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(L to R) Kay-Kay, Archie Williams, and Warren Bell pose for a picture before a tent at a homeless encampment along Fallsway in downtown Baltimore. All three are current or former residents of the encampment who are still navigating homelessness. (Photo by Roberto Alejandro)

“If Mrs. Blake would go ahead and give us an opportunity, give us a building, let us go ahead and work on it—because we have skills—we could fix that building up and we could live in there.  Charge a certain amount of rent, which is reasonable because we are homeless, but help us out.”

This was the request made of Baltimore City Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake by Warren Bell, a homeless resident of an encampment along Fallsway, across the street from the Health Care for the Homeless building.  But as members of the homeless services community are increasingly emboldened to point out, it is a request likely to fall on deaf ears in a city that seems intent on moving backwards on the issue of homelessness.

Baltimore City officials are espousing outmoded models of addressing homelessness, insisting on approaches known to be ineffective say advocates, while simultaneously ignoring the voices and desires of Baltimore’s homeless themselves.

Antonia Fasanelli, executive director of the Homeless Persons Representation Project, stood along the western sidewalk of N. Martin Luther King Blvd, serving as a legal observer as city workers removed the tents and other belongings of homeless persons encamped in the sanctuary of a highway overpass on June 26.

“We thought the city was committed to housing and ‘housing first’ as the solution to homelessness, well this action is in clear disregard to that stated mission, and it causes us to have concerns about whether the city is actually serious about ending homelessness,” said Fasanelli, referring to a model (‘housing first’) for addressing homelessness that has had tremendous success around the country, and recently lead the state of Utah to declare that it has virtually eradicated chronic homelessness, according to reports in the L.A. Times and Washington Post.

The model solves homelessness by simply giving people homes.  Wrap-around services to address mental health, substance abuse, and other needs are offered but participation in them is not necessarily required.  Housing first has proved highly effective at stabilizing circumstances enough to allow most homeless persons to receive whatever assistance they need in order to reach the point where they can sustain housing long-term.

It is not, however, the model that Dr. Jacqueline Duval-Harvey, director of the Mayor’s Office of Human Services, insisted is necessary for effectively addressing homelessness.

“ is a process.  You can’t simply just put a person in a house, that person needs to be able to sustain themselves, the person needs to be able to live up to all of what we do when we have a home.  There are responsibilities that come with that, there’s a process, and part of that continuum is to get that person able to stay in that home,” said Duval-Harvey at the same encampment removal.

But that continuum Duval-Harvey referred to is an outdated model known as continuum of care, which begins with living in a shelter, receiving treatment and other services until one is at the point where one can sustain housing on one’s own, and only then culminates in the provision of permanent housing.

“That’s the old model,” said Jeff Singer, former President and CEO of Health Care for the Homeless, and someone who has been working on the problem of homelessness in Baltimore City for over 30 years in both city government and advocacy organizations, currently working with Housing Our Neighbors Baltimore.  “Everyone knows doesn’t work.  ‘A,’ there aren’t enough shelter beds. . . but ‘B,’ a lot of people won’t and can’t go to shelters. . . . The solution is housing.  When people get their own place to live, they often usually stay there, and when they get supportive services there’s no more homelessness .”

Singer is certainly correct about the aversion to shelters held by many homeless persons.  Bell, the Fallsway resident mentioned above, says the behavior of other shelter residents, not to mention the smells, keeps him away from the shelters.  Shanae, a homeless mother with her infant son visiting the encampment at Fallsway, says she is treated like a child at shelters, but worse, she cannot enter a shelter with the father of her child, Steven, who was with her at the encampment.

“The only way that we can be together is if we’re married,” explained Shanae, adding, “Why should I have to be forced to do something that I feel like we might not be ready for . . . Marriage is not something that you play with.”

Marlon Harris, a resident of the encampment that was broken up at Martin Luther King Blvd, said the only time he contracted lice was while staying in a shelter, and that he feels a stay in a shelter is unnecessary since he has no addiction or other issues requiring the treatment offered there.

“I asked for housing,” said Harris.  “I’ve been on a housing list for over five years.”

But if what Harris needs is housing, the only offer on the table from the city is a shelter so long as it is married to the continuum of care model.

This is a model that is not only outdated and ineffective, says Singer, but Baltimore has seen housing first approaches work, making the city’s current stance all the more baffling to the advocacy community.

“We’ve been using [‘housing first’] informally in the city for 30 years, formally though started in 2005, when then mayor Martin O’Malley gave some money to take 32 people out of St. Vincent’s Park and put them in their own apartments.  It worked really well, even today almost all of them are still housed, and we’ve replicated that model many times.”

As Duval-Harvey’s comments indicate, the city has not implemented a housing first approach to homelessness, but both Singer and Fasanelli indicated that the city has nonetheless paid lip service to housing first as a best practice when speaking to the advocacy community, only to continue with their outmoded practices, including breaking up homeless encampments.

It is a frustration for the advocacy community, but it is “devastating” for the homeless, as Harris described losing his home of three years to the city’s encampment removal at Martin Luther King Blvd.

But Duval-Harvey’s insistence that the continuum of care is the only way to ensure the successful transition of the homeless into permanent housing suggests the city is not hearing the voices of the advocacy community, and even less of the homeless themselves.

Archie Williams has been homeless in Baltimore City for three years, spending much of that period living along Fallsway.  An advocate for his fellow homeless, Williams replied “Absolutely not,” when asked whether the input of the homeless is sought by the city in their formulation of policy.

“In order to find out what homelessness is you have to come and see it yourself, you have to come and be a part of it yourself.  Not per se be a part of it, but you have to come and engage it,” continued Williams, saying that our city officials seem to be informed by a “TV, watered down version” of homelessness as opposed to the reality.

Williams then took to narrating that reality by describing the community he had come to known during his years living along Fallsway.

“Being at this certain area (Fallsway) for a certain amount of time, you’ll grow to know people.  Because not everybody that’s out here are bad people.  Just because they hit rock bottom (financially) don’t make them bad people.  They’re having conversations,” said Williams, motioning towards other residents of the encampment.  “They’re still human being conversations.  They’re not robotic.  They’re not aliens . . . we’re still humans.”

And the city currently estimates that on any given night 3,000 of those humans are sleeping outside, according to the most recent data gathered by the Journey Home Project, the city’s effort for ending homelessness.  It is an estimate of Baltimore’s homeless population that is likely depressed by failing to account for persons who navigate homelessness by “living doubled and tripled up with friends and family,” according to Joe Surkiewicz, director of communications for the Homeless Persons Representation Project.

But the accuracy of its homelessness tally is likely secondary in importance to the seeming adoption of, and in some cases insistence that the city pursue, an outdated continuum of care model as Baltimore City seeks to eliminate the problem of homelessness.