Baltimore City Police broke up student-led efforts to end homelessness Nov. 19 as they dispersed crowds who gathered for A Bench Is Not A Bed: Sleep-Out 2011. Not to be confused with the current Occupy movements across the country, this second annual event calls attention to the more than 640,000 men, women, and children who sleep on the streets of America every single night. Students from local colleges and universities who gathered in front of City Hall to hold information sessions and dialogue about ways to permanently end homelessness were told to either move on or face arrest.

While the students did have an official permit sponsored by Councilman William H. Cole IV that expired at 9 p.m., previous sleep outs have been conducted without overnight permits. Police gave no instruction to the homeless population that regularly frequents the area, but told all others who came to the assembly they would have to leave the premises, prompting many to move to Pratt Street’s McKeldin Square where Occupy Baltimore has been since October.

“My generation doesn’t know a time without homelessness. Homelessness is a contemporary problem largely born out of policies that have been around in the last thirty years. People are not guaranteed good health, human services, income, or housing,” said Lisa Klingenmaier, organizer and student at the University of Maryland at Baltimore. “We are going to begin to see more women and children experience homelessness and the city is not equipped to handle either. We have entire families that have to be separated in the system because we don’t have an adequate way to keep them together in emergency shelters.”

With one out of every eight families in Maryland fighting to keep food on the table daily, the deep recession and the slow disappearance of the middle class has put a new face to the issue of homelessness. No longer are the homeless simply shiftless men, as perceived by some, but any working middle or lower class American who simply falls on hard times.

According to reports released by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, of the 643,046 Americans who live on the street every night, 238,110, of that number belong to families without adequate shelter of their own.

In Baltimore City alone there are 4,000 people without housing, even as roughly 47,000 homes sit vacant, rotting in communities as nothing more than a perfect example of urban decay.

The Sleep Out 2011 comes 30 years after the first National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, which is recognized the week before Thanksgiving every year.

“We’re really hoping people will begin to understand the scope of the problem and get a sense of its systemic nature,” said Robyn Henry, a Masters of Social Work (MSW) student and organizer from University of Maryland at Baltimore. “Homelessness doesn’t happen because one person is having a rough time. Homelessness is an indicator that society is struggling and it’s a societal problem that needs to be fixed on that level.“

Aside from addressing the overall issue of homelessness, organizers also want to bring attention to the sheer number of veterans on the streets of the very country they have served.

According to the latest reports released by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA), 131, 000 veterans are living with insufficient housing every night and even with the VA struggling to combat the issue, at best, only 25 percent of homeless veterans benefit from the underfunded programs offered. Accounting for 23 percent of the entire homeless population in America, 76 percent of all homeless veterans struggle with some type of alcohol, drug, or mental health issue.

“It is an absolute tragedy that veterans who put their lives on the line aren’t able to have security when they come home,” said Henry.

Linking activists, students, concerned citizens and individuals who are currently homeless, A Bench Is Not a Bed: Sleep Out 2011 sought to inform and incite Baltimoreans to action to eradicate homelessness in the wealthiest country in the world. As set backs are sure to come, students and activist remain positive that with the help of the community, Sleep Out 2012 and further efforts to help the people at the very bottom won’t be interrupted by the people at the top.


Alexis Taylor

AFRO Staff Writer