2017 Week Three: Homelessness, Poverty, & Neighborhood Improvement
“Nope. Nope. I’m not going. No way, no interest.” Most of the group nodded along. Week one is done with the six YouthWorkers that I’m supervising — six high schoolers from around the city, four of who had worked at the center last summer.
On Wednesday, Elyse forwarded me an invitation from a local Community Schools coordinator. The mayor’s office and the Baltimore Education Council were having a meeting about education funding, and our YouthWorkers were invited. The chance to sit in on city government, see them talking about an issue so close to the heart of the community center and our YouthWorkers? I was excited to tell the crew. After their lunch, my assistant supervisor, Minju, and I brought it up. To my initial surprise, most gave a definite “no”, only a couple sheepish, saying they “might” go.
“Nothing’s gonna change in the government. Even if you fire the mayor, she’s still gonna be fine. She’ll have a job.”
“I saw, like, 20 teachers at my school get fired. It’s ridiculous and I don’t wanna go”. Despite my urging them that their passion would be welcome and necessary, they were adamant that they’d rather be working hard at the center than going on a field trip like that.
On Thursday, though, the school coordinator that had invited us came in to give more information about the event and walked out successfully convincing all six to attend. What point stuck? The offer of a pizza lunch once we returned to the center. Quite honestly, I can’t say that I was entirely surprised, or even that I don’t relate. Hey– college kids love free pizza too!
What is sticking with me, though, is these students’ perspectives on change. So many of them echoed that idea that nothing really would change, that they’d keep seeing their schools in varying states of disrepair.
For a lot of Wednesday, though, Minju led the YouthWorkers through an activity to brainstorm pressing issues that they saw in their community. He followed with an anonymous brainstorm and voting session for solutions that they could implement using the center. After filling up a piece of poster paper with a list of issues (many beautiful and relevant and perhaps a bit shocking) they chose to focus on violence. The unanimous choice on a solution was to bring an activist to speak at the community center, in an event targeted towards people in their generation. After more talks of event planning, we broke for lunch. Minju and I stood in the kitchen, microwaving our lunches. He looked at me, a glimmer in his eyes. “I feel this one. They’re so close. I mean, just a speaker event would be cool, but this could be so much more. This is the stuff that could get on the news. I think maybe with us pushing them a little more, and it could be so much more. We’re nearly there.” I see it too. No, we’re still not quite there, but I’m so excited to see where we’ll be four weeks from now. What I’m the most certain of right now? There’s more pizza in our future.
Thursday afternoon found me standing in front of Northeast Market, half-shouting my pitch to passersby.
“Hi! I’m working on an initiative to bring investment to our communities to create jobs, permanently affordable housing, and environmentally sustainable neighborhoods.” It was a mouthful, and it got a few responses.
“I’m in a hurry,” some protested, strolling down the road and sipping large, colorful lemonades.
“I already have a house!” one woman shouted over her shoulder, her Hopkins ID flapping over her shoulder.
Others smiled, listened, and signed the petition. As one of the moderately interested passersby chatted with me, I noticed a man and a woman standing behind him. My conversant left and the woman asked if I was working on affordable housing.
“Yeah!” I said. “I’m petitioning for an initiative to create community land trusts and other shared equity—“
“That’s amazing! I bought my first house on a community land trust,” she interrupted. “You know, we were homeless for nine years before we managed to find a place in Baltimore. We slept in bus stops, under bridges, in shelters when we could. We have an apartment now, but we know exactly what you’re fighting against, and it’s time for money to get into the hands of community residents instead of that Under Armor guy who wants to do that thing on the water.”
We talked for a few more minutes about development, the city, and our disinclination to wear anything with the Under Armor brand. But this exchange, contrasted with the others, reinforced a question I had turning over in my mind through the last few weeks.
How do I tell a story?
I don’t mean in the literary sense, and I’m not referring to my lackluster blog posts. How can I, as an aspiring organizer, activist, and leader, tell stories in a way that doesn’t just appeal to people like Mary, the woman who spent nine years experiencing homelessness on the streets of Baltimore? What is my role in bringing agitating thoughts and emotions to the people in a hurry and the woman who already has a house?
One thing I’ve learned from the last few weeks at United Workers is that community development is as important in this work as community organizing. Not only do we have to unite and agitate people, but we have to inspire and teach people to lead their own communities. Part of that is acting as conduits so that people like Mary can tell their own stories.
But, it’s still our job to create compelling narratives that reach beyond the “low hanging fruit” like Mary and her partner—people who experience the dynamics that we try to change. I’ve learned that one of the largest challenges of organizing is developing ways to show the people in a hurry and the people who already have houses that the struggle for community leadership and strong, safe, prosperous communities is worth their time and attention.
I survived the first week of summer camp. It felt much more straining during, rather than after, as I’m reflecting on the week. My alarm buzzing at 7 a.m. My muscles sore, and reluctant to engage in any activity that didn’t involve my queen-sized bed. My mind drained from over 50-something names, icebreakers, and the new Baltimore Link bus system. But my soul…man, I was tired as hell. But on the last day of camp, the usually-troublesome 8th-grade girls put a smile on my face and made me feel accomplished. The group of girls are the tallest, biggest, and most cliquey students in the camp. They bully the 6th-grade boys, ignore directions from the staff, and argue with each other so much that I’m astounded they’re all friends. Friday was the time to sign-up for clubs that begin the following week and continue till the end of camp in early August. The option ranged from popular sports like football and soccer to activities as arts & crafts and cooking. At first, students were very hesitant to commit to doing 1 or 2 activities for the rest of camp. But, as their friends signed up – so did they. At the end of the sign-up process. There were some satisfied and happy faces, connecting on the different soccer drills they might discover as camp went on. And as always, the 8th-grade girls were uninterested in life. I approached them and talked about how I wanted to make good use of my 2nd year at the camp and also their time. Then I asked, “what do y’all really wanna do?” “Dance!” “Yeah, we wanna dance!” “I wanna hit the folks.” “So if we make a dance club, would you be down to perform to the whole camp towards the end?” “Yeah!” I got all 8 of them to write down their names and contact info. I smiled as I plotted the dance club: taking a bus to the dance room in the Under Armour house every other day, practicing during cleanup, the struggle of picking a dance to choreograph, and how uncomfortable my boss would feel about this new club that wasn’t even mentioned on the summer camp schedule. Life is good.
I think we can all agree that the United States has several areas upon which to improve. We have to limit our blog posts to 300 words though, so I’m just going to focus on the topic that really gets me going, which is our nation’s totally backwards approach to healthcare.
This week, I performed several client intakes at work, which consists of registering clients for our services and asking questions about their current living situation. We do this to gain a better understanding of what their needs might be and some obstacles to care they face. During my intakes, all of my clients were currently homeless and either sleeping in parks outside or at best unstably housed with a friend. Furthermore, multiple clients told me they face chronic illnesses such as epilepsy, bipolar disorder, and drug addiction. When a client shares information about a health problem, our follow-up question is to ask if they have insurance and are receiving treatment. While it was great to hear that all of the clients with chronic illnesses were covered by some form of insurance, I couldn’t help but question why our nation would provide healthcare but then keep all three clients on section-8 waitlists for over five years.
Compared to European counterparts, the United States spends a huge amount of money on healthcare and very little on social services. I don’t mean to oversimplify, but don’t you think people would have a lot less health problems if they had a home to sleep in and enough food to eat? Doesn’t it seem like if we met people’s housing needs first, we could make much more progress with their healthcare needs? I just can’t understand our priorities and seeing how that actually looks in real people’s lives makes the situation even more confusing.
This week, I got to sit in meetings with United Way’s leadership staff. It was really interesting to see the different perspectives from every department because I didn’t realize that nonprofits have so much bureaucracy. I also shadowed 211 for a day and sat in on phone calls from Baltimore residents. 211 is an information hotline that connects the community with United Way’s resource specialists and social workers. They then provide them with assistance options that can help with resource needs like food, utility bills, child care, and much more. It was a great experience because I volunteer as a Health Leads advocate and take on a similar role at Harriet Lane Clinic with other Hopkins students. The level of expertise and wide range of available resources to 211 staff was of course, much greater than that of college students who tend to not know Baltimore as well as we should. It also taught me new advocate skills that I’m excited to practice when I get back to Health Leads in the fall.
I also toured the Baltimore Convention Center and saw the various halls that Project Homeless Connect will be taking place in. The past few weeks have been full of event-planning tasks, which involved countless spreadsheets. So it was exciting to bring all the planning work to the Convention Center and meet with the other members of the PHC team. We’re working with the Remote Area Medical Volunteer Corps this year to set-up the dental and vision clinic. They are a non-profit that provides airborne medical relief to impoverished areas around the world and most recently, have expanded their work to remote areas in the United States. RAM reached out to PHC last year after learning about the social issues that led to the uprising in Baltimore city.
I’m really looking forward to the event in October and seeing all the providers that I’ve been communicating with and the community participants who will be accessing much needed medical, dental, and social resources.
Every day that we have drop-in, there are groups that meet in the back around 4pm. On Tuesdays they have a writer’s group and I was in the back, so I sat in for the session. I thought they were going to write stories or something, but the people sitting at the table started freestyle rapping. Even the staff member who was running the workshop looked surprised and excited about the talent in the room as they rapped about Baltimore, about being the best, but also about their struggles and trauma. There was a lot of supportive energy and you could tell that it wasn’t about out-rapping the other people at the table, but about listening and appreciating what they were saying.
I ended up making a lot of connections this week. Most people now know me by name and have become comfortable enough to start talking to me more about their lives. One youth was telling me about his goal to start a nonprofit for single fathers and their children because there were very few places he could stay that would take both him and his daughter. Another talked to me about her goals to go to Morgan State and to become a social worker.
I have noticed that it’s a lot easier to make those connections with people who are new to YES. Many of the youth that I have really good conversations with had just started the program within the last month. There’s not a level of familiarity with the space where they have to get used to me, and there aren’t already strong bonds in place with certain staff, so they’re usually more receptive to me trying to talk to them. One of my goals for next week is to engage more with youth who have been coming to YES for a longer time and to hear more from their perspectives.
“Addiction isn’t about the drugs. Addiction isn’t always about that upsetting experience when you were five. It’s not necessarily about parents that abandoned you or the man who molested you. It’s about this gut feeling. This fundamental feeling that takes root, and you can’t remember that there are other options.”
I’ve only spoken to Ms. XXX, the house manager at Martha’s Place, a few times, but when we do she is consistently a provider of support. Today we sit down at lunch for a cup of tea. I’d been moving boxes of donations in the basement, and came up covered in dust and sweat. She insisted I sat down, and she shoved a mug of tea into my hand.
Talking about recovery is difficult, I’ve learned. It is a sensitive topic, and it’s frustrating. Some women here like to talk about their journey, but many don’t want to admit how difficult it is. Most women here were in many programs before they came here. Most women had many attempts at sobriety before they made it to this point of their recovery. Many leave our program halfway through and go back to the streets. Recovery is a painful, long and never-ending journey. Recovery isn’t something that ends. It’s something that consumes ones life.
Ms. XXX begins our conversation by stating that she’d been sober 9 years, 10 months, and 22 days. To anybody, that is an incredible success, and is, for lack of a better term, recovery. However, the reality is that she is still counting each day she continues to be stronger than her instincts. For her, she doesn’t feel a guarantee that she will be stronger tomorrow.
Today is Ms. XXX’s last day as house manager. I’ve learned so much from her about this world. A world I knew absolutely nothing about. The conversation today instantly drew us closer together, and when she leaves for the day we hug. For her, next Monday will be 9 years, 10 months, and 25 days. For me, it will be day 1 without her as my ally here.Tags: 2017, 29th Street Community Center, CIIP, CIIP 2017, Franciscan Center, Living Classrooms, Martha's Place, Patterson Park, Project Homeless Connect, United Way of Maryland, United Workers, Week Three, Youth Empowerment Society