In early April, Baltimore City’s Housing Authority threatened Reverend Annie Chambers with arrest and eviction for distributing food to her neighbors at Douglass Homes, citing a policy barring non-government organizations from giving food donations to public housing residents.
Rather than stopping Chambers’ mutual aid initiative, the incident led to widespread support for her work. Chambers says that the Housing Authority has not interfered with a giveaway since, and that the public attention has resulted in an increase in donations.
”We have not had any trouble from them since. People called The Housing Authority from Washington, New York, Philadelphia and Virginia,” Chambers told The Real News Network. “Senator [Mary] Washington and the Teachers Union called the Housing Authority. Many single individuals have called the mayor and The Housing Authority on our behalf.”
Maryland State Senator Mary Washington, who expressed support for Chambers, noted that food insecurity in Baltimore City increased rapidly as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Senator Washington said she received a briefing from Baltimore City’s Office of Sustainability stating that the city agency “anticipate[s] that a quarter of a million people [in Baltimore City] are going to be food insecure in a month,” Washington told The Real News Network.
According to the most recent census data available, that city briefing suggests that more than 40% of Baltimore City residents will suffer from food insecurity by June. Washington noted that SNAP benefits are being processed more slowly than usual, worsening Baltimore’s food crisis.
Lawyer Alec Summerfield filed a cease-and-desist letter on behalf of Chambers, arguing that The Housing Authority’s threats of eviction violate Maryland’s stay-at-home order as well as the UN Charter on Human Rights.
“Article 25 [of the UN Charter on Human Rights] states that all people have the right to have access to food, particularly in times of crisis and political strife,” Summerfield said. “And given the extent to the price gouging and how hard it is for people to get to grocery stores with the food deserts in Baltimore, it’s a violation of those rights for the city to deny non-profits the right to give food to people.”
According to Summerfield, The Housing Authority violated Maryland’s stay-at-home order, which bans all evictions until further notice. He says he is in touch with two other Douglass residents who volunteered with Chambers and were also threatened with eviction during the stay-at-home order.
The Housing Authority told The Real News Network that they attempted to shut down food giveaways at Douglass Homes because of a standard policy that prohibits non-government organizations from distributing food to public housing residents and not because of COVID-19.
Washington said that The Housing Authority has a responsibility to “help bring Ms. Chambers and her organization into compliance” with health and safety regulations rather than impede their efforts.
“People want to help so instead of setting up bureaucratic obstacles, we should figure out how to help them. The CDC, and Baltimore City Health Department have regulations for what the best practices are [during COVID-19],” Washington said. “As long as people are abiding by those rules, they should be supported- and there should be support and resources to help people follow those rules. Anyone who wants to do that should be part of the overall strategy. I felt what happened was a bureaucratic knee-jerk response that was not solution oriented.”
Activists and Douglass residents have reason not to trust the Housing Authority—not only because of how they threatened Chambers but also because of a 2016 lawsuit that revealed Housing Authority employees had demanded sexual favors in exchange for necessary maintenance.
The Housing Authority’s attempt to shut down food giveaways at Douglass Homes occurred while Baltimore City began directing 211 emergency calls from food insecure residents to some of the same grassroots organizations that donate to public housing. The 211 service in central Maryland, provided by the nonprofit United Way, connects state residents to both government-funded and non-profit emergency resources. Grassroots organizations Baltimore Food Rescue, 4MyCity, and So What Else have all been delivering food to Douglass homes since before the April incident, and they have been delivering food to 211 callers since early April.
United Way’s new relationships with the grassroots organizations have been necessary to respond to the spike in calls for food assistance in light of COVID-19.
“Our call volume has increased over four hundred percent,” Suzanne Poandl of United Way said.
“We have staff who man the calls, most of them have a social work background. We have brought on 70 plus volunteers to help with those calls [since the pandemic].”
The Greater Baltimore Collaborative, an alliance of 11 nonprofit groups including United Way, awarded grants to Baltimore Food Rescue, 4MyCity, and So What Else in April, at the direction of Baltimore City’s Office of Sustainability. The collaborative was formed to create a COVID-19 Relief Fund for Baltimore City, and it was first put to use to give grants to 11 food aid organizations recommended by Baltimore City officials.
Molly Rath, Baltimore City’s Director of Communications and Engagement, outlined the city’s response to the food crisis in a May 4 email to The Real News Network: “On April 21, Mayor Young announced a comprehensive strategy to respond to growing food need during the coronavirus pandemic, and meal distribution sites make up a core component of that strategy,” she said.
Between March 16-April 16, the city distributed 705,155 meals and 1,840 grocery boxes and they plan to increase the number of meals they distribute in May and June. Chambers says the city food sites won’t be able to alleviate hunger unless they turn their focus to fresh produce, meat, eggs, and other take-home groceries.
“When the city truck comes and you’re hungry, and you’ve been hungry, and they hand you a sandwich with one piece of baloney between two pieces of bread, that’s like saying ‘go die’ and that’s all the help we’ve been given,” Chambers said. “But we’ve been blessed that other people have seen the need and helped us.”
Public housing residents aren’t the only ones relying on grassroots activists to alleviate food insecurity. Mutual aid networks and non-profits across the city are working to increase the amount of food they distribute to meet the increased need. Baltimore Food Rescue, 4MyCity, and So What Else rely on donations of fresh food that is hard to sell because it is considered visually imperfect or has damaged packaging.
“The majority of it is recovery food. We wouldn’t be able to do this without recovery food,” said So What Else Volunteer Coordinator Christine Garrahan.
The nonprofit 4MyCity usually gives out an average of 50,000 pounds of food per week. Chris Dipnarine, CEO of 4MyCity, says that the organization distributed over 100,000 pounds of food during the first week of May and that they aim to give out that amount consistently in the future. Baltimore Food Rescue and So What Else each distributes 10,000 pounds of free food weekly. The nonprofit An End to Ignorance shifted its focus to food aid in light of the pandemic, and now gives out 10,000 pounds of food weekly.
Matt Burke of Baltimore Food Rescue said that he hopes the city partnership will lead to opportunities to expand his own work, and he also wants to see increased support and funding for lesser known grassroots food relief efforts throughout the city.
“I met folks in Harlem Park who opened up their home as a food kitchen,” Burke said. “There’s so many folks all over the city, I know folks who open up their homes as a shelter for folks that are homeless, and no one knows who they are, they get no recognition or funding and they do it anyway.”
Washington wants to make sure that smaller grassroots organizations receive more funding as non-profit groups parner with Baltimore City to provide COVID-19 relief.
“[Grassroots volunteers] are doing some of the work that the city itself is not doing and stepping up,” Washington said. “And one of the things I want to make sure is that these grassroots organizations get some of the money that is coming down the pipeline.”
In East Baltimore, mutual aid organizations The Baltimore Redevelopment Action Coalition for Empowerment [BRACE] and Reclaiming Our Community provide customized grocery boxes to seniors and people with dietary restrictions weekly. Donald Gresham, President of BRACE started the initiative to deliver food to seniors who can’t eat salt due to diabetes or hypertension and who don’t own vehicles.
“For people of color, we have generational diseases in our communities,” Gresham said. “We’ve been having these problems since before the virus took place. So we’re not going to cry and say ‘poor me,’ we’re just going to go to work. We know we’re going to be the last to get anything, so we need to get masks and gloves and educate.”
In Baltimore’s low-income communities, neighborhood organizations are left with few options but to take on the challenges of coordinating aid during a global pandemic. Throughout Baltimore City, residents are relying increasingly on dynamic, personal mutual aid networks to survive the rise in poverty caused by COVID-19.
“We didn’t have to wait for Hogan to tell us, it’s a homegrown thing. Crisis doesn’t divide us, crisis brings us closer together. Because we only need to look at each other to know that we will survive anything,” said Gresham.
Note: The author has participated in food aid organized by Baltimore Food Rescue, BRACE, and an End to Ignorance. They delivered food for So What Else while writing this article.