Homeless in Baltimore, Part 3: The Weinberg Housing and Resource Center
Homeless in Baltimore, Part 3: The Weinberg Housing and Resource Center
Right off the large main lobby of Healthcare for the Homeless in downtown Baltimore, there is a small, tile-floored room with folding tables and plastic stackable chairs. Offering some small respite from the loud TVs and chatter of dozens of people in the main lobby, the room reminds me of a school classroom—complete with colorful, handmade drawings and paintings covering almost every inch of the walls. However, as around 25 folks make their way into the small room on this Tuesday morning in August, the respite gives way to a bit of claustrophobia as we all try to squeeze in.
This was the first of two meetings I attended that August held by Bmore Housing For All (BHFA), an activist organization of currently or formerly homeless people and their allies. I previously interviewed Adam Schneider of Healthcare for the Homeless and James Crawford, both active members of BHFA. Now I wanted to see what the group was doing for myself.
Most of the individuals at the meeting were either homeless or had previously been homeless. There were a handful of others who were students or staff at Healthcare for the Homeless. Schneider and Crawford were both there as well. Gabby Knighton, Outreach Coordinator for Baltimore Homeless Services was also in attendance; I was told this was the first time a member of Baltimore Homeless Services, a part of the Mayor's Office of Human Services, had attended a meeting of the four-year-old organization.
At the beginning of the meeting, the group discussed a few projects it was working on. However, the vast majority of the two-hour meeting was taken up by heated discussions about the new homeless shelter that had opened up the month before.
The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Housing and Resource Center (HRC), as it is officially called, is a 24-hour, year-round, City-funded emergency shelter operated by the non-profit Jobs, Housing, and Recovery (JHR). The shelter, which opened its doors on July 5th, is the latest in a long and troubled history of emergency shelters in Baltimore.
Starting in 2002, Baltimore City has implemented a “Code Blue” policy, in which an emergency shelter was opened on nights below 25 degrees. In 2005, it took the deaths of four homeless men within a month for the City to change the Code Blue policy to go into effect when the temperature drops below 32 degrees. When the City-run Oasis shelter was closed in the winter of 2007 shortly after a female client was raped, a series of short-lived emergency shelters were opened and closed within the span of a year. Despite a 30% decrease in crime rates near the shelters, not-in-my-back-yard neighborhood groups, supposedly concerned about crime, successfully advocated for Code Blue shelter closure after only a few months.] The defining characteristics during this period was poor communication, lack of transparency, and misleading information, by both Baltimore Homeless Services and JHR, who ran the shelters.
In October 2008, a City-funded emergency shelter, which earned the nickname Code Blue, opened at 210 Guilford Avenue. Again run by JHR, the shelter was originally meant to be temporary, while the City looked for a location for a permanent shelter. Through the efforts of BHFA and others, Code Blue was transitioned into a year-round shelter housing 350 beds, half for men and half for women. Unfortunately, this reincarnation of a City emergency shelter has been described by clients as having abusive staff as well as conditions “shocking for a First World country.”
With homeless service providers and the City hyping the HRC as a dramatic improvement over the Code Blue shelter, it was surprising to hear that so many people at the BHFA meeting were extremely upset about problems at the new shelter only a month after it opened. But after listening to clients of the shelter disclose their list of complaints, it was clear that many of the serious concerns at Code Blue have carried over to the new shelter.
The most ubiquitous complaint at the meeting was about verbal abuse from JHR staff at the new shelter. Speaking from their own experiences, attendees at the BHFA meeting reported that staff members have been harassing, speaking disrespectfully and condescendingly to clients, “screaming” and “cursing” at clients to wake them up at 5 am, refusing to serve food to some clients, and being especially disrespectful to women.
Crawford gave an account of one incident that was confirmed by the other attendees at the meeting. According to Crawford, an elderly female client asked the shelter staff where she could take a shower, at a time when the showers were apparently backed up with sewage. As the story goes, the staff belittled her and called in a supervisor from outside the facility, who then proceeded to eject the woman from the shelter at four in the morning. At the time of the BHFA meeting, it was reported that no action had been taken in regards to this incident.
While it is impossible to confirm the story without hearing from JHR, this incident and others reported by clients paint a very bleak picture regarding the professionalism of shelter staff. Several people at the meeting expressed the sentiment that these staff members “forget where they came from,” alluding to the fact that many of the shelter staff hired by JHR were formerly homeless themselves.
Another holdover from the problems at Code Blue has been incidents of mistreatment of disabled clients, according to attendees at the meeting. One woman said that she was forced to use the stairs instead of the elevator despite her disability that makes it difficult stand for very long. She said she even showed shelter staff a note from her doctor, which they refused to accept.
Clients at the meeting also reported being told by JHR staff that they would not be allowed at the shelter if they received any type of income or had other access to housing. When asked if clients with any sort of housing were allowed to stay at the shelter, the director of the shelter Sandy Thomas' answer was unclear; she said these clients are “connected with services they need,” and that “a post-placement counselor follows up with clients to make sure clients don't lose housing and jobs.”
If it is true that clients are not allowed at the shelter if they have some sort of housing, this could have significant consequences. For instance, women who experience domestic violence may not be able to stay at their home for fear of their safety. If they cannot access a shelter, they may be forced to sleep on the street, potentially exposing them to even more danger of violence.
Another issue raised by many clients at the meeting, both men and women, was the lack of an overflow plan for women when the shelter is full. The City has already come under heat from clients and advocacy groups because the HRC shelter has 100 less beds for women than the old Code Blue shelter. While there are currently 100 overflow beds for men at another location, several of the female clients at the meeting had been turned away at the shelter with no place to go but to sleep on the street. Over three months since the shelter opened, the City still lacks an adequate overflow plan for women, and is facing legal action because of it.
Perhaps most disturbing of all are claims by shelter clients that they are unable to file grievances about these issues. While a grievance filing policy does exist at the shelter, one client reported that shelter staff ripped up her grievance form in front of her. Another person reported that when she asked to file a grievance, a staff member responded by ordering her to leave the shelter or the police would be called to escort her out.
Of all the people at the meeting who had been or are currently clients at the new shelter, only one had managed to successfully file a grievance form. In response, she said that the shelter director Sandy Thomas spoke with her personally. While this indicates that the shelter management may take grievances seriously, the difficulty clients face in getting their grievances to the appropriate parties still remains. And whether changes will be implemented regarding grievances is yet to be seen.
The BHFA meeting ended with assurances from Gabby Knighton—while not a staff member at the shelter—that she would personally accept written grievances and forward them directly to Sandy Thomas. This suggestion, however, did not alleviate the frustration and pessimism pervading the room. After all, these problems aren't new to those with a history of staying in emergency shelters in Baltimore. In a city that seems far more willing to hand out multi-million dollar tax breaks to corporate developers with a history of human rights violations than it is to provide adequate and dignified services to those most in need, the members of BHFA know that they'll have to put up a massive fight to get the City to move an inch. That's what they've been doing for years.
 Crawford said that the fact that a supervisor had to be called in from outside the facility contradicts a shelter policy that at least one supervisor should be on duty at the shelter at all times.
 The City recently announced a plan for up to 20 overflow beds for women at the HRC, a plan that advocates claim is inadequate. Read more at the Baltimore Brew: http://www.baltimorebrew.com/2011/10/28/city-offers-20-extra-beds-for-homeless-women-advocates-say-need-is-far-greater/.
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.