Outrage and Confusion at City Council's "Journey Home" Hearing

Outrage and Confusion at City Council's "Journey Home" Hearing

Photo Source: Rousseau_ist
Photo Source: Rousseau_ist

Advocates for the homeless converged on City Hall on Wednesday night to discuss the future of the “Journey Home” plan to end homelessness. The occasion was a resolution introduced by Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, stating simply “That the Council calls on the City and external agencies concerned with homeless in Baltimore to appear before it to discuss the status of and proposals for any revisions to Baltimore City’s 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness.” Many of those who testified criticized a recent draft of the plan, as well as the process behind its production and implementation. Others used the forum to discuss Baltimore’s homelessness crisis and the City’s aggressive policy of evicting outdoor encampments.

The original Journey Home plan, introduced in January 2008, is an extensive document calling for numerous actions—many of which have been ignored for the past five years. A new plan, written by a Candian consulting company called OrgCode, excludes many of the specific actions described in the original plan. OrgCode’s document includes lists of “benchmarks” (numerical goals to which Baltimore should aspire) but lacks details about who should implement what policies. Homeless Person’s Representation Project, a legal advocacy group in Baltimore,considers the OrgCode plan so vague it should simply be discarded.

The status of the new plan came under scrutiny last month when OrgCode’s Iain De Jong told an assembly of stakeholders that he did not plan to solicit community feedback. Evidently, the private funding for OrgCode’s work enabled the company to do an end run around any semblance of democratic public governance.

Wednesday’s hearing was permeated by confusion about who was actually in charge of the 10-year “Journey Home” plan. The OrgCode document calls for a Director, who we learned tonight would report to Olivia Farrow, Director of Human Services for the Mayor’s Office. Several people, including members of City Council, asked why no Director had been appointed, and how exactly selection would take place. Farrow said the position would be advertised “through our networks” once “we have the OK”. She didn’t clarify whose “OK” was needed.

Clarke herself seemed nonplussed by these chain-of-command problems. She interrogated Farrow and Kate Briddell (Director of Homeless Services) about the organizational structure (particularly the Director position) envisioned by the new Journey Home plan. Towards the end of the meeting she apologized to the two officials for subjecting them to criticism better directed at OrgCode. The OrgCode consultants themselves are currently in Louisiana. No one present could address (or would admit to involvement in) the process of hiring these consultants.

Housing Committee members Bill Henry, Mary Pat Clarke & Carl Stokes

Housing Committee members Bill Henry, Mary Pat Clarke & Carl Stokes

Here are some highlights from the testimony offered:

Antonia Fasanelli of the Homeless Person’s Representation Project reiterated her group’s critique of the new plan, calling it an “abomination” and saying she would fire consultants who submitted work of this quality.

Adam Schneider of Health Care for the Homeless said that the plan was a guide for “effective use of limited resources”, not a strategy for ending homelessness. Schneider stressed that homelessness is a symptom of systemic social ills, and called on the City to provide health care and affordable housing.

Mary Denise Davis of the Office of the Public Defender noted that the new plan did not mention criminal record expungement, and that she had not been notified of its existence until she was contacted today by Fasanelli. She called existing expungement rules “draconian” and implored policymakers to revise them.

Jeff Singer, longtime outreach worker now retired, condemned the City’s eviction of homeless communities and asked to see their policy on encampments. He was provided with a recently-drafted document calling for a “Project Coordinator” to oversee each demolition. The document did not provide timetables for the eviction procedure. Singer calculates that according to the City’s own numbers, there are 1795 more homeless people than there are shelter beds.

Christina Flowers, the leader of Belvedere Assisted Living who provided eleventh-hour housing for #Camp83 residents, called on the City to provide more support to small organizations working on homelessness. Flowers said her group had reached out to four other camps.

Bonnie Lane of WOTS called on the City to follow through with Action 3.9 of the original Journey Home plan. This action calls for the City to assist homeless people with rehabilitating vacant houses so they can live in them. Lane also criticized OrgCode and insisted that the Journey Home Director be hired locally.

Kim Trueheartno longer banned from City Hall, accused the City of mismanaging funds for housing and homelessness. In particular, she called attention to the $9 million a federal audit found missing from the Department of Homeless Services.

KIm Trueheart

Kim Trueheart

Paul Behler of WOTS described the “homelessnessdom” mentality of service providers who profit from homelessness. (Homelessnessdom is the kingdom of the mind in which which homelessness seems necessary and inevitable.) Behler said that homeless people should be involved in designing the Journey Home plan and offered to serve as Director.

Paul Behler

Paul Behler

Tony Simmons of WOTS repeated his demand that housing be provided immediately to address the crisis of homelessness. “We don’t care whose idea it is or what you call the plan. We want to go home now. We deserve to go home. We don’t want to live in encampments. We are sick and tired of waiting in lines. We’re sick and tired of drinking water with roaches. Of waking up at 4:30 AM and waiting in line until 8:30 at night.” He said City service providers (like Gabby Knighton) were overworked, and, like Lane, said they should ask for help with making housing available as soon as possible. Simmons said that, at the current rate, 525 more people would die from homelessness before the end of the 10-year plan.

Tony Simmons with Adam Schneider

Tony Simmons with Adam Schneider

Lee Patterson blamed homelessness on greed, saying “as long as landlords and real estate companies have the upper hand over workers, poor people, and the sick, we will never end homelessness”.

Monisha Cherayil of the Public Justice Center, as well as someone else whose name we didn’t catch, said the plan didn’t do enough to address needs of homeless youth, such as special education programs.

Cindy Walsh made a connection between homelessness and the subprime crisis, saying that Attorney General Douglas Gansler’s settlement with the banks was a raw deal for those who were cheated out of their homes. She also criticized the City’s austerity budgeting, saying that laying off middle-class workers would cause ripples leading to more homelessness.

According to Mary Pat Clarke, Housing Committee Chair Bill Henry will now convene a working group to consult with the Leadership Advisory Group (LAG). The LAG is a group of notable persons, such as Sister Helen Amos and Kirby Fowler, established in 2008 to oversee the original plan. Clarke has suggested that because the LAG supervised OrgCode's work, they can be held responsible for the new draft of the plan. The draft does call for the LAG to be dissolved, replaced by an Executive Director and a powerless "Community Advisory Group".

For more information, you can check through our tweets from the hearing. Here’s a video of “Old Testament Prophet” Jeff Singer:

This article was originally published by Baltimore's Word on the Street. Photos by Rousseau_ist.

Bonnie Lane writes for  Baltimore's newest street paper, Word on the Street. She has an associate of arts degree in public relations/journalism. Lane is a full-time writer, advocate and activist for the homeless and the 99%.