Baltimore City Government: Stop treating homeless like trash

Baltimore City Council, March 4, 2012
Baltimore City Council, March 4, 2012

by Rob Brune

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Baltimore City Council are treating human beings like trash. They’re about to raze the third encampment of homeless along the Jones-Falls Expressway, just like they’re sweeping out the trash.

Most of the fifteen people at Camp 83 will have nowhere else to go if the City “cleans up” on Friday as it has promised.

Yesterday, Baltimore City Council had an opportunity to treat the residents of Camp 83 with a little bit of dignity but passed it up. Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke introduced a resolution with two options: either to postpone the eviction of the camp by three months or provide alternative temporary housing for the residents until permanent housing can be arranged. About thirty advocates for the homeless showed up in support of the resolution.

Council shuffled the resolution into a Housing Committee hearing on Thursday, and for several reasons the postponement makes it dead in the water. First of all, with an impending snowstorm the hearing may not even take place. Secondly, according to Councilwoman Clarke, she doesn’t have the votes to pass the resolution in committee. And thirdly, according to Bonnie Lane of Housing Our Neighbors, even if passed by the Housing Committee, the resolution wouldn’t come before the full Council again until April.

There are reasons that many of the homeless avoid the shelters. With impossible hours and challenging conditions, the City’s shelters are less welcoming than the streets. Many prefer to sleep in the cold than endure loud, crowded shelters where their belongings will be stolen and they may contract communicable diseases as serious as tuberculosis. Some even allege that shelter staff have sexually assaulted them.

“The shelters have failed them,” says Bonnie Lane of advocacy group Housing Our Neighbors.

A big snowstorm is on the way. Normally the police give the homeless two options when storms of this magnitude come through the city. They can go either to a shelter or to a jail cell. Under the pretense of the residents’ safety, there’s a possibility that residents of Camp 83 could be forced out as soon as tonight when the storm hits.

In his response to the City’s rationale for clearing out the homeless along Jones-Falls Expressway, Jeff Singer, former CEO of Healthcare for the Homeless, points out a historic parallel. In the early 20th century, Mayor James Preston declared Gallows Hill a “health and safety hazard” based solely on the fact that African-Americans lived there. Their homes were condemned and Preston Gardens built in their place. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has declared Camp 83 a health and safety hazard too.

It’s only right that we stand up for the little guy, the weak and most vulnerable. Only a handful of homeless and affordable housing advocates are standing up for the homeless at Camp 83, which could be the third such camp swept away by the City in two months. The people there don’t deserve to be kicked to the curb. Tell Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to stop this eviction and place Charlie, Venus, Rich and all the rest in temporary housing until we can get them in homes of their own.

You can reach Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s office at 410-396-4900.

Video of Baltimore City Council hearing on Resolution 13-0097R that didn’t happen:

Baltimore to evict Camp 83

Camp_83-2

Several homeless people set up an encampment under an interstate overpass not far from Baltimore’s Housing Resource Center (HRC), the city’s biggest shelter. The city announced that it will evict Camp 83, as it’s known, on Friday, March 8 and arrest those who refuse to leave.

by Rob Brune

I visited Camp 83 for the first time yesterday evening. My old friend Beth from Occupy Baltimore greeted me. Supporters of the camp held signs opposing its eviction on March 8. At rush hour on a Wednesday, cars entering the ramp to I-83 honked in support.

Making my way into the camp, sandwiched between the I-83 ramp and the Baltimore City Central Booking building, I met Liam Dunaway. Liam is a student at a local college who has been researching the various homeless camps in Baltimore. He spoke of unhealthy conditions in the Baltimore Resource Housing Center (HRC) and challenges such as couples being split up. In contrast to the shelter, the homeless camp has provided a safer environment, according to Liam. Watch Liam’s explanation on live-stream.

Two students from the University of Maryland School of Social Work, Catherine and Kate, were at the camp talking to a resident, Mellow, and others who were about to be evicted. Both Catherine and Kate are members of a student organization called Housing Our Neighbors. (@HONFORHOUSING)

Camp_83As I was about to leave, a helicopter hovered over the Baltimore Housing Resource Center, and then at least half a dozen Baltimore City Police squad cars pulled up. All the while, it was nice and quiet at Camp 83. It seemed to me like an enormous amount of taxpayer money was directed toward harassing the homeless community instead of serving them.

When I approached the city-run shelter there appeared to be six police officers standing over one cuffed male behind the building. An ambulance approached. The parking lot security officer chased me away before I could ask any questions of the police.

Advocates for the homeless will gather at the encampment, on the west side of the 800 block of the Fallsway (across from Central Booking), at 6:00 am on March 8th to prevent the planned eviction and/or to help move their belongings into housing.

“Outrage”: Art speaks out on behalf of the homeless

by John Zangas

A moving work of art will lead the way during a march for the homeless in Washington, DC on October 26. A banner painted by artist Ray Voide aims to raise awareness of the ongoing social problem of homelessness in the nation’s Capital. Voide, an activist with Occupy DC, has painted about twenty wide-format banners illustrating different protest actions over the last year.

This one, entitled “Outrage,” took over 20 hours to complete. He calls the 4′ x 15′ creation “my favorite and best yet.”

The composition layers scenes with messages depicting the plight of the homeless in the District. A destitute mother cradles her baby, while the wall above them reads, “Housing is a Human Right.” A tear streams down a young girl’s cheek as she gazes over a stark metropolis of corporate buildings, lobby firms, and condominiums. And a child stares bleakly at viewers, the inscription on her torso daring them to “feel.”

“The DC government cut $7 million from its homeless budget this year,” said Voide. “That’s just not acceptable.”

Last year the District cut its homeless shelter capacity by fifty percent, from 300 units to 150. The budget for services to help the poor and homeless was slashed in spite of a $140 million operating surplus for fiscal year 2012.
The banner will accompany hundreds of homeless and activist marchers from Franklin Park to Freedom Plaza.

Franklin School advocates convicted, remain determined to fight homelessness

Photo by Associated Press

After three days of trial, a jury delivered a guilty verdict to six defendants charged with unlawful entry of public property, a felony offense. The six were among thirteen people affiliated with organization Free Franklin DC, which orchestrated a political action intended to draw attention to the abandoned state of the building, formerly used as a homeless shelter.  On November 19, 2011, they were arrested after they entered the vacant building, ascended to the roof of the Franklin School and unfurled a large black banner saying, “Property Under Community Control.”

Judge Patricia Broderick sentenced the defendants to 5 days in jail, suspended, 3 months unsupervised probation and a $50 fine. She further instructed them to stay away from the Franklin School, also known as the Franklin Shelter, located on 13th St. across from Franklin Park. In handing down the light sentence which lacked a requirement of community service, she remarked, “Most of what they do is community service.”

Yet the social issues of homelessness and usage of public resources that the defendants and their supporters sought to highlight had a hard time being voiced in the courtroom. Judge Broderick declared, “This is not a trial by political process.” She denied defendants recourse on legal grounds to most of the good faith defense, which would have allowed testimony about the past contentious struggle with District government over the building’s usage. She also seemed determined to keep the trial from becoming a political platform and was adamant that the jury wouldn’t be swayed by outside influences, such as Free Franklin DC t-shirts worn by some audience members.

The prosecution also sought to keep political and social issues from entering into play. Free Franklin DC supporter Ray Valentine said the government “worked hard to prevent any mention of the shameful history of this building and others like it.”

The defense never disputed that the six defendants entered the building on November 19, but the government had to meet a high burden of proof. In an unusual tactic, the defense challenged the actual ownership of the building, contending that it belonged to the community, not to the District government, and therefore the community was entitled to determine how it should best be used. Defense counsel Kanita Williams said that the defendants entered with the good faith belief that they weren’t committing an illegal act, and she repeatedly stressed that they entered through an open door, bringing with them cleaning supplies in order to “restore” the building. Defendant pro se Jesse Schultz said, “We had reason to believe that we were welcome in the Franklin Shelter.”

The strategy of government prosecutor Adam Dinnell however was to keep the case a simple matter of unlawful entry. In his opening statement to the jury, he said, “This case is about property rights, and the rights of an owner to control whether they want people on their property or not.”  Three government witnesses testified that the legal property owner is the District government, and they also gave testimony which conflicted with the defense’s assertion that they entered freely. “If they just walked through an open door, why did it take the police three hours to get in?” Dinnell asked, referring to a request for the fire department’s aid. He contested the defendants’ presumption of authority, saying that their decision to act “doesn’t trump the decisions of elected officials. It didn’t entitle them to take over the building.”

Defendant Jesse Schultz chose to act as his own attorney during the proceedings because “I felt there was a need for someone to introduce things a lawyer can’t without risking their bar card.”

“For me,” he said, ”the verdict shows that the public still has to follow the system no matter how corrupt the system has become, no matter how much damage the judicial system is a part of it. A lot of normal people aren’t ready to rebel yet. Hopefully that will change.”

Another Free Franklin DC community member wasn’t pleased with the verdict but pointed out that publicity was positive. “I think it’s good that the defendants had the opportunity to make a case in front of the jury and re-state demands, bring more attention to the issue,” DC resident Anna Duncan said. “The defendants showed throughout the trial that the Franklin building belongs to the people, and the community should be the one who decides what to do with it.”

Defendant Rosa Lozano, who testified during trial, said, “The real crime here is the mismanagement of public resources like Franklin and the lack of services for DC’s homeless.”

The organization seems determined to keep organizing and challenging District officials to address the future of the Franklin School. “We’ll continue to fight to get public property used to meet community needs,” Duncan said.

Schultz emphasized that Franklin School represented a larger cause. “Franklin is an essential piece in a battle between people and money. Look where it’s located, on K St., where money and politics intersect.”

The defendants intend to appeal their sentence.

Trial opens for District housing advocates arrested at Franklin School

Photo by Associated Press

A jury was selected and the government delivered its opening statement on the first day of trial of six activists arrested for unlawful entry of the Franklin School almost eight months ago. While the defense has yet to make its opening statement, the crux of the trial may hinge on rights of property owners versus use of public property for the public interest. The jury may also hear a great deal about the state of housing and the homeless in the District.

On the afternoon of November 19, 2011 a large black banner was unfurled from the roof of the Franklin School, also known as Franklin Shelter, and a large crowd gathered on the street. The banner said, “Public Property Under Community Control.” Thirteen activists, affiliated with a group called Free Franklin DC, had allegedly broken into the school, formerly a homeless shelter on 13th St. in Downtown DC, and made their way to the roof through a skylight.

In his opening statement, government prosecutor Adam Dinnell sought to persuade the jury that the trial was about the rights of property owners and “whether they want people on their property or not.” The government of Washington, DC owns the building. He stressed that the trial was not about social issues, political issues or “whether the DC government has made good or bad decisions” regarding the use of Franklin School.

Gabriel Bernstein of Free Franklin DC responded to the prosecutor’s opening statement by saying, “Public property is different than a private home. Government is accountable to the people.” He also criticized the District for its handling of the Franklin School. “[The District] attempt[ed] to  claim the shelter as ‘surplus,’ ignoring public petitions. The government has not been responsive to the people it serves. And to simply make it parallel to a private home reduces government to a [mere] property owner.”

Free Franklin DC seeks to utilize the historic building for public use and ties its abandonment to larger problems of housing and homelessness in the District. In a statement released last November, it said:

The Franklin School building, owned by the city, has been vacant since late September 2008 when the DC government closed the homeless shelter that was housed there right before the beginning of hypothermia season. Despite promises that all of the residents would be given permanent housing, the majority wound up in other over-crowded shelters away from downtown, far from physical and mental health care and other needed services, or were put out onto the street. Three years later the city continues to break its promises to house and shelter DC residents, under-funding housing and shelter programs, including cutting $3 million from services for DC’s 6,500 homeless individuals and $20 million for affordable housing last year alone. The DC government refuses to ensure the most basic human right to housing for everyone in our community.

The trial is scheduled to continue in DC Superior Court at least through July 11.

Evicted from a public space, will Occupy DC kick itself out of a private one?


If things keep going the way they are, Occupy DC is going to lose a good thing.

In May there was a little dust-up because Service Employee International Union (SEIU) generously leased office space for the campless movement in the Institute for Policy Studies building. There were accusations of Occupy DC and the union being a little too cozy. On the contrary, Occupy DC isn’t complying with the only deal it struck with SEIU for the office space: a self-enforced basic code of conduct.

The group is having a hard time holding up its end of the bargain. After months of working out the details, the top priority for the Resource Center, as it’s called, is using the office suite for “getting shit done.” But there are some who use the place to camp out just like they did at McPherson Square.

A lot of shit is getting done there, it’s true. It’s a secure and climate-controlled space for committee meetings and provides desks, computers and wi-fi for anybody wanting to accomplish something for the movement.

While spontaneous, stimulating conversations occur there all the time, it’s not supposed to be a hang-out–or an Occupation like McPherson Park was. The code of conduct forbids sleeping, squatting or storing personal belongings. Unfortunately, after weeks of habitual rule-breaking and desperate solutions like changing the locks, Occupy DC can’t seem to rein in several individuals. Even worse, their behavior reinforces some of the worst stereotypes of Occupiers–the place smells bad, it’s sometimes dirty and full of backpacks, people go shirtless and bathe in the restrooms.

In an office building, that’s not going to fly. Occupy DC seems in danger of losing its Resource Center after October if SEIU decides not to renew the lease–and keep forking over $3,500 a month. Or even sooner.

Occupy DC is responsible for who it lets into its office–or can’t keep out. But there is a wider issue. Most of the squatting is by young people who are homeless. There’s some tolerance at play here simply knowing that someone is pretty desperate for a place to sleep and get out of 100-degree heat. Housing problems don’t have easy solutions.

And the District isn’t doing its part to address housing and homelessness, increasingly instituting more austerity measures and closing shelters. Coincidentally, Occupiers who were arrested in November 2011 protesting the closure of a homeless shelter at the Franklin School in 2008 will go on trial July 9.

As a statement from Free Franklin DC reads,

Three years later the city continues to break its promises to house and shelter DC residents, under-funding housing and shelter programs, including cutting $3 million from services for DC’s 6,500 homeless individuals and $20 million for affordable housing last year alone. The DC government refuses to ensure the most basic human right to housing for everyone in our community.

Pretty ironic that Occupy DC put itself on the line to address homelessness, yet may itself be undone by it.

UPDATE 7/16/12: The executive director of Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), which houses the Occupy DC Resource Center, dropped by the office to hand-deliver a letter detailing complaints. Efforts to get things in hand since have had mixed results. There’s no doubt that the majority is disgusted by the habits, hygiene and behavior of a minority. Yet that minority stubbornly clings to a belief in its right to do whatever it pleases in the office space, consequences be damned.

The office was cleared of personal belongings abandoned there, aired out with fans, and generally cleaned up. Messes large and small still occur and have to be cleaned up, there’s sleeping overnight, loitering, playing video games and surfing the internet. Situation improved but not solved.

There was a follow-up meeting with IPS this week, basically admitting we know we have a problem, we’re trying to fix it. Will that be enough to preserve a valuable resource?

Occupy Our Homes DC: The right to housing

Retired paramedic Deborah Harris, after meeting with representatives at Chase Bank, with Ben Johnson (Photo by coolrevolution.net)

Occupy Our Homes–the offshoot of Occupy Wall Street working to prevent wrongful evictions and foreclosures–says on its website, “Everyone deserves to have a roof over their head and a place to call home. …We believe everyone has a right to decent, affordable housing.”

Child homelessness is now epidemic in the US. 2.3 million children are part of families who have lost their homes to foreclosure. Another 6 million children are in at-risk situations. According to the National Center on Family Homelessness, 1.6 million children had no home at all, living on the streets, or in shelters or motels. The correlation with the financial crisis is unmistakable; child homelessness is up 33% in the last years.

“Home ownership tends to be the price of admission to top-quality public education,” writes Peter S. Goodman on HuffPost. But what chance does a kid have at an education if she doesn’t have a home at all?

From many of the activists behind Occupy Our Homes DC, I hear an underlying theme. The conversation always starts with stopping wrongful evictions and foreclosures, but it soon gets around to the right to housing.

“Before anything else, people need homes,” says Mike Isaacson, who risked arrest today when he refused to leave the lobby of the Chase Home Loan Modification offices. He sat on the floor and quietly texted to other Occupy Our Homes activists on the upper floors. They were trying to gain a negotiation meeting on behalf of Deborah Harris, a retired paramedic who faces foreclosure on her home.

“We’re stopping the eviction of tenants and homeowners fallen on hard times,” Isaacson continued. “But it’s really about housing in general. Everybody has a right to housing.”

In our society, the right to housing is a revolutionary idea. If you can’t pay, you don’t get shelter. That’s the way it works.

Laura Lising, also of Occupy Our Homes, put it this way in front of the Freddie Mac headquarters on 7th Street: “Banks don’t need houses.” Freddie Mac bought Deborah Harris’ mortgage from Chase and is still aggressively pursuing foreclosure. “There are more empty houses than homeless people by far. We believe that housing is a human right,” Lising said.

Gary Nelson, a Baltimore firefighter attending the protest in solidarity with his fellow emergency responder, said, “I think everybody has had somebody foreclosed on or in danger of it. These things must change.”

The human cost of mass evictions and foreclosures can’t be calculated. If 8 million children grow up homeless–without stability, community and safety–we’ll pay the price for generations.

For more information, about Deborah Harris and Occupy Our Homes’ effort to stop foreclosure on her home, go here.

Occupy Our Homes in the lobby of JP Morgan Chase offices in Washington, DC (Photo by coolrevolution.net)
  • Occupy Our Homes gains foreclosure negotiation with Freddie Mac (coolrevolution.net)
  • Occupy Our Homes, low-income tenants object to development plan in Alexandria (coolrevolution.net)