2017 Week Six: Homelessness, Poverty, & Neighborhood Improvement

picture of Leena Aurora CIIPLEENA AURORA | 29TH STREET COMMUNITY CENTER

I guess that I’ve been focusing on other things in these blog posts, but a pretty significant part of my summer has been planning a community health fair! Last year, the CIIP interns for 29th St and Charm City Clinic collaborated on a “back to school” community health fair. It was a party; along with Charm City Clinic’s health screenings and resources, they had a cookout, giveaways of school supplies, and a DJ. By chance, actually, this year’s CCC intern, Yamini, and I were paired together at our first weekly CIIP meeting. We got to talking, and both were totally on board to do the fair again! Even on that first day, Yamini brought up how we can make this health fair a lasting event in the community. That’s particularly significant, particularly when it comes to the history of various Hopkins entities and their work in surrounding communities.

Since that first day, work at my desk has often been health fair related. I’ve been securing organizations to be at the fair, sponsorships, doing outreach, and more. One of the biggest critiques from last year’s fair was that turnout was very low. So, particularly in surrounding neighborhoods we’ve been working on outreach through community relationships. On Thursday, I went flyering around the community with a woman named Ms. Charlene, who’s on the executive board of one of our local community associations. She was putting up posters and flyers for an event that the association is hosting, so she invited me along to walk.

To say the least, Ms. Charlene is a natural. We went from business to business, stopping in to talk with people and ask for permission to put up posters. A local liquor store owner, I found out, is one of the community’s biggest cheerleaders, even though he lives far out of the city. He laughed, telling me how Ms. Charlene had basically yanked him by the ear to come to a community association meeting. As he told me in earnest, he realized how much strength there was in the community, and he has since been a regular with the association. It was a sticky, hot, Baltimore-summer type of day, so as we were putting up our posters, the owner came out with ice-cold water bottles for us. “Least I can do for you, ladies!” After Ms. Charlene and I left, she explained that his store had once been a place where people congregated anytime in the day or night—and not always for good. Members of the community spoke up, and he met with the community association. “He really cleaned it up. I don’t even quite know what he did, but it’s a positive place now. He’s really been pulling through for us ever since.” She moved with ease throughout the community, catching up with people on random details that she remembered. As we walked, she explained how she makes walks every week just to keep up with people, from business owners to the regulars that sit outside on their stoops. On the longer stretches between our stops, we swapped stories, told each other about our journeys in life. I feel odd talking about my “journey” in life, especially with Ms. Charlene being retired and full of amazing experiences. With her, though, I truly felt like I had my own story to tell.

And as we went from stop to stop, including the ones when we just talked to people on park benches, they shared their stories with Ms. Charlene as well. You could see it in their faces, she was a safe place to drop their stories, their worries, their triumphs. The world is full of Ms. Charlene’s, I believe. They are all around our communities, and they represent so much of the strength and kindness that is out there. What I hope to do is learn from them, and in turn serve as another place where people feel comfortable resting their stories.

picture of Evan Drukker-Scardl CIIPEVAN DRUKKER-SCHARDL | UNITED WORKERS

Budgets, needless to say, are not sexy. The topic of the moment for United Workers is how to insert ourselves–and our petitions–into the City budgeting process to actually get the $40 million needed to jump-start our efforts. As it turns out, we really have no idea how the budget takes shape, and neither does anyone else. We’ve been asking all sorts of questions. Where is there room for public participation? Who makes decisions about where money goes, and how and when do they make those decisions? What can a transparent, democratic budgeting process look like? What does it look like elsewhere? It seems that the answers to each of these questions raise new, more complex questions.

My own exploration began on Twitter. Among the Baltimore Budget Twitter account’s scintillating tweets was the claim that the city had budgeted $3 million for the Affordable Housing Trust Fund. I was confused and more than a little bit doubtful–the trust fund’s board of trustees have yet to be formally appointed, and we hadn’t heard anything about this at United Workers. So, I investigated. A summary of the major changes made in the 2018 Housing and Community Development budget mentioned $3 million going to an “affordable housing fund,” but that could mean anything. The Twitter account, however, insisted that the money did indeed go to the trust fund.

Now, I had a new and unexpected question to answer. I read through the line items in the DHCD budget, but I didn’t see signs of the Affordable Housing Trust Fund outside of the brief mention in the summary at the beginning of the section. I was perplexed.

The city budget is set up so that each city agency gets its own section. They begin with a summary and a list of services the agency provides, each of which is denoted by a number. Then, each service has its own line-by-line breakdown of programs and staff salaries, among other things. In the DHCD budget, however, there was one small problem. There was just one service that had no detailed breakdown–Service 755: Affordable Housing. One would think that the $3 million that the City allegedly budgeted for the Trust Fund might appear under that service. In reality, that service doesn’t seem to exist.

Now, at the end of my week of sleuthing, I find myself with more questions than before. There are a bunch of possible explanations for the apparent discrepancy. But there is one thing that I have figured out. Our city leaders–the Mayor, her staff, the various agencies and commissions, and even the City Council–guard what little power they have very carefully. Their power lies in the decisions they make to distribute city money. The process as it is now, however, is intensely opaque, unaccountable, and undemocratic. It is purposely confusing and inaccessible. That’s why, though budgets are boring, long, and confusing, I’m feeling super empowered by our plans to create a movement to move the power in community development to the hands of Baltimore’s denizens.

picture of Lauren Ralph CIIPLAUREN RALPH | THE FRANCISCAN CENTER

While it’s exciting to be so immersed in the work of a community partner, I am constantly aware that my time here is limited. With my remaining two weeks, I’ve been trying to identify the greatest needs faced by our clients and focus my attention there. While our clients often ask for assistance with housing, it is not something the Center has historically focused on. Thus, I have begun to compile a list of landlords and apartment complexes within the price range of our average client.

While I’m proud of the small resource list I’ve made for clients, I know there are so many hurdles to cross before we are actually able to place a client in a housing situation that is safe, clean, and sustainable. The greatest example of non-financial barriers came through the very first client I helped with housing. I initially felt extremely confident in my ability to help this client, as he received disability benefits that would allow him to pay monthly rent on a decent home in a safe area. We sat down together to fill out the application for housing and then the client called the landlord. Our excitement quickly faded when the landlord performed a background check on the client I was working with and said he was going to double the security deposit due to a nonviolent charge on his record from 2003. At this point, I got on the phone and spoke to the landlord. I kid you not, the only thing I said to him was “that seems unreasonable” and he agreed to keep the security deposit at the original value. While this was exciting and certainly a victory for our client, I was so uncomfortable by the privilege I carried in that moment. Did it really just take the sound of a white voice to receive cooperation? While I’m aware that systemic discrimination like this exists and occurs each day, I had never had it demonstrated so clearly in my own life. Unfortunately, there is no bullet-pointed list I can create to solve structural racism.

picture of Rumsha Salman CIIPRUMSHA SALMAN | UNITED WAY OF MARYLAND, PROJECT HOMELESS CONNECT

As Week 6 is coming to an end, I’m so surprised how fast these past two months have gone by. There is still so much I want to do, and I’m feeling anxious about finishing as much work as I can before CIIP ends. Since PHC will take place in October, I’m glad that I will still be able to help out and see all the work I’ve been doing mesh together and bring the event to life.

The timing of this week’s Bites of Baltimore topic on incarceration and recidivism was perfect because the very next day, I went to the Eastside District Court to attend a Veterans Treatment Docket (VTD). The docket first started in Baltimore in 2015 and is a court-supervised voluntary treatment program for veterans who have been charged with misdemeanors. Most of the participants that day had been charged with drug possession, and the VTD was providing them with rehabilitation rather than incarceration. I really admired Judge Halee Weistein, who is also a veteran, because throughout the docket, she gave her full attention to every participant and seemed to personally care about the success of their treatment. She also connected them to various services and benefits offered by nonprofits and government agencies. One of the veterans in the docket successfully graduated from the program, and the ceremony was very emotional. Next week, I’m planning on going to the Docket for Homeless Persons, and I’m excited to learn more about the program and how it links to the work that UWCM and other nonprofits are doing in the city.

picture of Corina Zisman CIIPCORINA ZISMAN | MARTHA’S PLACE

Upon learning that despite being in Baltimore for two years, I’d never had a half and half, my boss gasps. He instantly sends me across the street to buy us each jumbo drinks.

Holding the $5 bill he gave me, I venture into the disgusting heat to Santa Maria’s, a carryout restaurant across the road. I feel like a grade school student, clutching my five dollars and looking both ways before I cross Pennsylvania Ave.

It’s hot, so there are not many people around, a few residents sitting on the stoop at our row houses. Smoking and complaining about getting to work via the new bus system. A few kids, unattended, playing catch at the shut-off fountain. A man in the alley, lighting a cigarette and enjoying the shade.

Across the street from Santa Maria’s is a junk store. A man from Howard County has a few buildings where he stores scraps which he buys from people in the area and sells for their metal value. My boss asked me to take notice of the store when I headed to get our drinks.

Run down, and overflowing, the building has scraps scattered on the sidewalks and streets. The metal is unappealing to look at, and actively blocking citizens from using the sidewalks and cars from comfortably using the road. I’ve learned so much this summer, and while it seems shallow, I’ve learned that appearances are everything. Walking down the street in your community, and seeing junk piled in the road, affects a lot. It isn’t that someone has to walk around the trash, or a car has to move slightly into the other lane, it’s that the store owner is making a clear statement. He does not respect this community and does not believe that they care if he respects it either.

Talking about it with my boss, he shares that he has been working with a lawyer to take action regarding the overflowing store. He tells me they have been working towards seeing a judge for years. Seeing this store every day, he feels that it is an embodiment of the disrespect Sand-town Winchester receives. It’s clear that in Howard County nobody would allow a store to pile trash on the streets, so why is it so easily permitted here? Why is it that this outsider is allowed to disrespect our neighborhood like that? Why is it that most residents allow it to happen without a second thought?

There are so many parallels I could draw between the junk piled in the street, and the systematic and overwhelming racism that takes place in Baltimore. While writing this I’m trying to decide what exactly I should relate this situation to? Which one of Baltimore’s inequalities, injustices and unethical practices and realities does this best represent? Is it the connection to education, and how our students accept less than they deserve? Or our police system, which actively targets communities such as Sandtown? The real answer is, that there are too many. There are too many parallels I could draw, and I don’t have enough space to process them all.

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