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Homelessness and Housing

Politicsby Jeff Singer and Lauren Siegel9:20 amNov 11, 20130

Could you pass the Homelessness Challenge?

OPINION: How long before you’d ask for help, homeless advocates ask the mayor, council members and business leaders.

Above: City workers in 2013 raze Camp 83, a homeless encampment tucked beneath the Madison Street on-ramp of the Jones Falls Expressway. (Fern Shen)

The desire of our city fathers and mothers to quell panhandling has popped back up like a punching clown with a weighted bottom.

How to do something about those annoying beggars without violating that pesky First Amendment?

As if on some preternatural cycle, the mayor, City Council and the business sector suggest laws to restrict, if not abolish, begging. Recent additions to the city code prohibit aggressive panhandling, seeking funds with 10 feet of an ATM, or soliciting donations in traffic or at a bus stop.

Yet the beggars remain – quite a few of them veterans, honored in speeches today and forgotten in actions tomorrow.

Combating the Flu with Kleenex

With 25% of our residents living in desperate poverty, an unemployment rate nearing 11%, 100,000 eviction notices filed annually, and thousands living on the streets or in emergency shelters – laws restricting begging are akin to combating the flu with tissues.

They may blunt the most visible symptom, but they hardly address the disease.

Clearly the people in charge are intellectually and morally exhausted. Their solutions to Baltimore’s problems have become both predictable and unproductive.

An affordable housing plan for the city? Tear down a few vacants. Need employment opportunities? Welcome Wal-Mart and some poverty-level jobs. Inadequate public funds for recreation centers and after-school programs? Give tax dollars to wealthy developers and wait for the change that falls from their pockets.

Perhaps a brief experience with poverty and homelessness will clarify the minds and open the hearts of the decision-makers. Enter the Homelessness Challenge.

Last week thousands of Americans participated in the Food Stamp Challenge, pledging to feed themselves on a food stamp budget for one week.

This experience is designed to increase sympathy for our neighbors who survive on the food that can be purchased for $4.00 per day (there goes that Venti Salted Caramel Mocha).

On the Streets Without Wallet or Purse

Thus, we propose the Homelessness Challenge: Take one middle class person. Remove his or her wallet, purse, keys, cash, phone, watch, credit cards, and identification.

Turn her or him loose on the city streets for 24 hours, during which period she or he must meet the basic daily needs for food, shelter, transportation, and hygiene, without the assistance of family or friends.

Next, imagine the additional complexities of adding a chronic disease, a wheelchair, or a developmental disability.

How long would it take before the average person would seek the kindness of strangers? Would soliciting $1.86 for a cup of hot coffee or $4.69 for a Value Meal seem outrageous? Should requesting $1.60 for a bus ride to this evening’s shelter be a criminal act?

Just as the Food Stamp Challenge is designed to soften the hearts and open the minds of the (relatively) privileged, The Homelessness Challenge might bring some insight to those who propose and dispose, but never suppose what their own response to such poverty might be.

Beggars have something to teach us about the way we’ve chosen to structure our community. We’re just not listening.
 Jeff Singer is the retired president and CEO of Health Care for the Homeless. He and Lauren Siegel are members of City Advocates in Solidarity with the Homeless (CASH).

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