Photo courtesy of Sharon Black

Baltimore City’s Housing Authority threatened Reverend Annie Chambers with eviction and arrest in an attempt to stop her from distributing food donations to her neighbors at the public housing community Douglass Homes last week. Cheryl Harrison-Jackson, a supervisor from the Housing Authority, turned away representatives from local nonprofit organizations the Franciscan Center and the Living Classroom, saying that only government organizations can provide food to public housing residents. The Living Classroom, which has a contract with the Housing Authority, was forced to halt donations to Douglass Homes residents. The Franciscan Center provided food that day, but no longer delivers to public housing and now requires residents to pick the food up from them. The Baltimore Brew spoke with Chambers last week.

“[Jackson] ripped and raged and fussed like she wanted to scare someone. I told her ‘I’m not scared of you. I’m going to do what I have to do,” said Chambers, in an interview with The Real News Network in her home last week.

The Housing Authority representative called the police, but police did not respond to the call and  Chambers was able to distribute donations after the representative from the Housing Authority left. The majority of Douglass Homes residents experience food insecurity, and she intends to continue coordinating donations, Chambers explained. “This is a city that has failed poor people—It’s like they want to let us die,” she said.

More than 20% of Baltimore City residents already experienced food insecurity before the COVID-19 pandemic, and that number increased during Maryland’s stay-at-home order. Douglass residents have also said that price gouging at local grocery stores has left them even more vulnerable than usual. Residents say grocery prices have tripled since the pandemic, and elderly residents say they don’t feel safe going to the store at all because they are at high risk from COVID-19 symptoms.

Although the police did not respond to the Housing Authority’s phone call on Monday, Chambers still worries that she and other volunteers risk arrest or eviction when organizing food relief in the future.

“I don’t know in the future what’s going to happen. [Jackson] said she was going to make sure that I was going to get evicted, that I was going to get a termination of my lease for giving out food,” Chambers says.

After a lifetime at the helm of Baltimore’s civil rights movement, Chambers said that the COVID-19 pandemic has led to the most widespread food insecurity she has ever seen in her community.

“I’ve been working for 66 years getting food, clothes, and shelter to people and this is the worst time that I have ever experienced,” Chambers said. “I’ve been threatened for a lot of other things I’ve done, like rent strikes, welfare rights, the very first Poor People’s Campaign with Dr. Martin Luther King. This is the first time I’ve ever heard that it’s ‘illegal’ to give people food.”

While speaking with TRNN in her living room last week, Chambers answered the door to speak with three different neighbors who came by to ask for food. She had run out of donations for the day and had no choice but to turn them away.

“People constantly are asking, and when I run out—I run out. I don’t have it,” Chambers said. “People ask me, can you give me some eggs, can you give me some milk, I don’t have it, I’m poor like them.”

The Housing Authority issued the following statement about last week’s incident: “HABC was notified that a resident was providing food at Douglass Homes in a manner that was not following any CDC, state and local guidelines and directives. Further we discovered that the resident was distributing food that included some items with expiration dates from 2016. The resident was informed that this was completely unsafe and harmful to residents. In terms of food distribution, all food distribution is being coordinated under the guidance of the City of Baltimore’s Health Department and Department of Planning. This includes the meal distributions that are being provided at Douglass Homes through the Maryland Food Bank and the My Groceries to Go!, which is the federal Commodity Supplemental Food Program.”

According to Chambers, the aid provided by government agencies is not sufficient to address the needs of residents who are now restricted to staying at home amid the COVID-19 outbreak. Douglass residents receive one meal per person each time the City’s food donations arrive, and those meals are not offered every day of the week.

While the Baltimore City Housing Authority issued a directive stating that public housing residents should only accept donations only from the Maryland Food Bank, all food aid volunteers have been granted essential personnel designations though Maryland’s stay-at-home order. Only public housing residents are subjected to the Housing Authority’s limitations.

The B-more Food Collective, a new collaboration between long-standing community organizations Baltimore Food Rescue, An End to Ignorance, So What Else, and 4mycity, is one of the organizations that received state-issued documentation of their essential personnel designation last week. The new coalition is rapidly increasing food aid to Baltimore residents in light of the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Before COVID-19, Baltimore Food Rescue was giving out an average of 5,000 pounds of food a week. Since teaming up with the other orgs, our efforts are at about 15,000 pounds per week,” said Matt Burke of Baltimore Food Rescue. “We are in the process of securing additional resources from distributors and the Maryland Food Bank. We have a goal of working our way up to distributing 50,000 pounds per week.”

The Baltimore City Housing Authority’s attempt to crack down on volunteer-run food aid occurred on the same day that Maryland Food Bank partner organizations received documentation of their essential personnel status.

“The pandemic has revealed a critical flaw in our city’s infrastructure—its inability to care for its most vulnerable citizens—and it’s crucial that the city takes notice of that. Reverend Chambers and all the people doing this work are heroes and they deserve to be recognized as such,” said Burke.

Note: the writer of this piece has volunteered with Baltimore Food Rescue and has participated in An End to Ignorance’s community discussion groups.