Winter 2008 Issue 7

Winter 2008 Issue 7

Introduction: 

The past six months have been troubling for anyone following the issues of housing and homelessness in Baltimore. In September, The Sun reported that the majority of the Housing Authority of Baltimore City’s $59 million affordable housing fund is being used to demolish housing units at 15 sites across the city—with no plans to replace them. For example, the Housing Authority is using $4 million from the fund to demolish the 257-unit Somerset Courts in East Baltimore; $7 million to demolish the 900-unit O’Donnell Heights project in Southeast Baltimore; and $13.5 million for demolition and acquisition at the Uplands site in Southwest Baltimore. If it seems questionable for the Housing Authority to be demolishing housing units at a time when 20,000 households are on a city waiting list for public housing and at least 3,000 Baltimoreans are experiencing homelessness every night, it becomes truly scandalous when we recall why the affordable housing fund was created in the first place. In 2005, when then-Mayor Martin O’Malley and then-City Council President Sheila Dixon were trying to gain support for the controversial $305 million publicly financed Hilton Baltimore Convention Center Hotel (one of the costliest public works projects in the city’s history!) several council members, including Kenneth N. Harris Sr. and Helen L. Holton, were persuaded to vote for the hotel only after being assured of the creation of an affordable housing fund, which was intended to purchase blighted properties and turn them over to developers to build low-income housing. Since the Sun article appeared, Holton said she would arrange a hearing on how the fund is being spent, and Representative Elijah E. Cummings sent a letter to Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano calling for a moratorium on demolitions. But the demolitions continue, as we recently saw in January when the Housing Authority kicked off a “blight elimination” effort on Tivoly Avenue in Northeast Baltimore, where it plans to use $3.8 million from the fund to take down 40 houses. Still, no one has been held accountable for the blatant misuse of the affordable housing fund (and no one seems to have told Mr. Graziano that it’s inappropriate to pose for photo ops on excavators in front of half-demolished houses). Meanwhile, as the publicly financed construction of the 20-story, 756-room Hilton Baltimore nears completion (featuring “upscale Hilton amenities, a 25,000 square foot grand ballroom and direct covered access to the Convention Center via pedestrian sky bridge”), Baltimore’s homeless population—faced with rising housing costs and a deficit in shelter beds—is literally left out in the cold. This issue of the Indypendent Reader tries to make some sense of this madness by interviewing Jeff Singer, a long-time homeless advocate and president of Health Care for the Homeless; and Annie Chambers, who has fought for housing and welfare rights in Baltimore for decades. We hear the voices of several members of Baltimore’s homeless community; and compare Mayor Dixon’s 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness with the Abell Foundation’s recent report, “The Dismantling of Baltimore’s Public Housing.” We examine the disturbing and under-reported trend of violence against the homeless; look at the precarious housing situation faced by foster youth and women being released from jail; and consider the impact of the sub-prime mortgage crisis on Baltimore’s homeowners. Hopefully, this issue will provide readers with an analysis of the structural causes of homelessness, reflect the voices and direct experiences of people forced to live on the streets and suggest some tangible ways in which we can work together to end homelessness and reduce poverty in Baltimore. —Scott Berzofsky for the editors

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