City Council Hearing Investigates Allegations of Gender Discrimination at New Shelter

City Council Hearing Investigates Allegations of Gender Discrimination at New Shelter

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Members of the Baltimore City Council held an investigative hearing yesterday regarding allegations of gender discrimination and intimidation at the new City-funded homeless shelter, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Housing and Resource Center (HRC). The hearing comes just ten days after City police forcefully removed over 300 students and advocates from staging an overnight “sleep-out” in front of City Hall to raise awareness about homelessness, despite being allowed to do so in previous years.

The hearing was organized in response to a joint press release on October 25th by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maryland and the Homeless Persons Representation Project (HPRP), in which they accused the City of violating equal rights protections afforded by both the US and Maryland State constitutions. The allegations stem from the City's four month-long policy of providing overflow beds only for homeless men when the HRC's 250 beds are filled to capacity.

In addition to concerns about overflow policies, the ACLU and HPRP also reported allegations by female clients that HRC shelter staff intimidated them and threatened to blacklist them from the shelter if they sought legal council and spoke to “the lawyers” about their concerns.

After almost four months of inaction by the City regarding an overflow plan for women, the ACLU and HPRP threatened litigation against the City for gender discrimination if the issues were not resolved quickly. After representatives of the City met with the ACLU and HPRP in response to the press release, the City announced that a 20-bed overflow plan for women would be implemented beginning on November 1st.

Advocates say the ad-hoc overflow plan remains “inadequate” for the cold winter months ahead, but agreed to the City's request to withhold litigation for 30 days. Since the 30-day period expired this past weekend, it is unclear whether the ACLU and HPRP will continue with litigation.

Pointing out that there have only been up to 15 women utilizing the overflow beds since November 1st, City Solicitor George Nilson testified that the current overflow plan for women is adequate. Nilson said that more measurements of the demand for emergency shelter and the number of women being turned away is needed before any changes should be made to the overflow policy.

Sonia Kumar of the ACLU said this kind of data has historically been inaccurate and flawed. Carolyn Johnson of HPRP testified that basing the overflow policy on turn-away data from November is inadequate to predict the number of women who will be seeking emergency shelter in the cold months of January and February.

City and JHR Repudiate Allegations

Testimony by representatives of Baltimore Homeless Services and Jobs, Housing and Recovery (JHR), the non-profit that runs the shelter, amounted to a emphatic denial of any wrongdoing. Linda Trotter of JHR said that the press release by the ACLU and HPRP “was not factual in any way”.

Trotter also refuted allegations of intimidation and coercion by staff members. She claimed such allegations resulted from an incident in which a woman stepped out of line outside the shelter in order to speak to an unidentified person who turned out to be a lawyer from the HPRP. Trotter claimed a staff member told the woman that she would forfeit her bed by stepping out of line, and that allegations of coercion or threats of blacklisting are unfounded.

Trotter made no mention of whether the woman was allowed back in line or offered any services.

According to testimony by one woman from Bmore Housing For All, an advocacy organization of currently and formerly homeless individuals and their allies, several homeless women who were invited to testify at the hearing refused for fear of retaliation by JHR staff that would be present.

Another woman, also from Bmore Housing For All, told her story of sleeping outside the HRC for two weeks after being turned away time after time when the shelter was full. She eventually gave up trying to get a bed at the shelter and decided to stay at Occupy Baltimore, which she said was “very accommodating”.

The woman also testified that she was assaulted at one point when she was sleeping on the streets, pointing to the dangers women face when they are unable to find adequate shelter. Even in such circumstances, she said, many women do not bother trying to get a bed at the HRC, since previous experience has taught them that they will not get in.

Deep concerns remain

Representatives from Homeless Services, JHR, and the City Solicitor defended their policies by focusing on numerical data and statistics about homeless populations and turn-away counts at the shelter, although they were often unable to give specifics about the data during the hearing. At the same time, however, their takeaway message was that the data currently available was insufficient to merit any change in policy at this time.

Summarizing the frustrations of many, Sonia Kumar of the ACLU said she found it deeply concerning that the City took action regarding these issues only after they were threatened with litigation. “Women shouldn't have to prove to the City that they need access to services that are already provided to men.”

While the testimony from City and shelter representatives gave the impression they were primarily concerned with how many beds were needed in order to make the litigation go away, Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke emphasized that the priority should be on better serving homeless women. In a response to a comment by City Solicitor Nilson about not being perfect, Councilwoman Clarke said, “We're not looking for perfection, we're looking for equity.”

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The Indypendent Reader was the first media source to report on the issue of overflow plans at the new City shelter, with an on-the-scene investigation in September: New Shelter Still Lacks Overflow Plan for Women.

For more information on the overflow plan issue, see ACLU Begins Action Against Baltimore Homeless Services’ Sexism.

For background on the HRC shelter, as well as Bmore Housing For All, see the Homeless in Baltimore series.

Thank you to Harriet Smith for her guidance and feedback.

Daniel Staples

Daniel is a collective member of the Indypendent Reader.  His interests include technology, feminism, sexuality, economics, and music.  Daniel has a Master's degree in Women's and Gender Studies from Towson University, and develops mesh network technology at the Open Technology Institute.  He maintains the Indyreader website.

Reach him by e-mail at dan.indyreader[at]riseup.net, or follow him on twitter @0xDanarky.