As Baltimore Bulldozes Tents, Questions of Housing Displaced Homeless Emerge

Last Friday, a city-despatched bulldozer plowed down this tent community, home to more than a dozen homeless Baltimore residents. Photo by Cool Revolution on Flickr

Camp 83 sits beneath the Jones Falls Expressway, which cuts Baltimore city in half just before merging onto President Street and spilling into downtown. Until last Friday, about 15 of the city’s several thousand homeless had more or less lived here, situated near a meal and employment center and diagonally across from a 275-bed shelter.

But on the morning of March 8, a city-dispatched bulldozer plowed down the tents at Camp 83 as residents and protestors stood by, demanding housing rights.

The battle started last month when Olivia Farrow, director of the Mayor’s Office of Human Services, wrote, “The [Camp] 83 site is an illegal encampment that has significant health and safety concerns,” and argued that the camp must come down “to protect citizens’ health and safety.”

Thanks to a flurry of media coverage and several local advocacy groups — including Health Care for the Homeless (HCH), which sits almost directly across the street from Camp 83, and the Homeless Persons Representation Project (HPRP) — camp residents were able to secure temporary, non-shelter housing. Still, advocates for the homeless say that the city could have done more to ensure that the encampment’s residents had secure housing before the tents came down, especially since twice in the last decade the city had been able to do just that.

“If we as a city are going to put any meaning behind an effort to end homelessness, then we have to provide housing to people before we take away their most basic belongings,” said Antonia Fasanelli, executive director of HPRP.

The isolated struggle of one encampment speaks to the broader problem of homelessness in Baltimore, but also to the faltering efforts of a coalition of public, private and non-profit partners toward ending it.

The city’s bulldozers struck down Camp 83 five years and one month after former Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon launched an ambitious 10 year plan to end homelessness in the city. At the heart of the plan, called the Journey Home, is a commitment to providing the homeless with affordable housing — some 16,000 households are on a waiting list for assisted housing — in addition to health care, emergency services and serviceable jobs with steady incomes.

The strategy of focusing on the creation of permanent, affordable housing as a tool for fighting homelessness has precedents around the country. With such a lofty goal, it often makes sense for cities to create a decade-long plan that allows enough time for homes to be built and people to be resettled, according to Steve Berg, vice president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness The timeline comes from “an educated guess about what it would take in places to bring about … systemic change,” he said.

But despite the ubiquity of 10-year plans, many advocates fear that these long-term plans aren’t strong enough to create the change needed to prevent occurrences like last week’s forcible evictions. They say the plans are nothing but lofty benchmarks with no permanent expiration date, hobbled by a lack of affordable housing and support services, and difficult to qualify thanks to an imprecise definition of “homelessness.”

Part of the problem comes from the federal level. Homelessness started becoming a more common occurrence, said Kevin Lindamood, president of Health Care for the Homeless and a member of The Journey Home’s advisory board, in the late 1970s. That’s when the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s budget authority began declining sharply. While outlays in federal dollars for rental housing aid — public housing and Section 8 housing — increased throughout the 1980s, real budget authority for housing aid decreased from $69 billion in 1977 to $10 billion in 1989. That translates to a decrease of 49 percent in federal monetary support for low-income housing since 1980, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. During that same period, rent prices continued to go up.

“We don’t have the resources to end homelessness the way a 10-year plan envisions,” Lindamood said. “Permanent support of housing is a solution to end homelessness… but subsidized housing hasn’t kept pace to address the need of people who can’t afford market-rate housing.”

More than 4,000 people in Baltimore were identified as homeless in a January 2011 point-in-time survey, a spike of nearly 1,400 people since 2005. Health Care for the Homeless alone saw 6,500 different homeless people in Baltimore in the last year, Lindamood said.

The other issue? A lack of political will. In a time of shrinking city budgets and high unemployment nationwide, deciding where to funnel taxpayer dollars can be even more contentious than usual.

Yet money spent on permanent housing for the homeless ends up saving money in the long run. In Washington, D.C., for instance, emergency shelters for homeless families can cost as much as $3,700 per month to operate, while affordable housing for families runs less than $1,300 a month, according to a 2010 report from HUD’s Office of Policy Research.

Denver’s 10 year plan is in its seventh year. A point-in-time survey in early 2012 found about 5,200 homeless people in Denver, a drop since the plan’s implementation in 2005, and that the average number of chronically homeless people has dropped from 942 to 387 over the seven years.

“We embrace a housing-first model as a stabilizing influence for the homeless population,” said Bennie Milliner, executive director of Denver’s Road Home , the Colorado city’s own 10-year plan. He explained that more than a quarter of Road Home’s $8 million budget is spent on permanent and transitional housing.

“In the beginning,” Milliner said, “we were spending a lot of money on homeless issues without getting to the root cause of the problem.”

In Baltimore, one bed in a shelter costs $30 per night, according to officials at HCH, amounting to roughly $900 per month per person. Paying for emergency room visits after nights in the freezing cold of the streets or campsites like camp 83 is another huge expense for cities. The HCH argues that Baltimore could better invest that money by finding efficiency rental units for homeless men and women.

“Ostensibly, the city’s reason for closing this encampment is because it’s unsafe and it’s unsanitary,” said Adam Schneider, director of community relations at HCH, of Camp 83. “People living in that encampment, they agree. Living in the streets is neither safe nor sanitary. The correct response to that is to provide people housing.”

Still, mustering the resources to do so — money, time and effort from non-profits and government agencies — remains a dubious task.

The $1.5 billion made available through the 2009 stimulus for the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program expired in September 2012. The Obama administration budget for fiscal year 2013 recommends increasing funding for homeless assistance grants by 17 percent, to $2.2 billion, but money for some HUD programs, like project-based rental assistance, will be cut. Of course, with sequestration, none of that matters now.

As for Camp 83, the decision to bulldoze had been made. Whether former camp residents will be able to find affordable, permanent housing has yet to be seen. Until they do, advocates like Lindamood remain skeptical about The Journey Home’s success.

“We need to make sure policymakers are investing in the housing to make permanent, supportive housing work,” he said. “If not to eliminate homelessness altogether, to make it something that’s rare and brief.”

Andrew Zaleski is a journalist living in Baltimore. He is the lead reporter for technology news site Technical.ly Baltimore and a contributing writer for Baltimore City Paper. Find him on Twitter.

Tags: washington, d.c., baltimore, homelessness, economic developmment