City's Approach to Homeless Lack Necessary Transparency

City's Approach to Homeless Lack Necessary Transparency

The slow and excruciating transition towards a better society requires cooperation and trust between the People and their elected officials. The state of the homeless in Baltimore is another sad example of what happens when this relationship breaks down.

A fellow organizer and I walked into the City's only 24-hour shelter. informally dubbed Code Blue, at 1001 E. Fayette St. on the night of June 30th, hoping to catch up with a few friends and find out what they were going to do once the shelter closes as was scheduled for the next day.

I had a feeling people were not going to be in a good mood, but I must say that the comments and concerns raised by many of the 275 men and women staying at the shelter made me question Baltimore City's practices in a far more fundamental manner than I had ever before: I could not, and still cannot understand the compete lack of transparency from the City's officials tasked to provide shelter for the homeless.

First some background, beginning with the last 24-hour shelter, located at 1600 Guilford Ave. Under pressure from advocates early in 2008, and in the face of the loss of hundreds of beds over the winter due to the closing of several City-run and private shelters, the Dept. of Homeless Services worked hard, and opened the shelter on Guilford Ave in an old school. At the outset, it was announced that the shelter would only be open for three months, closing after March 31st. What they failed to convey to those outside of their own circle of City employees and select leaders from the Baltimore homeless service provider community was the fact that the Station North Community, concerned about crime in the area, imposed the condition that the place would only be there for 3 months.

In the end, crime went down in the area by 30% during those three months, and under pressure from homeless advocates, the City agreed to provide another shelter for the 300 or so residents at Code Blue. The announcement, however, came as rumor to those activists that kept pestering officials at a rally at City Hall, where it was promised that information would be disseminated in the future in a more direct and timely manner. Nevertheless, residents at Code Blue were not officially told of the new shelter until the day of the move.

In the days leading up to March 31st, residents were told by JHR ( the contractor running shelters for the City) that there was not going to be any shelter after the current one closed. Local media knew of the new shelter's address before the people slated to be staying in it! And so the homeless of Baltimore were shipped off to their Spring vacation home, an office building at 1001 E. Fayette owned by the City, and told their holiday would end in three months.

An informal organization began at the new 1001 E. Fayette shelter in the weeks leading up to its planned closing. Once again confronted with rumors , this time of "satellite" shelters presumably somewhere in the state of Maryland, residents decided to invite the head of the Dept. of Homeless Services, the Mayor, and the district's City Councilman for a dialogue 12 days before the scheduled closing to get the answers they deserved.

Among the questions posed to the officials at the meeting, which drew more than 150 shelter residents and allies, were "Why is this shelter closing?", "Is there another shelter that we can go to after June 30th?" , "Where will any new shelter be?", "What kind of services will any new shelter have?", "Why haven't you given us this information already?", and "How do you plan to better communicate with us in the future?".

After nearly two hours of political soapboxing, the only answer they received was "The shelter is closing because the Dept. of Health needs the building for more office space." The Dept. of Homeless Services' representatives and the Mayor's representative did, however, agree to disseminate information about the next shelter as soon as it became available. A visit to the shelter on June 26th turned up no notice of any new facility, and JHR staff that continued to insist there was no shelter after this month.

Several of my friends in that shelter had no place to go after June 30th. One, an ex-Navy-Seal I know as "Doc", who uses an electric wheelchair to get around, said he had no idea what he would do if he had to take a bus to another shelter that he could only stay at overnight. Another, a young man named Steve, pointed out that without knowing where the new shelter was going to be, he could not plan a way to get to any construction job-site to do his work.

As on many other occasions, I left concerned because I knew that these kinds of situations were not unique: the vast majority of the people at the shelter are there because they are disabled, or because they need a place to stay at night while they work in the day to save enough money and get a place of their own. And so, at 8pm on June 30th my fellow organizer and I are handed a document by a resident with the following information on it:

-There will be overnight shelters, one in "east Baltimore" and one in "west Baltimore" . No address is given.

-To get to these shelters, you can catch a bus at 7pm from under the JFX near Saratoga St. and Gay St. No mention of any other bus.

-If you don't enter the shelter on this bus, you will not be allowed inside.

-A meal will be provided by the Salvation Army at 6pm at the pickup point under JFX.

-Between 5 and 6 am in the mornings, a bus will leave the shelters for downtown.

-Those disabled residents requiring assistance during the day can go to cooling centers, like Our Daily Bread.

It quickly becomes clear that only a few of the residents actually have this paper. There is an air of real tension in the room, and the following points are quickly brought up by several of the working men staying there:

-If you cannot make it on the bus you cant get into the shelter.

-There is no mention of where the shelter is located

-Most people that work have to leave before 5am in the mornings, and a vast majority cannot guarantee that they will be able to get to the pickup point by 7pm.

-It seems like the City does not want people to utilize these shelters.

-There will continue to be no case managers at shelters, i.e. no help in getting out of the shelter system.

These implications are not what disturb me the most though; if transportation to shelters is more flexible than the document suggests, why is the City not making it public? As it turns out, the homeless are not the only ones being kept in the dark. A web search on July 2nd turns up an article by the Examiner with an all too familiar tag-line: "Baltimore City residents plan to protest homeless shelter". It is from this article that I finally learn where the new shelter is: Edmondson-Westside High School, at 501 N Athol Ave, 5.4 miles from the previous shelter.

Nestled within the article, some expected responses from residents of the area: "They’ve known about this for months...The community should have a say.”, and "We just found out about this yesterday, that really is not good enough...We’re going to lock arms in front of the school and stop people from coming.” I can think of two reasons why the City did not notify shelter residents, activists, or community residents about the location of the shelter: 1. They didn't know until the last minute. 2. They didn't want to deal with opposition from community representatives who didnt want the shelter there, and activists who would feel the shelter was too far from downtown.

Considering the three months and the record annual City funding at hand to put this shelter together, the likely answer is number 2. If the City of Baltimore truly wants to give the homeless an emergency shelter, they must share information about service plans more than 12 hours in advance. If the City of Baltimore wants to end homelessness, they need the help of the homeless to make their own case to communities.