master's degrees in social work and public health at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. Her email is

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