On Saturday, I was among nearly 200 students and community members planning to spend an evening at War Memorial Plaza, outside of City Hall, to help bring attention to the city’s atrocious and largely preventable homelessness problem.
That is, until the police, using the threat of arrest, demanded that we not do so.
Lisa Klingenmaier, an organizer of the “A Bench is Not a Bed” sleep-out event and a graduate student at University of Maryland, School of Social Work, told this website she was informed that the demand that we not sleep-out came from “very high up” in city government. We are left to speculate who or what “very high up” means.
Baltimore Sun crime reporter Justin Fenton was told by an unidentified police official that “people are not permitted to sleep at City Hall,” and noted that while the city has avoided confrontation with Occupy Baltimore protesters camping out at McKeldin Square, it “doesn’t mean we turn the rest of Baltimore into a camp site.”
It’s a curious statement that speaks to the continued and unfortunate disconnect between city leadership and its citizenry.
Baltimore has a significant and challenging homelessness problem. According to studies released by Johns Hopkins University and Morgan State University in September, Baltimore’s overall homeless population has increased by nearly 20% over the past two years. The number of homeless between the ages of 13 and 24 increased by a staggering 50%.
30,000 Will Experience Homelessness
On any given night, 4,000 Baltimoreans sleep either outside or at a shelter, and it is estimated that nearly 30,000 will have experienced homelessness at some point this year. To say that homelessness is an issue deserving public attention is a monumental understatement.
The “A Bench is Not a Bed” sleep-out was the linchpin public-education event culminating the end of National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. Its stated purpose was to “bring together students, advocates, residents and people experiencing homelessness to be a powerful visual display that we are dedicated to changing the policies and environment that create and sustain homelessness.”
Organizers collected blankets and sleeping bags to donate and distribute to individuals experiencing homelessness.
It was an inspiring event, organized primarily by student groups from University of Maryland, Goucher, Loyola, Towson, Johns Hopkins, UMBC, McDaniel and Morgan State. Kevin Lindamood, CEO of Healthcare for the Homeless, as well as representatives from Bmore Housing for All, and Homeless Persons Representation Project, were among the many who addressed the gathered crowd.
The crowd included individuals experiencing homelessness, college students, academics, social service professionals, homelessness prevention advocates, public policy experts and many other concerned citizens.
Doing Our Part
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was not present, despite repeated invitations from event organizers and Baltimore City Paper columnist Lionel Foster. In her statement regarding “The Journey Home,” Baltimore’s 10-year plan to end homelessness, the mayor notes that we “cannot end homelessness with money alone – we need smart and effective programs… we need people in the community to do their part.”
Which is why the city’s response to “A Bench is Not a Bed” is curious: while the organizers and attendees have been described as activists, troublemakers and Occupy allies, a more apt description is that they were people who wanted to be partners in solving the city’s enormous and embarrassing homelessness epidemic.
They are social workers, addictions counselors, community stalwarts and nonprofit advocates who are working on “smart and effective programs” that are necessary in helping to end homelessness.
They are “people in the community” that the mayor asks to “do their part.”
By supporting the sleep-out event, it would have been a symbolic approval of the activities and work being carried out by the organizers and those like them. Not doing so was poorly calculated and deeply disappointing. Contrast this to former Mayor Sheila Dixon, who intervened in 2007 to allow homelessness prevention advocates to sleep outside of City Hall.
Four years later, however, organizers and advocates were met by silence, indifference and even hostility.
– Rodney Foxworth is a Baltimore writer, communications strategist and public policy specialist.