New Shelter Still Lacks Overflow Plan for Women

New Shelter Still Lacks Overflow Plan for Women

Baltimore has never been a model city for addressing urban homelessness. From the old Oasis shelter that was closed shortly after a female client was sexually assaulted, to the city's first year-round 24-hour shelter, dubbed Code Blue, that had conditions described as “shocking for a First World country”, Baltimore's growing homeless population is continually neglected and underserved.

Hopes for change were high, but skepticism remained, when Baltimore announced in early 2011 that a new year-round 24-hour shelter would be opening up to replace the old derelict Code Blue shelter. This new shelter would be called the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Housing and Resource Center. But when it was learned that this new shelter, which opened its doors in July, would have 75 less beds than the shelter it was slated to replace, confidence in the city's ability to take care of its homeless citizens waned.

In a city that was able to fund, plan and manage a multi-million dollar Grand Prix car race over Labor Day weekend, many citizens are questioning the city government's priorities and commitment to its homeless citizens. Uncertainty still clouds the two-month-old shelter, which seems to be the flagship that city officials point to as exemplifying their commitment to alleviating homelessness. But if the new shelter exemplifies the Mayor's office of Human Services' commitment, then it is a commitment to a facade. The shiny new building leaves much to be desired beyond the exterior. Months after the shelter opened, questions remain unanswered and promises remain unfulfilled.

One of these promises was that the shelter would have an overflow plan in place by the time it opened. Not surprisingly in a city of over 4000 homeless [1], the 275 beds in the new shelter are completely filled up by early evening, sometimes as early as 4pm. The promise to have an overflow plan by the time the shelter opened was made at a meeting in May of 2011. The meeting was attended by homeless service providers, Baltimore City's Homeless Services office, and representatives of Jobs, Housing, and Recovery (JHR), the non-profit that runs the new shelter. While this promise was made in the spring with plenty of time to create a plan, currently the city only has an overflow plan for 100 men to stay in the old Code Blue shelter. There is absolutely no overflow plan for women.

While JHR and the city have been saying for months that they have been working on an overflow plan for women, there have been no results. Just last Friday, during a rainstorm, homeless women were sleeping on the sidewalk outside the shelter. One homeless woman we talked with outside the shelter said, “It makes you want to cry when you have people turned away, and it's raining, and it's going to get really cold soon.”

The city's and the shelter's failure to provide an overflow plan for women is beginning to constitute a civil rights issue, as women continue to be sent away from the shelter each night without a place to stay. A service provider said that the city has been unresponsive to numerous complaints about the lack of overflow plans for women.

The picture for homeless women worsens when we consider the numerous complaints by shelter clients about abusive staff, clients' belongings being thrown away, and the disrespectful practice of having to always use the rear entrance of the shelter (the street-facing front door is locked and never used). Women, and indeed all of the clients and potential clients of the city's homeless services end up with a completely humiliating experience as they try to interact with a dysfunctional system.

Perhaps Labor Day weekend's much-hyped but ill-attended Grand Prix race was a desperate effort by an economically hurting post-industrial city to save its dying tourism industry. Or perhaps it was an indication of what kind of people the city government deems worthy of spending money on. Clearly it isn't homeless women or men; it's wealthy out of town tourists who spend money at the Inner Harbor.

Emergency shelters, no matter the conditions, are not the solution to homelessness in Baltimore or anywhere else. What people need is stable, safe housing. Safe housing is a human right and a basic need. For so many women a safe place to live is beyond their grasp. A national study found that 63 % of homeless women had experienced relationship violence [2].

These women have had to choose between violence in their homes, violence on the street and sometimes violence in shelters. This gendered reality is only exacerbated by the fact that the recession stimulus has favored male workers, who are being hired at nine times the rate of women [3]. It is awful to realize that the Baltimore emergency shelter also favors men, with more beds and an overflow plan.

Nevertheless, allegations of mistreatment by shelter staff do not deter the dozens of women who line up every night hoping to experience a marginally safe place to rest. The experiences for transgender people at the new shelter are yet to be known. One could only imagine with higher unemployment and homelessness rates that transgender people are experiencing the same, if not worse, neglect [4]. [For more about homelessness in transgender communities read the Indypendent Reader coverage of the Homelessness in Transgender Communities Townhall Meeting.]

While emergency shelters are not the long-term answer to homelessness, Baltimore can do better in at least allowing people a safe and respectful place to spend the night. What will it take for our city government to start valuing the lives of its most vulnerable citizens as much as it values the developers and corporations who regularly receive the city's assistance? Government should be accountable to its people, and people without stable housing are no exception.







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], or follow him on twitter @0xDanarky.