For some, Maryland courts resuming eviction hearings on July 25 is a talking point, a policy matter – something abstract.
For Elmer Calderon, it means looming homelessness.
If he can’t pay his rent by the end of his month, Calderon’s landlord told him he and his family would be evicted.
“I would be fine sleeping in my car, but how is that okay for three kids?” Calderon said outside of City Hall at a gathering last week of about 50 advocates, renters and homeless people.
The organizers, Housing our Neighbors, a grassroots homeless-led group, and the Fair Development Roundtable, a human-rights-based coalition, said the failings of the city’s housing system during the coronaviurus pandemic constitute human rights abuses.
Calderon’s story was offered as a case in point at this so-called “Baltimore Truth Commission” hearing to put the system “on trial.”
The 43-year-old truck driver, who immigrated from Honduras seven years ago, said he now owes $5,200 for four months of rent.
The main reason: he lost his job months ago due to the pandemic, as did his wife who cleaned hotel rooms. His financial woes are compounded because he doesn’t have health insurance, is not receiving a federal stimulus check and can’t apply for unemployment.
“The hardest part is the effect it’s had on my kids,” he said, speaking through a translator from CASA de Maryland. “I want to be the hero for my kids, but I can’t.”
“System has failed us”
In March, amid the coronavirus pandemic, state courts halted proceedings on evictions until July 25, an action timed to coincide with the federal CARES Act, which limits evictions in certain circumstances.
With that protection about to be lifted amid the ongoing pandemic and crippled economy, advocates for renters and the homeless called on Maryland Governor Larry Hogan and Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young to provide more financial assistance and permanent housing.
The groups demanded that the city extend and expand its eviction moratorium and provide permanent housing for all homeless people who live in shelters or temporarily in hotels.
They also called on Hogan to allocate at least $175 million from the state’s Coronavirus Relief Fund towards rental assistance and eviction protection.
“This housing system has failed us, and our leaders have failed us,” said Gerardo Benavides from Housing Our Neighbors.
Other participants included:
Anthony Williams (Board Member on the Baltimore City Continuum of Care), Willie Baptist (Poor People’s Campaign), Father Ty Hullinger (St. Anthony of Padua, St. Dominic and Most Precious Blood Churches), Mihir Chaudary, M.D., Onyinye Alheri (Charm City Care Connection) and Reverend Janelle Bruce (Poor People’s Campaign).
Lack of PPE in Shelters
Benavides also presented the results of a survey completed by 56 residents of city homeless shelters that he said revealed these unsafe conditions:
• Only 25% of those surveyed said they had regular access to masks and gloves to protect themselves from Covid-19.
• Only one-third said they are regularly screened for symptoms of the coronavirus.
• And 60% said they were unable to keep six feet of distance while in the shelters.
“Staff are protected – residents are not,” Benavides said, reading from one survey respondent. “Basic soap for hand-washing is not available.”
Carles Waith, a 39-year-old who has lived in the city’s Greenspring shelter for three weeks, said he hopes to find alternative housing to escape from what he says are broiling temperatures in the upper level of a gymnasium where he stays.
He had a long list of issues with the site, the former KIPP Ujima Academy at 4701 Greenspring Avenue, including inadequate access to Covid-19 testing.
“The shower is freezing cold all the time, the food isn’t good at all, and when they wash your clothes they don’t come out clean,” Waith said. “It’s sad there.”
Benavides said in a statement that Housing Our Neighbors has distributed hundreds of masks to shelter residents because the Greenspring shelter and other facilities do not provide them.
Fearing the Future
In response to the coronavirus, the city had moved homeless people to the Fairfield Inn & Suites near the Shot Tower. But 120 women there were recently informed they will be moved back to the Pinderhughes shelter in West Baltimore in August, Benavides said.
That prospect is an unsettling one for Kathy Marks, who was moved to the hotel from Pinderhughes three weeks ago.
Marks said her chronic obstructive pulmonary disease was often made worse by asbestos in the Pinderhughes building, a former elementary school in West Baltimore.
“I’m afraid about them moving us back into the shelter because with my disabilities it’s just going to make things worse again for my health,” she said.