Homeless in Baltimore, Part 1: Interview with Adam Schneider

Homeless in Baltimore, Part 1: Interview with Adam Schneider

Sign for the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Housing and Resource Center

On the northwest corner of The Fallsway and Centre Street in downtown Baltimore City, there used to sit an inconspicuous brick warehouse that housed offices for the City's Department of Transportation. Earlier this year, however, a new banner appeared above one of the corrugated metal garage doors that proclaimed, “Future Home of the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Housing and Resource Center.” The banner included a computer-generated image of a shiny new building overlooking The Fallsway on an idyllic sunny day. This old warehouse would be transformed into a dedicated year-round 24-hour homeless shelter, meant to replace the old derelict shelter on Guilford Avenue.

There were many in the city's homeless service agencies and the homeless population who eagerly awaited the opening of this much-hyped new shelter.

Note: This article is the first installment in a multi-part series on homelessness in Baltimore and the Weinberg Housing and Resource Center.

As I sat in the office of Adam Schneider, Community Relations Coordinator at Healthcare for the Homeless, we began to talk about the recent history of homeless emergency shelters in Baltimore. An outspoken advocate for Baltimore's homeless population, Adam is well known by homeless folks and service providers alike. In addition to his work at Healthcare for the Homeless, Adam also works with Bmore Housing For All, a local advocacy organization of homeless and formerly homeless individuals and their allies—“We're about bringing democracy into service agencies,” Adam says.

Referring to the old emergency shelter on Guilford Avenue that the Weinberg Housing and Resource Center was meant to replace, Adam tells me the conditions were “shocking for a First World country.” The shelter was initially open only when the City declared Code Blue, when the temperature dropped below 25 degrees. This earned the shelter the nickname “Code Blue.” Residents at Code Blue were packed into a windowless warehouse and had to sleep on half-inch mats over a cold concrete floor.

“Homelessness is a dehumanizing experience,” Adam tells me. The conditions at Code Blue only furthered this dehumanization. According to Adam, the conditions at Code Blue reflected the overall neglect and marginalization of the poor and homeless in Baltimore and across the country. While many homeless individuals stay in temporary shelters such as this, a homeless person can be anyone who lacks stable and adequate housing.

At the federal level, there is little priority or interest in subsidizing housing for those who need it most, instead helping the middle and upper classes through home ownership tax subsidies. As Adam points out, the mortgage interest tax deductions for first-time home buyers that was part of the stimulus package costs three to four times as much as is spent on low income housing subsidies. It is an issue of priorities, he tells me, and those most in need often get the short end of the stick when it comes to housing subsidies.

The de-prioritization of homelessness must be understood within the larger history of economic and social policies within the United States. During the Great Depression, housing foreclosures were sweeping the country, disturbingly similar to today. As part of President Roosevelt's New Deal, the National Housing Act was passed to establish the Federal Housing Administration and stem the tide of banks foreclosing on family homes. This was followed by similar federal legislation which introduced federal subsidies for low income public housing, as well as urban renewal or so-called “slum clearance” projects, laying the groundwork for government-directed urban gentrification.

As traumatized veterans returned home from the Vietnam War in the 1960s, there was little or no affordable housing or mental health services available to them. Many vets joined the ranks of a growing homeless population. In response to these factors and worsening urban conditions around the country, Congress passed a series of acts starting in 1965 which greatly expanded federal funding for public housing, as well as creating the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) which still exists today.

But despite continuing public housing legislation passed through the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, conditions continued to deteriorate for the homeless and those at risk of homelessness. As money for social services was redirected to increased policing and incarceration, funding for public housing suffered. In 2007, the House of Representatives passed the National Affordable Housing Trust Fund Act, which was slated to be the largest expansion of federal housing programs in decades. The bill would have allocated between $800 million and $1 billion annually for affordable housing. Not surprisingly, President Bush threatened to veto it, and the bill never made it through the Senate.

And then 2008 came, and the US housing market collapsed. Once again, our country faced an epidemic of foreclosures, and families became homeless by the day. Instead of addressing the root causes of the economic crisis, precipitated by decades of neoliberal policies, the government once again used a band-aid approach. Congress passed the Housing and Economic Recovery Act guaranteeing up to $300 billion in mortgages for subprime borrowers, just barely enough to slow down the banks' takeover of millions of family homes. At the same time, using the crisis as an opportunity to boost corporate profits, the government initiated one of the largest transfers of wealth in history, shifting $1.25 trillion into the hands of the financial sector in the form of mortgage-backed securities purchases. Corporate profits are now at historical record highs, but so are homelessness and poverty.

In my conversation with Adam, we eventually got to the subject of what must be done in Baltimore to address homelessness. In this situation, one might expect to hear about the importance of increasing access to affordable housing, creating more jobs, or spending more on mental health and addiction services. While Adam agrees that all these are important, he doesn't shy away from the bigger picture. “We need our own Arab Spring,” Adam says. A broad-based grassroots movement of the poor and homeless is what is needed to change the fundamental conditions that contribute to homelessness. Adam mentions the Poor People's Campaign organized by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as an example of the kind of large-scale mobilization that could affect lasting change.

The 1968 Memphis sanitation workers strike is another example of why this kind of organizing is important, according to Adam. The sanitation workers' signs, which read “I AM A MAN,” point to both the dehumanization experienced by the poor as well as the dignity that is built in organizing. Adam and I discuss that treating the homeless as potential organizers rather than just victims or recipients of services can counter the dehumanization experienced in homelessness.

Our short meeting was about to end, and Adam starts searching for the phone number to order pizza for the Bmore Housing For All meeting starting in five minutes on the first floor of Healthcare for the Homeless. As busy as he is, he takes the time to provide for people's basic needs. Juggling pizza orders and political theory, Adam draws a lesson from one more historical figure: Friedrich Engels. In his 1872 work “The Housing Question,” Engels makes the point that the problem of housing for the poor cannot be solved without simultaneously solving the economic and social problems of our society, namely those created by capitalism [1]. Only through a concerted effort to address the structures of inequality can we hope to bring homelessness to an end. It is a refreshing, yet sobering, reminder of what we're really up against.

Read Part 2 of Homeless in Baltimore here: Bmore Housing For All.

[For more information on the Weinberg Housing and Resource Center, see New Shelter Still Lacks Overflow Plan for Women.]

[1] http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1872/housing-question/index.htm

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.