The Tent City mobilization deserves our gratitude for bringing hopefulness and energy to the struggle for social justice.
City officials have been forced to open an emergency shelter sooner than planned, the shelter residents are organizing its operations in a model absent from Baltimore for several decades, and homelessness once again is being discussed in the context of racism, white supremacy and capitalism more forcefully than at any time since the heyday of the Baltimore Homeless Union in the early 1980s.
Another result of the Tent City mobilization is the renewed attention to the Housing First model.
Housing First is a method of addressing homelessness founded on two principles: first, the necessary solution to homelessness is permanent affordable housing, and, second, whatever services a person experiencing homelessness may require are more effectively delivered when that person already has stable housing.
In a Housing First program, there are no preconditions or behavioral requirements prior to obtaining permanent housing.
Any assessments conducted are clinical in nature and identify services needed to retain, not gain, housing. The completion of treatment and the achievement of sobriety are not prerequisites in a Housing First program.
Successful Model’s Backstory
Emerging here in the early 1980s through the Baltimore Homeless Union and later institutionalized by the work of Pathways in New York City and – oddly – at the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness during the George W. Bush administration, Housing First became Baltimore’s official model for addressing homelessness in 2007’s plan to end homelessness: The Journey Home.
That plan was adopted after the success of moving 35 households living in St. Vincent’s Park directly into their own permanent housing.
By 2010, more than 200 individuals and families were housed using this model.
None were required to move into emergency or transitional shelter. None were required to be assessed before moving into housing. None were forced to accept services or treatment, although all were offered a rich array of assistance.
In Baltimore and throughout the U.S., 85% of these folks remain housed following this intervention.
But on the 10th anniversary of the adoption of Housing First as Baltimore’s official response to homelessness, more individuals are experiencing homelessness today than in those benighted years preceding our enlightenment.
Has the Housing First model failed?
As Professor Lawrence Brown observed apropos of Tent City, “policy change is only as good as its enforcement and implementation.” Many private providers have demonstrated tepid support for the Housing First model.
More importantly, Baltimore City has never pursued its official policy in a serious manner.
The city itself reports that 98,620 households cannot afford their monthly housing costs. (That figure can be found in the Baltimore City Consolidated Plan 2015-2020, p. 36.)
To address this problem, the city aims to create 300 units of affordable housing annually. (This according to an 8/17/17 email from Michael Braverman, Commissioner of Housing and Community Development.)
Doing the math, it’s clear that Housing First currently is an empty, feel-good catchphrase for city leaders
The Housing First model requires us to view homelessness through a housing lens. But the city has never articulated a plan to meet the enormous need for housing affordable to our impoverished neighbors. Consequently, thousands of households experience evictions and homelessness each year.
Because of decades of poor leadership on affordable housing, we must be skeptical of City Hall’s response to Tent City.
Although the residents won control over an emergency shelter – an important victory to be sure – the city does not seem to have guaranteed permanent affordable housing, as the Housing First model mandates.
Instead, the city promises “assessments.”
The assessment racket has sprung up over the past 10 years replete with rival assessment tools (often for sale!), assessment training and evaluation contrivances – all in the name of determining who accesses the extremely limited supply of affordable housing.
Rules Designed to Ration
Assessments are an example of what political scientist Michael Lipsky dubbed in 1984 “bureaucratic disentitlements” – government practices that ration the inadequate complement of public goods and services.
Rather than admitting that only a fortunate few of our neighbors will be assisted with necessities such as health care, food or housing, the government creates complicated rules and regulations that have the effect of limiting access.
For example, Baltimore’s housing application office was in a building without wheelchair access. At one time, homeless folks were denied food stamps and disability assistance if they had no mailing address.
In the case of the city’s Housing First program, access to the extremely small number of housing subsidies is limited by requiring people experiencing homelessness to complete sometimes lengthy questionnaires prior to obtaining housing assistance. At one time, the Baltimore City assessment was 12 pages in length!
No More Empty Words
The Tent City mobilization exposes the bad faith of a city government that claims to want to abolish homelessness, but has no plan to create a sufficient supply of affordable housing.
It shows the callousness of bureaucrats who adopt the Housing First model, but undermine it with rules and processes designed in large part to prevent people sleeping on the streets from obtaining housing.
It reveals the cravenness of politicians who promulgate an encampment policy, but then destroy homeless encampments whenever the business sector demands it.
It displays the hypocrisy of an administration that focuses its attention on those camped in front of City Hall while refusing to assist those who are camped less visibly two blocks away and beyond.
And, finally, it calls into question the judgment of a mayor who decries homelessness “pimps” – she used that word! – while vetoing living wage legislation that she promised to support during her mayoral campaign.
If the Pugh administration fails to deliver anything less than permanent affordable housing in a timely manner to each of the Tent City occupants, then it will have failed us.
On the other hand, if the mayor cuts through the bureaucratic stasis and takes concrete steps to implement the proven Housing First model, the bravery of the Tent City residents will have a signal achievement to build upon.
Then we can tackle the even harder work of dismantling the institutions of white supremacy and class oppression preventing us from having the Baltimore we all deserve.
– This op-ed was written by longtime housing advocates Lauren Siegel and Jeff Singer, who teach at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. Siegel organized Baltimore’s initial Housing First project; Singer was the president and CEO of Health Care for the Homeless.