2017 Week Four: Homelessness, Poverty, and Neighborhood Improvement
Since the start of my internship, a lot of people have asked what I do at the community center, so I have a short spiel ready: there are only two full-time staff members at the center (and this isn’t misleading: there is only one part-time staff member who does a few hours on Saturdays). So, I’m basically involved in anything and everything. I’ve realized how that’s only been increasingly accurate. From administrative work, to planning the community health fair, to supervising YouthWorkers, to just running around and taking care of anything that comes up, I really am doing a lot of anything and everything. I think that Friday was the perfect example of that.
It started with my being six minutes late. Normally, these few minutes wouldn’t have mattered. My two supervisors and I stagger our schedules: Elyse, then me, then Minju, so that we have coverage from when camp administrators arrive at 8AM until the last of our evening programming finishes around 8 PM.
However, Elyse is part of a fellowship program for community leaders in Baltimore, which hold classes every Friday. That means that on Fridays, I’ve been stepping in to start the day at 8AM. So those six minutes mattered. I rushed through the door, sweating (gotta love that #Baltimorehumidity) and ready to go. I went around the building, unlocking every relevant room and respective closet. I ran to and from the office, answering the couple of calls that came in (seriously people?? Its 8:15 AM. Call later please.) and explaining our AC issues to the service people who had arrived.
The morning continued on like that. Every once in a while, it would feel like things had finally settled and I’d sit down to check my email—just before something else would come up. By the time that I actually got a chance to settle and do some administrative work, I looked at the clock—it was only 9:21. Though I’ve only been there a little more than an hour, it feels like so much more.
Something else that I realized on Friday? I don’t mind any of it. I left the center about an hour and a half late, because of an SAT tutor that I brought in for the YouthWorkers went past the hour that we had allotted. As I left work, I called my friend who I had promised to chat with during his long commute home. “Dude, I’m so sorry about work,” he told me. “That sucks, you seem so done with it.” I took a moment, and realized that while I came across as such, that wasn’t the case. While I seemed annoyed by the presentation going super late, I wasn’t bothered at all by leaving work late, something that I do often enough. That friend had recently started self-learning new coding languages during his work hours, out of desperation for things to do. For me, that wasn’t the case at all—there are a lot of things that I’m doing, and they feel relevant and productive. Maybe I’m a lot luckier than I realize, in that regard. A lot of interns don’t get that experience. Or, maybe I’ve come across the kind of life’s work that just feels naturally relevant and productive to me. At the moment, I’m not sure, but I sure am grateful.
At the beginning of the summer, I wrote and talked about wanting to get to know people Baltimore City who have no affiliation with Hopkins. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been lucky enough to do just that.
I’ve made friends with the clever, funny, dedicated people who work for United Workers. When I started working, I made an effort to contribute to discussions even when I risked saying something really stupid that would reveal my inexperience. I certainly put my foot in my mouth on several occasions, but I also ended up playing games with the other organizers and talking to them about their environmental and workers’ rights work in areas like Curtis Bay and Brooklyn.
Numerous meetings and gatherings across the city have provided me with the opportunity to meet residents, activists, scholars, and people whose qualifications span all three categories and more. One frequent United Workers volunteer gave a fascinating talk one evening at the Oak Hill Center about her organizing work with a peasants’ rights movement in India. That evening, I had a long conversation with one of the Remington activists about his experiences growing up in Baltimore. He told me that he walked from Remington to Midway every morning to get to his middle school. At the Baltimore Housing Roundtable meeting last month, I made friends with a recent college grad named DJ. DJ is moving to Baltimore to get involved in organizing and community development work, and I’ve been able to probe his interests and help him plug in to United Workers and the Roundtable.
Standing for hours outside with my clipboard, petitioning, I’ve had meaningful conversations with dozens of Baltimoreans about their struggles with the City and their dreams for its future. These conversations are perhaps more meaningful than anything else I’ve done in the last few weeks. I find myself constantly astonished at how willing people are to tell their stories to a complete stranger standing on the sidewalk. One man gave me a hug in front of the Waverly Giant. Another argued with me for about fifteen minutes about trickle-down economics at the Lexington Market bus stop. And person after person has told me that they’ve been on the Section 8 waitlist for 8, 9, 10, or more years; that their rent costs almost as much as they make in a month; that the vacant house down the street from them has been empty for 20, 30, 40 years.
I’ve had the pleasure—really, the honor—to be the recipient of these stories, and to get to know individuals in communities that can seem so distant and inhuman when distorted by the Hopkins bubble and looked down upon from the ivory tower. I went into my summer wanting to take off the Hopkins goggles, and the things I’ve learned and the people I’ve met and befriended have changed the way I think of myself and my communities.
This week was very short and much appreciated. The midpoint came as a surprise to me. I’m already halfway through my internship, yet I feel very unaccomplished. Fortunately, I still have 4 weeks left to go. It’s not over yet. Halfway now means I have less time to get the most out of the dance club we just created with the 8th grade girls.
We actually did it. Creating this club is the first step towards bringing about the change that I was looking to instill in my 2nd year as a Living Classrooms intern. This halfway point is a reminder that the next steps towards the dance performance are right in front of me and my team. I just have to figure out with them, what dances they already know and work on what the girls can realistically learn and perform within the next four weeks. I know it’s not going to be as easy as it sounds. These 8th grade girls come with lots of attitude that can either propel how quickly they can learn a dance that works or how easily they can fall into arguments. And they listen to me sometimes. But I’m not going to express my judgments of a book by its cover. We’ll see.
A bunch of the other interns and staff at the Living Classroom Park House seem to get along with me. Life is still good.
This week, I’ve had the opportunity to take on some roles outside of my normal internship description, as our staff has been particularly thin with July vacations. One benefit of stepping out of my department has been gaining new perspective on issues I rarely interact with. In particular, supervising our computer lab has led me to question the role of leisure in our lives and the accessibility of pop culture.
In the Franciscan Center, the computer lab is meant to be used to search for jobs, check email, and write resumes. However, many individuals come in to watch YouTube videos, play games, or use social media. In theory I’m supposed to ask people to close out of those websites, which I suppose makes sense if someone else is waiting for a computer to do something more serious. However, seeing as it was a slow day, I couldn’t see a single reason to not allow people the opportunity to relax. Many individuals coming into the center experience crisis in their lives and spend most of their day running from one convoluted agency to the next. This often leaves our clients in a constant state of stress.
It’s incredibly important to take a second to relax or to be able to connect with peers on the latest episodes of the bachelorette. I know that I certainly allow myself to decompress after a long day at school before I start homework. Hopkins invests a ridiculous amount of money into forcing students to just take a break. Why then do we find it so concerning to allow people with far more stressful day-to-day lives to take some of their own time for leisure? In my opinion, that time for mental health and social capital is sometimes just as important as applying for a job.
This week’s Midpoint Speaker event with Marc Steiner was much needed. It took away from the single-mindedness of the event-planning work I’ve been doing at UWM and reminded our CIIP cohort of the importance of social work, advocacy, and community outreach in Baltimore city over the past few decades.
The day after the Midpoint event, I went to the Pigtown Farmer’s Market after work. UWM recently moved its office from its downtown location right at the Inner Harbor and into the Pigtown community. I think that the move is pretty great because it allows UWM to engage more with communities at need through direct service. Pigtown’s Farmer’s Market consists of about eight stands with local fruits and vegetables, homemade desserts and bread, and some books. It’s definitely the smallest farmer’s market I’ve been to in Baltimore, which made me think about the significance of location and the “White L” in the city. Residents living in food deserts have a greater need for farmers markets where they can access healthy and affordable food options. In Pigtown, I’ve only seen corner stores, liquor stores and one small supermarket. I’m hopeful that that JHSPH and the health department will expand their community intervention projects into more food deserts, and we soon see a positive change in the city’s east and west side neighborhoods.
I feel confident that I will be able to reach the goals I set for myself. My main goal was to build relationships with the youth, and I had felt that it was much easier to establish those relationships with people who were newer to the program. Last week I worked on being more engaged with youth who had been around longer, and felt like I was starting to be successful. One youth in particular who I’ve had multiple conversations with just asked me what my name was last week and started calling me by it. Progress.
I’ve also been reflecting on my comfort level with my coworkers and with the space and have seen a lot of progress with those this week as well. YES is going through a time where multiple staff members are transitioning out. One had her last drop-in day last week and we had a staff celebration at R House for her. It was nice to see that my coworkers interact pretty much exactly the same at work as they do outside of work. This reinforced for me the genuine nature of the people I work with while emphasizing that I can be myself in the work space, because everyone else is being themselves too.
One thing I love about YES is that it’s okay to come to work tired or upset or stressed because it’s always acknowledged and taken into account. It’s not counted against who you are as a person or as an employee, it’s just recognized as a fact that you come into work everyday feeling different and that affects how you’re going to interact with people. Halfway through the internship, I feel that I have a solid level of familiarity and comfort with my organization as it operates on a daily basis. I know almost everyone who comes in the door by name and feel comfortable starting a conversation with most of those individuals as well. Overall, I feel like I’m on the right track toward accomplishing my goals for the program.
The ladies are visiting the transitional home to pick up some food. We were offering dinner to anyone who stopped by, and a few ladies took it as an opportunity to see their old home again and reminisce. Martha’s Place is undergoing a significant transformation, and we are ending our transitional program to allow us to take more long term residents. This means that the transitional house that many of these women made their steps of recovery in before gaining independence in long term housing is going through construction to allow for single occupancy residents.
A few of us are standing in the kitchen and the ladies are showing me which cabinet was theirs to keep food in, and the quirks of how to get the sink to work best. They haven’t lived there for over 3 years, yet still remember so many specific details of their lives there.
When I think of the transitional recovery program that Martha’s Place had run, I think of a very strict environment, that limits each lady’s everyday activities. When I read through the handbook, I was overwhelmed at the thought of going to more than three NA (Narcotics Anonymous) meetings a day and the very controlled environment. However, it’s clear that the clients here tonight miss that structure, and look back at that as a time of relief. Once I hear them speaking about their incredible experiences, I see how they are viewing their lives there versus now. Living in long term housing there is a significant amount of freedom. There are expectations and jobs, however much of their time is left open to what they wish to do. While I think of that as a potential relief, it becomes clear to me that the idleness causes stress for most of our residents. It’s a view I wouldn’t have taken before, however once I hear our residents speaking it becomes immediately apparent to me that I was missing the obvious picture. However simple and obvious the point was that I had been missing, it was a moment to help me recognize the importance of the structure we create in this program.