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Homelessness and Housing

Commentaryby Jeff Singer and Lauren Siegel9:35 amFeb 8, 20240

With another encampment clearing looming, a plea to Mayor Scott

Abandon Baltimore’s longtime cruel and ineffective policy and leave homeless persons alone until you make permanent supportive housing available [OP-ED]

Above: Over this homeless woman’s objections, city DPW workers, clearing an encampment on the Fallsway in 2018, place her belongings in a truck. (Fern Shen)

Like its predecessors, the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services (MOHS) has been quietly destroying encampments of people who are unable to compete for increasingly unaffordable housing.

On January 10, MOHS tore down an encampment at Mt. Royal and Guilford Avenues. It is planning to eliminate a similar encampment in Wyman Park Dell very soon.

This winter we have contacted MOHS seeking emergency shelter for people with no alternative to sleeping outside. The frequent response is that there are no beds available.

Why then would the city destroy the small communities that its impoverished residents create to protect themselves?

Why It’s Wrong

This unwritten government policy is destructive for several reasons.

• Encampments are tiny communities providing safety and familiar routines for people experiencing homelessness. The individuals generally look out for each other.

• The destruction of encampments causes disruptions and losses for the persons living there. Their property is illegally seized, and they lose important, hard-to-replace items. such as tents, medication, bus passes and ID.

• There are not enough emergency shelter beds available to place all the encampment dwellers, even those willing to go to a shelter.

• These actions sow seeds of mistrust in city government. Individuals whose encampments were destroyed are unlikely to turn to public programs that may be available to help them.

• Encampment destruction does not lead to anything productive in terms of alternative shelter or housing; other encampments are likely to pop up again in the absence of any positive interventions.

Two women assemble a tent at the Guilford Avenue encampment. (Fern Shen)

In 2017, two women assemble a tent at a Guilford Avenue encampment shortly before it was cleared by Baltimore officials. (Fern Shen)

Cruel, Costly, Ineffective

Why is MOHS playing “whack-a-mole” with our homeless friends and neighbors, whom they are tasked with assisting?

Homelessness service providers, researchers, and advocates are nearly universal in their disdain for the wholly negative outcomes of encampment destruction.

“The policy of criminalizing homelessness has never worked,” writes Georgia Berkovich, director of public affairs at the Midnight Mission, which offers services to unhoused people in Los Angeles. “We need more beds. We need more housing.”

Removing homeless encampments is costly.

Denver reported spending more than $600,000, to clear about 230 large encampments. Phoenix said it spent nearly $1 million last year to clear encampments.

Why should our city government use resources to destroy encampments when the funds could be better spent housing people?

While it is understandable that neighbors in the Mt. Royal and Guilford neighborhoods and those surrounding Wyman Park would find encampments to be problematic, it is important to remember that the campers are desperately poor.

Every hour is a struggle for food, warmth, access to basic hygiene and the meager shelter offered by tents.

How vulnerable would you feel if all of your possessions fit into a small tent, and you knew it all could be confiscated or destroyed by city employees in minutes?

William Dorsey, at the Guilford Avenue encampment since Tuesday, said he is legally blind and would like help finding permanent housing. (Louis Krauss)

William Dorsey, at a Guilford Avenue encampment Baltimore cleared in 2020, said he is legally blind and would like help finding permanent housing. (Louis Krauss)

Constitutional Challenge

The city of Grants Pass, Oregon, enforced a “no camping” ordinance, despite the lack of alternative sleeping arrangements for its homeless residents.

A series of court decisions decreed that these actions violate the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

A case currently before the Supreme Court, Johnson v. Grants Pass, is instructive about the dangers of criminalizing homelessness. The Grants Pass ordinances forbid individuals sleeping outside from using blankets, pillows, cardboard boxes, etc.

Three homeless individuals filed a class action suit, arguing that the legislation is unconstitutional. The district court issued a permanent injunction prohibiting enforcement of the ordinances against those who were involuntarily homeless.

“It is an Eighth Amendment violation to criminally punish involuntarily homeless persons for sleeping in public if there are no other public areas or appropriate shelters where those individuals can sleep,” the court ruled in that case.

Advocates for people struggling with homelessness consider Johnson v. Grants Pass the Supreme Court’s most significant case in years.

A Better Way

Like most urban enclaves, Baltimore likes to present itself as a compassionate city. The opposite, however, undergirds the city’s actions. Fortunately, dysfunction and drift often mitigate the destructiveness of its plans.

Rather than depend on the inefficiency of Baltimore’s homelessness policies, we should promote well-known solutions to homelessness:

• The most cost-effective and kindest policy for encampments is to leave them alone until permanent supportive housing is available.

• The Scott administration should follow through on its three-year-old promise to turn hotels into permanent affordable housing.

• The city should expand recently announced subsidies for inclusionary zoning so that those most in need of assistance – Baltimoreans with incomes less than 30% of the Area Median Income – have access to housing.

• Focus public subsidies on those most in need of assistance, not developers, sports team owners and political contributors.

Given the dearth of emergency shelter and affordable housing in Baltimore, it is certainly cruel and unusual punishment to destroy the communities and property of those  experiencing homelessness.

Instead of wasting scarce resources on punishment, let’s devote city, state and federal  funds to housing and stability.

Jeff Singer and Lauren Siegel, longtime housing advocates and homeless service providers, teach at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. Singer is the former president and CEO of Health Care for the Homeless.

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