Where I Come From
Please Don’t End Homelessness
Published: October 12, 2011
Over the past few years, local leaders in government, the nonprofit sector, and beyond have rallied around an audacious goal: ending homelessness in Baltimore within a decade. Their strategy is laid out in a 64-page document called “The Journey Home.” The plan was updated just last year, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has put her support behind it, and in a few weeks its sponsors will hold an event to raise funding and awareness for the campaign.
I don’t know how many people have read it, but within paragraphs it becomes clear that “The Journey Home” is paved with excellent research. The strategy identifies improvements in caseworker training, the availability of affordable housing, federal programming, and state legislation, among many other changes, that would make such an extreme level of destitution “rare and brief.” This is great work. Ending homelessness is a noble and ambitious goal. But I see exactly one problem: It’s a horrible idea. By my count we need lots more homeless people, not fewer. Here’s why.
First, homeless people are an exceptional barometer of our general economic well-being. In purely statistical terms, the number of frostbitten limbs sprawled across grated vents tells us better than any bar graph just how healthy our local economy is.
Homeless people also reveal a great deal about public safety. Because almost no one would set up camp for the night in a place where they know they will come to harm, whenever you see toes poking through cardboard, it’s a guarantee that that stretch of pavement is safe.
Finally, the destitute are great for self-esteem. Few things illustrate just how much worse your life could be as dramatically as watching someone beg for change.
Yes, homelessness is ugly and messy, but it’s also incredibly useful, bolstering working people’s morale, providing important landmarks with which to navigate neighborhoods, and highlighting the distance between abject poverty and the higher-income thresholds at which most of us live. The way I see it, the homeless are a lot like God: If they didn’t exist, we’d have to invent them. If they disappear, so will several incredibly beneficial aspects of life as we know it.
OK. By now I hope it’s clear that I lobbied in favor of homelessness with my tongue planted firmly in my cheek. If anything above jumped out at you, good. If it made you angry, great, because this is the type of attention the issue deserves. The city’s 10-year plan contains a lot of great ideas, but how many people have even heard of it? I just don’t think it goes far enough. If we’re actually going to end homelessness, maybe we need to shock people into action.
So here’s my actual proposal: I want to sleep with the mayor. Seriously. I want to sleep with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, whose name is printed larger than anyone else’s right on the plan’s cover, outdoors for a night in front of City Hall to bring real attention to homelessness in Baltimore. And I’d like all of you to join us. The mayor and I would, of course, sleep in separate spaces. She’s married.
My respect for the institution of marriage notwithstanding, at this point you may be thinking that my suggestion sounds pretty extreme. Why sleep out in the cold? Why not just write a check or buy someone a meal? Because I can’t shake the feeling that something just as awful as homelessness—or worse—could have happened to me. Growing up in East Baltimore, I never felt safe. The question always seemed to be when something awful would happen—again—not if. My mom was robbed in our beat-up Ford Escort on her way home from night school. Our house was broken into on two occasions that I can remember, and I was mugged at gunpoint. Unlike far too many people, we always had a roof over our heads, but it wasn’t much protection.
I can’t go back and relive my formative years minus the fear, but I’m convinced that, if I can make someone else’s worst-case scenario less likely and less frightening than my own, this will be a better city and I will have won.
What if local leaders were driven by the same idea? If they were, what might our worst school look like? Our most dilapidated vacant home? And how much better would our best be across the board? Perhaps our elected officials already feel this type of radical empathy. But what if they showed it?
It is without question an indecent proposal, asking the city’s highest representative to sleep outside, but it’s nothing compared to what some 3,000 people in Baltimore experience every day.
The mayor can pick the night. I’ll make myself available, and I hope you will too. To sign up and see how the mayor responds, go to onenightstandforhomelessness.com.
> Email Lionel Foster