ACLU Begins Action Against Baltimore Homeless Services’ Sexism

ACLU Begins Action Against Baltimore Homeless Services’ Sexism

On Monday October 24th, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maryland and the Homeless Persons Representation Project (HPRP) sent a letter to Baltimore Mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, demanding intervention in the discriminatory and illegal denial of overflow shelter beds to homeless women at the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Housing and Resource Center. Currently, only homeless men are provided with additional beds at another location once the 250-bed shelter is full. The letter also details reports of threats by shelter staff to blacklist female clients who attempt to obtain legal help.

The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Housing and Resource Center (HRC) is a year-round 24-hour emergency shelter that was opened in July to replace the 350-bed shelter on Guilford Avenue, dubbed Code Blue. The HRC has 175 beds for men and 75 beds for women—this is a significant reduction for women who had 175 beds previously allotted to them at the Code Blue shelter. Despite a 20% increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness, according to the City's official homeless census, a decision was made that there be 100 less beds for women than the old shelter. Because of the smaller capacity at the HRC, the City repeatedly promised that the transition to the new shelter would not take place until there was an overflow plan in place to bus clients to a back-up location when the shelter beds were full. Three months after opening, however, women are being turned away each evening while men are provided with an over-flow plan—100 beds at the old Code Blue shelter on Guilford Avenue.

“The City’s refusal to provide overflow shelter to women is shocking.”

In an October 25th join press release by the ACLU and HPRP, attorney Carolyn Johnson said, “Homeless women who live on the streets are particularly vulnerable to victimization, including physical and sexual assault. The City’s refusal to provide overflow shelter to women is shocking.”

The letter to Mayor Rawlings-Blake states that “Women are not permitted at the overflow shelter, no overflow beds have been provided by Homeless Services for women at any other location, and no assistance is being offered by the City to the women turned away from the Center.” The situation continues despite repeated complaints by providers and advocates, as well as a letter sent to the Mayor three weeks ago by the Stop Homelessness and Reduce Poverty Coalition (SHARP).

“Homeless women on the streets are particularly vulnerable to victimization, including physical and sexual assault.”

The authors of this letter provide scholarly support for their concerns over women’s safety when there is a lack of access to safer shelter. They point to the fact that incidences of physical and sexual assault are higher among homeless women than the female population at large. In light of this knowledge, safety-net services for women—including emergency shelters—become a matter of violence prevention. Additionally, they note that many coping mechanisms for dealing with previous trauma (like alcohol and other drug use) put women at further risk for future violence and continued housing instability. This can create a cyclical difficulty for women who are healing from violence.

This situation has rallied consistent attention from the SHARP coalition, many of whom provide services to homeless women and survivors of sexual violence. Citing specific examples in their recent letter to Mayor Rawlings-Blake, the SHARP Coalition authors note how the lack of shelter and an over-flow plan for women has impacted their clients’ safety and health. Additionally, SHARP coalition members have noticed an increase in calls from homeless women who, as of the July opening and transition to the HRC, have less access to emergency shelter.

“The current situation cries out for intervention: Not only is the City placing vulnerable homeless women at risk of great danger by excluding them from the overflow shelter, it is acting in blatant disregard of the state and federal constitutions.”

The letter details the unlawful policy and behavior of Baltimore City’s Homeless Services as well as Jobs, Housing, Recovery (JHR)—the non-profit contractor who operates the shelter under the supervision of the City. The ACLU and HPRP argue that when the City offers a service to men and not to women, they violate the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution and the Maryland State Equal Rights Amendment—both of which have been held up by decades of legal precedent.

Additionally, the letter alleges that staff members of JHR have threatened and harassed homeless women who have filed complaints or who seek legal action and advice. The ACLU and HPRP have asked that the retaliation and harassment of their clients, and countless other women seeking shelter at the center, cease immediately. Their clients and others have been threatened with ejection from the shelter and being “blacklisted” form further use of the center’s services if they speak with lawyers or continue with their legal complaints.

One can only wonder how Baltimore Homeless Service’s mission agrees with their actions. Their website states that this City office works towards making homelessness “brief and rare,” yet they have refused to address their organizational inadequacies—forcing countless women seeking shelter out into the night to fend for themselves where they are disproportionately likely to face violence.

“Despite the urgent need our clients face, the City has taken no action to remedy the situation.”

The letter is addressed to the Mayor of Baltimore City, who is being asked to intervene in light of previous inaction, and the continual coercion and mistreatment of women who have stood up for their rights. The ACLU and HPRP are willing to forgo litigation if a settlement can be reached—citing the need for a timely solution. Each day that goes by while the City waits to address this problem, Baltimore residents face significant consequences for the City’s negligence. Aware of this fact and the approaching cold weather, these lawyers are giving the City yet another chance to do the right thing for its residents. They have cited Friday October 28th as their deadline for a response, before they are forced to proceed with legal action.

Baltimore Homeless Services did not return our call asking for comment.

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See also our coverage of this issue from September: New Shelter Still Lacks Overflow Plan for Women

Link to the joint letter to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake: http://www.aclu-md.org/aPress/Press2011/letter_shelter.pdf

Link to the joint Press Release: http://www.aclu-md.org/aPress/Press2011/102511_homeless_women.html

To contact the Mayor:
          On the web: http://www.baltimorecity.gov/OfficeoftheMayor/ContactTheMayor.aspx
          Telephone: (410) 396-4900
          Postal Mail: Office of the Mayor, City of Baltimore
                             100 North Holliday Street
                             Baltimore, MD 21202

To contact Baltimore City’s Human Services/Homeless Services:
          Tomasina Hiers, Director of Baltimore Human Services
                      E-mail: thomasina.hiers@baltimorecity.gov
                      Phone: (410) 396-7370
          Kate Briddell, Director of Baltimore Homeless Services
                      E-mail: katherine.briddell@baltimorecity.gov
                      Phone: (410) 396-3757