Homelessness doesn’t hit softly; it’s more like a hurricane that sweeps through a city, according to Jeff Singer, former director of Baltimore’s Health Care for the Homeless.
Singer made the comparison on day four of Light City’s “Labs,” or innovation conferences, during a session focused on the origins of homelessness in Baltimore and potential solutions to fix it. The morning talk featured him and Baltimore City Department of Social Services Director Molly McGrath Tierney on stage.
According to the most recent figures from the Maryland Department of Mental Health and Hygiene, there were 7,352 homeless people living in Maryland in 2016 at any given point in time. Nearly two in five people counted as homeless by the state last year were living in Baltimore, according to the state’s numbers.
Singer, who directed the clinic off of the Jones Falls Expressway for 10 years before he retired in 2011, attributed some of the blame for national homelessness to what he described as low income-tax rates for the wealthy and an underdeveloped public housing sector. Tierney, meanwhile, discussed how easily people could spiral into homelessness if a catastrophic event occurs and they’re left without a home or community support system.
According to Tierney, when a person “plummets” and loses shelter, they may have neighbors or family to serve as “antibodies” who can help them fight it off and get back on their feet. If those people aren’t around or stepping up, however, addiction, abuse, and other threats become more likely to surface in the life of a person lacking shelter. These problems compound, making it more difficult for a person to “rise up and out of that hole,” she said.
On audience member asked if the problem could be addressed by using Baltimore’s many vacant buildings. Singer agreed with that logic: “We have houses without people and lots of people without houses.”
To truly address the problem, however, fixes must come from the top down, the city’s social services director said. “The solution is to decide to become a country where the antibodies arrive at the top of the curve,” Tierney said.
Singer said income inequality is a major reason behind the national plight. He used what he described as low income in Baltimore as an example.
“We have 86,000 households that can’t pay their rent every month. We’ve done very little about that,” he said. “Until we have a just economy and a just political order, we’ll experience all these ills.”
Both advocates expressed hope that new leadership in Baltimore would do what previous administrations haven’t.
“We are all feeling very optimistic about the new city council,” Tierney said. (Singer noted he hopes new leadership in Baltimore Housing will step up, as well.)
In an interview after the session, Singer said that by speaking at Thursday’s lab, he hoped he could inspire more social justice advocacy. “I think that’s what’s more important, is not just to address homelessness itself — because it really is a symptom of a political economy that’s built on unfairness, on making profits, on housing that people can flip then make more money on,” he said.
Other Western countries treat housing like a public utility or service, he said. Making another comparison, the former clinic director brought up education. Here in the United States, he said, leaders didn’t make schooling a public right until the mid-19th century, he said. Rather, people had to pay if they wanted to get an education.
“We quickly figured out that that was gonna leave a lot of people out, so it became a right in all state constitutions,” he said. “Let’s write into the Constitution that every person in the country has a right to housing. What a difference that would make.”