In the latest episode of The Real Baltimore, homeless advocates decry the razing of a tent community near downtown Baltimore
CROWD: No houses, no peace! No houses, no peace!
JAISAL NOOR: Welcome to The Real Baltimore. I’m your host Jaisal Noor. Last week, the city of Baltimore cleared a homeless encampment in downtown that housed about 40 residents. They had called it home for months. Authorities said they would be relocated to a dormitory type shelter in East Baltimore.
JAISAL NOOR: People are throwing their belongings onto the street to blockade the eviction process.
TONY SIMMONS: In the beginning we feeling like help everybody move out and clean up, and make sure the city holds their promise. But a lot of the people that live out here decided to take a stand and they gonna take a stand right now. They’re just gonna bring attention to the city, that they don’t wanna keep being moved and shuffled around like cattle.
JAISAL NOOR: And this is where you live.
TARA MARTIN: Yeah.
JAISAL NOOR: Can you show us real quick?
TARA MARTIN: Yeah, it’s just blankets and a tarp.
JAISAL NOOR: Yeah.
TARA MARTIN: Yeah.
JAISAL NOOR: We just heard, those who represented the mayor’s office, they said that everyone out here has been, they met with everyone out here. Have they met with you?
TARA MARTIN: No. They haven’t met with everybody. There’s a lot of people they definitely haven’t met with everybody.
JAISAL NOOR: On Monday, the city told us about half that population, 20 people, had been moved into the Volunteers of America shelter in East Baltimore. And they said workers there are focused on providing services to them and making sure a shuttle van service is set up for those who have offsite appointments, work, et cetera. The city paid Volunteers of America over $700,000 to house and provide service to those who were evicted for six months, the Baltimore Brew has reported, and many have demanded transparency in how that money is spent. Another seven to 12 people have been staying with Christina Flowers, and we spoke to them Tuesday morning and asked them why they didn’t wanna say in the shelter the city had provided.
BILLY EUBANKS: Those places, they become unsafe for certain individuals like me. I’m on probation. At any given time, someone could do something to jeopardize that. I don’t feel safe, myself, being in an environment like that. BILLY EUBANKS
My name is Billy Eubanks and we’re at Christina Flowers’s office in the basement, well, because of our crisis in homelessness.
JAISAL NOOR: It has also come to light that the night after the encampment was cleared, the Pratt Contemporaries held their 2018 black and white party. According to the Pratt’s website, the party raised over $220,000 for child and teen literacy services at the Pratt Library, and that was just half a block from where that encampment was cleared just the night before.
Well, now joining us to discuss this are three guests. Christina Flowers is a longtime advocate for the homeless. She heads the group Real Care Providers. Carl Banks is a homeless activist working with Christina Flowers. He’s the founder of the Bazarian Society. Jeff Singer, adjunct instructor at University of Maryland, his recent op ed in The Sun, Leave Baltimore’s Homeless Encampments Alone.
We invited a representative from the city to join us but they could not attend. Thank you all for joining us.
CARL BANKS: Thank you.
CHRISTINA FLOWERS: Thanks for having us.
JAISAL NOOR: So, Christina, let’s start with you. We caught up with you on Friday. You’ve been working with the population at that encampment on Guilford, which was cleared on Friday. We talked to the city. They had representatives there. They said this was in the best interest of the residents there; the residents had asked to be relocated; it wasn’t safe. Two people had passed away in the past few weeks because of the freezing cold weather, it was unclean. Talk about your perspective and your response to this move by the city to clear that space out.
CHRISTINA FLOWERS: Well, when you think about transparency and communicating with the homeless residents, you need to be able to collectively communicate with them all, because when you look at the numbers that was there, navigators and outreach workers don’t work through the night. When you have the number of 40 individuals compared to 20 individuals, then if you have 20, where are the other 20 at when they came back to engage or to get their belongings? Sometimes, they weren’t engaged by navigators or city workers because they may have been gone on a temporary job.
We have a myth in Baltimore City that our homeless people are lazy or bums. That’s a myth. Some of them, they do have temporary day jobs or they do go out and have to survive to make their means and their ends meet. Half of them was not engaged during this process. The amazing part, one lady that I engaged on Thursday, she couldn’t read. No one ever even came down there and read the signs that were put up for her, so, literacy. So again, transparency is something that we as advocates seek.
We demand that type of transparency ’cause these are people lives. Like you say, you had two of ’em that has passed. It’s a greater number than that that is dealing with trauma, that is dealing with death throughout the streets of Baltimore when they’re sleeping in situations on the corners over the heated areas. So, transparency is a great word that Baltimore City should really adopt when it comes to dealing with our vulnerable homeless population. We just seeking, demand the opportunity to increase their voices. They should be heard.
A lot of homeless individuals, they are subject to a lot of institutions that hinders their voice. If they talk too much, they may get evicted out of a shelter like they got evicted off of the streets. So, we just really gotta take the opportunity to build that transparency within the homeless community so that at the end of the day, it should not be about us as the advocates, it should be about empowering them so that they can have a life of decency and they can have a life of empowerment.
The budget in Baltimore City, when you look at it, the services that supposed to be there for them is not happening.
JAISAL NOOR: So, I wanted to ask Carl, you were formerly homeless. You were a part of the tent city encampment in front of City Hall. You were out there for weeks in absolutely boiling temperatures in the summer. You were also staying in the Guilford encampment. We heard earlier why some people didn’t wanna go, why people are not in shelters, why they’re not going to the emergency shelters. Some people, at least 20, don’t wanna go to the Volunteers of America Shelter in East Baltimore which is about three and a half miles away from downtown. Talk about your perspective, someone that’s experienced this first hand, why people choose to live on the streets despite the either boiling temperatures or freezing temperatures. Can you share that?
CARL BANKS: Well, from my observation and my understanding of the situation is that a lot of these homeless shelters that they in place for the homeless, let me just restate that, are nasty. They have the staff in there. A lot of the staff in there was once homeless themselves. A lot of ’em come from… place, and they come in there and they harass and bully the people that live there. Things get stolen there, it’s uncomfortable, it got bed bugs. It has diseases and germs, you can get sick. A lot of the services that’s provided in there, it’s really not that many services provided there even though they may project that they try to give you housing and things because there’s people living in those shelters for three, five, seven, ten years.
CHRISTINA FLOWERS: Nine.
CARL BANKS: Nine years. Literally living in there. Program is only that they has a 90 day stipulation. People been rotating in there, living in there. A lot of these programs are really slow when it comes down to providing essential services, things that you may need. A lot of the staff is nasty in there. Why there were nasty? Have nasty attitudes. Now, a lot of them, of course, a lot of people would say, “When you’re in a situation some of you gotta endure and bear it,” but come on, man. How many things do a person have to endure to get their base-level needs met? How many different types of mud puddles, of bad attitudes, nasty situations, dirty situations, degrading situations, emotionally disturbing situations do a person have to endure to get their base-level needs met?
It’s despicable. And honestly, a lot of people in that situation don’t wanna be in a shelter. Actually, to be honest with you, it’s the reason why I don’t get high. When you’re enduring and dealing with this kind of pain for so long, when your family given up on you, when they’re calling you trash and trying to get a job is heavily difficult, when your times is being spent on on a day-to-day basis trying to seek help and most people won’t wanna help you because of your situation in the first place, you keep going down. It’s like trying to carry a truck on your back.
CHRISTINA FLOWERS: It’s traumatizing.
CARL BANKS: It’s traumatizing. You can get PTSD from this situation, especially, if you don’t have the will to deal with it. And the thing is, is that a lot of people, honestly, it’s sad. In short, to stay on topic, a lot of ’em choose the outside situation just to have the freedom to be able to navigate decently because some of these shelter programs are not designed for you to go out there. Some shelter situations, you have to be in at a certain time. You’ve gotta meet this criteria, meet these rules, and if you don’t, you can get kicked out. If you bring in too many clothes, you can get kicked out. Some stuff, some sad, pitiful, pathetic stuff like that, I wanted to keep that on camera. It’s pathetic.
These human services workers, they keep trying to make these people, and despite everything I just said, they still try to make these people meet these expectations. But in reality, if you’re really trying to help somebody, you gotta meet them where they at. A lot of ’em have mental disabilities and at the same time, you also gotta consider the stigma. When you out there, the way people look at you, the way they make you feel. You can’t tell people you’re homeless, be honest with you, nobody. Most people are trained, mentally trained and conditioned to put you down because you have less. Seriously. Seriously. You put all that and you wrap it up in one big basket and you look at it for what it is, not how you want it to be but look at it for what it is. You realize there’s a strong reason why they’d rather endure the temperatures than go in these so-called institutions.
JAISAL NOOR: So, Jeff Singer, you’re a longtime advocate. The city says the housing they’re offering at Volunteers of America isn’t a shelter that so many homeless people don’t wanna go to, it’s temporary housing and people are gonna be relocated and transitioned into something more permanent. You wrote a piece in The Sun talking about why this is inhumane, the clearing of this encampment.
JEFF SINGER: If the city’s new bridge housing is so effective, why didn’t they offer it to folks months ago? And why have they made it mandatory? And why have they destroyed the community that folks built along Guilford? The city knows very well that clearing encampments or destroying homeless communities is counterproductive. It’s not an effective and efficient policy, and it is inhumane because people had a place to live, where they felt safe and secure. The city could have worked with folks there on Guilford and Bath to improve the conditions if they needed to be improved. But destroying a community is not participatory, it’s not democratic, it’s not the way we should be taught to work with folks.
JAISAL NOOR: This isn’t the first encampment that the city has cleared, to be very clear about that. Can you talk about the history of that, you and Christina?
JEFF SINGER: Yeah, sure. The city’s been doing this for decades and we’ve been protesting it for decades because the solution to homelessness is very simple. It’s housing and adequate incomes, and then access to supportive services. The housing part is the most difficult part because housing is a commodity that costs a lot of capital and the city hasn’t wanted to commit that capital for decades.
Baltimore City is the only east coast city that doesn’t have a plan to create a sufficient supply of affordable housing. We’ve been asking the city to do this for 40 years.
JAISAL NOOR: Well, in 2016, there was a referendum passed to create a affordable housing trust fund. The city has yet to put any money into that trust fund.
JEFF SINGER: Not a dollar.
JAISAL NOOR: That’s been a concern because that would-
JEFF SINGER: That’s right.
JAISAL NOOR: Because the city has tens of thousands of vacant homes and that would be a pathway to have people from the community rehab those homes, make them livable, and get people inside of them. But the city has put no money into that.
CHRISTINA FLOWERS: Probably could have put the $700,000 in there.
JEFF SINGER: That’s right.
CHRISTINA FLOWERS: They could have put it in.
JAISAL NOOR: You’re talking about the 700,000 that the city gave to Volunteers of America.
CHRISTINA FLOWERS: They could have put $700,000 in there.
JAISAL NOOR: I think it’s relevant to bring up the location of this encampment. It’s right downtown. We’re only about a block away from there now. It’s prime real estate that’s being revitalized. You documented on Saturday night, and I saw it, too. I was down there as well. By Saturday, a day after the encampment was cleared, it’s fenced off now. But there was this black tie gala raising money for the Pratt Library. You witnessed that. We have video of it. Talk about what you saw.
CHRISTINA FLOWERS: Well, it was alarming to me because it was like a myth, a buzz, in the encampment that it was gonna be a party the next night. It’s like, “Okay,” so I really didn’t think a lot about it. But we were still navigating downtown to see who was left behind because a lot of individuals were left behind Friday night. They couldn’t just run to Walmart and get a tent and start over. We were down there pretty much just making sure, canvasing to see who was left behind. Basically, we were able to engage the fancy party at 316 Guilford. I call the encampment 401 Guilford because one of the individuals put a stake in the ground and put “401 Guilford.” That was his address.
Basically, it was a benefit, a lavish, wonderful benefit. But when you talk about the history of the encampments, I go back to March the 7th, 2013, every time I speak because that’s when I first, initially started witnessing individuals sleeping outside in these conditions. When I think about that encampment, these individuals were there for five years or more. Again, like we said, if it’s a solution, why you don’t start engaging them where they consider themselves to be safe at? Some of them are safe. I never see this encampment in a disarray, or dirty, or junky, until after they started displacing everyone.
Again, it’s a lot of myths. If it was a great bridge program and something to work about, why don’t you go to there and engage them where they’re at? Then let’s move them and transition them. But you have to look at the lack of navigators, you have to look at the lack of outreach workers, and the fact that if they’re not engaging these individuals and expediting any services, then we’re going to have a continuing process of encampments just popping up all over downtown. So, the history of it, to me, is still being handled like March the 7th, 2013. I’m sure brother may just know more before that for me. I haven’t seen anything different since then.
JAISAL NOOR: There’s still tents and camps all over downtown. They haven’t-
CHRISTINA FLOWERS: All over. And it’s supposed to be the focus. To my understanding, the focus of this move was to move 40 individuals that were placed in the different encampments around City Hall; Fallsway… Street. These individuals are still there. So, why was Guilford the main focus of putting a fence up right away? Why not in front of Health Care the Homeless? Why not the tents and the mattresses that people are accommodating them with down there? Again, we gotta look at the history of this and realize when can we have some different approaches, and demanding some different approaches to this?
JAISAL NOOR: I wanted to end by asking everyone, what are some effective policies? What are some demands that people should be making right now? What has worked elsewhere? What has worked in the rest of the country, Jeff?
JEFF SINGER: Sure. Well, number one is stop destroying communities. Number two, we have to focus on permanent housing and getting folks into it as soon as possible. There are resources for permanent housing. Not nearly enough, but there are some. We have an Inclusionary Housing Ordinance in Baltimore that’s produced only 32 units in ten years, and not a single one of those units was for an impoverished family.
JAISAL NOOR: You’re talking about a law that deals with when developers build housing. They have to build units that are affordable.
JEFF SINGER: The law says that but the housing commissioner has the right to waive it, and the former housing commissioner waived it under every circumstance except for a couple of tiny developments. Then the voters of Baltimore adopted an affordable housing trust fund. The mayor agreed to fund it with a campaign called the 20/20 Campaign, 20 million dollars a year to build housing and 20 million dollars to destroy housing that couldn’t be saved. We have about 43,000 vacant housing units in Baltimore. So, there’s a lot of work that could be done. We could put people experiencing homelessness to work. They have skills. They can learn more skills. There’s a lot that can be done and there’s even money to do it, but clearly, the city’s priority is to make poverty and injustice invisible.
CARL BANKS: Right. And I’ll add on that solution is that there are a couple solutions that I’ve seen. Well, not seen, yeah, I’ve seen and witnessed. Example, in Colorado and the state of Utah, they implemented what do you call, off-grid living tactics for the homeless and people within poverty like tiny houses, tiny homes.
JEFF SINGER: There’s whole communities that are available.
CARL BANKS: Yeah, yeah, whole communities that they developed that was self-sustaining, that allowed the people that were in the situation have a place to live. They didn’t cost the city a lot of money because it was self-sustaining. You had solar panels put in place, different things that kept the community going. That type of thing is actually good for the city. It can build income for the city. A lot of people with those type of setups generate more energy for the city because they sell it. It can create gardens, stuff like that. Those type of solutions could work at a very low budget.
Or all these vacant houses. Having over 30,000 vacant houses, I think they should create a program, put these vacant houses in, and create a fund just to get those houses fixed. Give the homeless people skills to be able to fix them houses, fix those houses up, and let ’em live in them, because-
JEFF SINGER: Well, that program exists, but it’s just not funded.
CARL BANKS: Well, it needs to be funded. The last thing I wanna put into place, I wanna say is one of the main things the city or anyone that helps anybody needs to know, is that a person’s base-level needs need to be met before anything else. How do you expect a person to be productive at work and be able to get a job if they can’t take a shower and clean themselves, and their worrying about where their food coming from, and they worry about their security? When you have a house, you feel secure. You get things done when you know you can lock your door and leave stuff. This is basic human needs that every person on this planet feels. Because of that, that should be the primary focus of any sort of help, because every person is, let’s say, hypothetically, you throw all of these little amenities and little, not amenities, wraparound services at ’em… programs, do this, do that. But in the back of your mind, you know you’re hungry. In the back of your mind, you know the stuff that you’re carrying around is not secure but it’s important to you. In the back of your mind, you know you can’t get this and get that. That base-level needs need to be met.
I wanna put one more last thing into it, I don’t wanna take too much, I know shared time is important; shared time. One thing I also wanna put in is that people need to drop their traditional perception of homelessness. People need to drop this traditional perception of homelessness because just because a person is not meeting or getting this or getting that doesn’t mean any less than a human being. Then, to be honest with you, over half the nation, like I showed you when we was down there at Christina’s place, over half the nation is dependent on welfare and benefits, over 165 million people. Look at the US Debt Clock. You can look at government statistics, US census. Over more than half the nation is dependent on welfare, and less than half the nation, less than 360 million people, in the US census and the US Debt Clock is not working. Less than half the nation is working. Less than half.
Less than half the nation is going to get a paycheck. This situation is not just due to people being lazy and stuff. And also, in my experience about going to these shelters, most of ’em can work. Most of ’em probably work harder than I ever worked. Most of ’em are really hard workers, but their opportunity, the economic issues that is going on locally, regionally, and nationally, the people go to jail to get their records, they can’t find jobs. People made a mistake six, seven years ago but gotta wait ten years or 20 years or can’t get expunged at all, can’t find work. There’s a lot more situations, human trafficking. A lot of people is homeless because of human trafficking, and I met ’em. It’s a lot more going on in this situation that is hindering people.
Also, not enabling, not disabling people from being able to get jobs, to be able to find opportunities, and this situation that we’re going through in this nation as a whole, and also as we’re going it in locally and regionally, people, it’s hard out here. It is hard out here. I think that needs to be understood. The traditional perception of homelessness needs to be discarded and the situation needs to be seen as it is, not as the media or some real estate propaganda, and base media needs to let go.
That’s all I got to say about that.
CHRISTINA FLOWERS: Well, if I had to finalize it, I would say an emergency solution. I think when you see individuals allowed to go somewhere and build their community for four and five months, when do we see it as an emergency? I think when the first tent goes up it should be seen as an emergency. When you think about emergency solutions, you think about housing first. You think about housing these individuals and then navigating them through the services. One of the things I do, and I take a lot of pride in my organization, the Real Care Providers, one of the things that we were able to demonstrate coming into Baltimore City in 2013 was what housing first looked like. Sometimes, we have to look at some of the partnerships collaborating.
We have a mayor that campaigned on lifting the least of them. Not pushing. Lifting and pushing is two different things. When you’re looking at collaborations and partnerships with individuals that have models like the Real Care Providers, the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services visited my building about two years ago. You take the chance of trying to partner and collaborate with them, praying they don’t take your ideas because when you’re partnering and you’re collaborating and you’re trying to build a community for homeless individuals, we should look at the emergency solutions of housing first.
Who and what organizations are able to engage a population straight out of a tent? Not everyone can take a person straight out of a tent and still be able to work with these individuals to navigate and get the things that they need. So, basically, with me, just like this weekend with Guilford, it was opening up a hub for emergency operations. That’s what it was: “Y’all come in. Let’s get it together. Let’s work and see what can be done.” We should start dealing with this with emergency solutions; supportive housing. One of the things with the program, some individuals will never be able to manage on their own without setting a fire or burning up the kitchen. So, you put those supportive services in place. Not crippling them but just support them to empower them.
The success to this for me is seeing individuals like Carl that is able to sit here as a ex-homeless person and share for the rest of ’em. Never experiencing homelessness, this, to me, is a solution because it’s about engaging and empowering. Not getting to him and say, “Let me keep you down,” because you have enough skills right now that if I partner and collaborate with you, we can take things to the next level because you are a voice to be heard. It’s time that Baltimore City, we allow our homeless voices to be heard.
JAISAL NOOR: I wanna thank you all for joining us. There’s a lot more to talk about and we’re gonna keep continuing this conversation, keep continuing the story.
CHRISTINA FLOWERS: Thank you, Jaisal.
JAISAL NOOR: And thank you all for joining us.
CHRISTINA FLOWERS: Thank you for having us.
CARL BANKS: Thank you.
JEFF SINGER: Thank you.
JAISAL NOOR: Thank you for joining us at The Real Baltimore.