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Where I Come From

Roughing It

Last month, I asked the mayor to sleep with me—not just for kicks, mind you, but to show solidarity with Baltimore’s most vulnerable residents. Inspired by “The Journey Home: Baltimore’s 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness,” I suggested that I, the mayor, and everyone who wanted to spend a night outside in front of City Hall during what I called a one-night stand for homelessness. It quickly became more than that.

Since last month, several hundred people have visited onenightstandforhomelessness.com and 48 have signed up for the sleep-out. When I issued my challenge, I had no idea that Nov. 14 through 20 is—wait for it—National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, or that a group of college students was already planning to spend the night in front of City Hall on Nov. 19. Obviously, passionate minds think alike. I’m supporting these students, and I hope you will too. So grab your sleeping bag, join us on Saturday, Nov. 19, at 6 p.m., and check out the other events they’ve planned at bit.ly/NHHAWBaltimore.

I have not gotten an answer from the mayor (more on this in a bit), but there’s still time.

The sleep-out is just one way of illustrating our willingness to ask and answer a huge question: What would it really take to end homelessness? It’s a question I’d like to spend the next year probing and organizing around. Why devote so much attention to a single topic? Because if you fix homelessness, you fix most of what’s wrong with Baltimore.

According to the city’s biannual count, this year more than 4,000 people slept outside or in shelters. That’s up nearly 20 percent from 2009 and is thematically consistent with U.S. Census Bureau figures that showed a quarter of Baltimoreans were living under the federal poverty line in 2010. During the 2009 homelessness census, more than half (52 percent) of the un- or undersheltered pointed to housing- or income-related issues as contributing factors, but the largest single issue was substance abuse (31 percent). Apparently, time behind bars doesn’t help either. A separate study by the Baltimore-based nonprofit group Healthcare for the Homeless released last month showed a “bidirectional” link between homelessness and incarceration, with homelessness making many people more likely to experience incarceration and confinement making it difficult to remain stably housed and employed.  

So we have employment, housing, drug addiction, and incarceration. Sound familiar? There are other major culprits, but this short list includes local issues that have been described as entrenched, underlying, and systemic for years. The end of homelessness will be proof of dramatic progress in multiple areas.

As I see it, solutions will fall into two broad categories: emergency services that ameliorate some of the worst impacts of destitution in the short term and changes in policies and priorities that prevent people from falling so far in the first place. Some people talk about a social safety net, programs that help ensure people don’t hit rock bottom. But I don’t want a better net. I want a trampoline so that people who fall can use their own power and flexible resources to get where they need to go. That’s what I’d like to explore. (“The Journey Home” points out many necessary steps, but I think it’s weak on employment.)

The sleep-out is largely symbolic, but anything that encourages people to embrace the idea that none of us is OK until all of us are OK, that allowing 4,000 people to live so insecurely is inhumane, costly, and a great waste of human potential, is a good start.

A few weeks ago, thanks to a very generous friend, I was able to attend a fundraiser for “The Journey Home.” Tickets were $250, and guests got their money’s worth, including dinner, a marching band, an open bar, and a surprise performance by Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter Jewel.

The irony of celebrating so lavishly on behalf of the poor didn’t seem to keep anyone, including me, from having a great time. But I tried not to forget why I was there, and toward the end of the night I saw an opportunity to introduce myself to the mayor. I hesitated. As much effort as I put into writing this column, it’s a cakewalk compared to leading a city, so for a moment I felt paralyzed by respect and fear. Besides, was I really going to ask the mayor to sleep outside as we both stood there dressed in our finest prom attire?

Ultimately, it was four small words that helped me walk across the room: “She works for us.” That’s what I told myself. She works for us, and there are people who need her.

It took about 20 seconds for me to make my case. The mayor was very polite. She didn’t say yes. She didn’t say no. But she did listen, and we’re still waiting. The idea of someone so stylish and poised roughing it for a night might strike some as unseemly. But if we don’t build broad support for this work, it’s that gala and my delicious steak that will be the real obscenity.

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