Mom and Daughter Team Pay It Forward

No one is happy to start school again; especially if you are a student being sent to school with little more than the clothes on your back. Lakia Diggs knows how it feels to be a student of parents struggling to make ends meet. She wanted to give back to those that may not be able to afford the long list of school supplies. Lakia and her daughter, Sa’Nyia Sherman, a smart and vibrant middle school student of Highlandtown Elementary/Middle School, decided to do something for those students. Sa’Nyia went online to look at the different lists of supplies required for each grade. Lakia raised funds by placing an event on her Facebook page. Shortly, the donations and supplies flooded her home.

When Lakia called around for places to receive the donation she only had one condition; to make sure that her backpacks got into the hands of students who need them. On Tuesday, August 19th Lakia and Sa’Nyia, stopped by St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center to drop off 30 backpacks. She got to see the results of their labor. An excited five year old chose a pink glittered backpack and began to rummage through it.

“Pencils! Pens! Crayons!” she exclaimed. “A notebook. My mom has a notebook like this.” She said with a smile. “And…I don’t know what this is.” She said as she held up a protractor and gave Sa’Nyia a hug. “Thank you Sa’Nyia.” She said as she sat back down to see the rest of her school supplies.

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Baltimore City Youth Works Program

Written by Kenyatta

My name is Kenyatta and I am a Baltimore City High School student. Through the Baltimore City YouthWorks program I have been working at St. Ambrose Aid Housing Center this summer. My first project has been working and assisting the staff of Fundraising Department.   I feel achievement when I complete a project I am given and learn more about St. Ambrose and the different elements of it. I never knew there was more work to housing besides helping people live in reasonably priced homes. I always wondered, “How does the organization for housing find the money to change the look of run down or old homes?”

During my first week in the Fundraising Department, I learned that it takes structure, organization, and appreciation to make the things happen, provide the tools we apply to succeed and thank the people who have donated. I feel more appreciative because I am a part of changing other people’s lives for the better. I do plan to one day intern here or even volunteer for a year because I enjoy the structure and opportunity to make a difference.

I have helped the staff by giving part of my time and effort to display proof of our work represented in newspaper articles. I feel others would appreciate and believe that St. Ambrose is doing more than just giving someone a place to live, they’re giving them a home. The stories and emotions I hear from clients that don’t know what other things go on beyond finding the right home is incredible. To hear that I was a part of someone’s life who didn’t know it but helped them to smile and have a better tomorrow, it made me proud and happy to do something special.

I’ve also worked in the Rental Department and have learned how big St. Ambrose is. They have various properties that I’m proud to share that I learned about while sorting files and learning about each location. I’ve learned about ways of getting my own place by looking through different programs and what areas or people to contact. I have also learned about the different types of clients St. Ambrose can help or even direct for referral service.

I’ve enjoyed this experience with a lot of hard hours and focusing on my goal to make my projects excellent. I think everyone can gain a little more knowledge from helping others no matter what the organization is. I believe people can grow, like I have, from this experience and can incorporate more into their daily life. Helping people and change is what makes life better and more joyous. I do hope more people can look at my experience here as a sign of something worth doing and something great.

Sharing Housing with International Guests, a Profitable Cultural Exchange

by Emma Jornlin

As the U.S.’ baby boomers age, most report wanting to remain in their homes, where they can be near their community. In 2009, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey of adults 65 and older living in Baltimore, found that nine out of ten respondents own their own apartment or home and the majority are very satisfied with their living arrangements.However, many Americans also have dreams of traveling to other countries, something that can be difficult when you are weighed down by a mortgage. A plane ticket to France? Not very feasible when you are stuck with a $1200 mortgage.Homesharing, the idea of renting out a room in your home to a non-related individual, allows homeowners to gain a disposable source of income while participating in a cultural exchange.Maxine Hudley, one of our HomeProviders living in the Belair-Edison neighborhood, has had a positive experience sharing her home with people from other cultures. This past year, she hosted a woman from Ethiopia who spoke little English and couldn’t afford an apartment with her job at 7-11. Over the 16 months sharing her home with Tarik, Maxine earned $6000 in rental income. Tarik, in turn, saved an estimated $11,600 on rent by living with Maxine. The following is an excerpt of an interview Emma Jornlin, a LVC working in the Homesharing program this year, conducted with Maxine. St Ambrose: Why did you decide to share your home?

Maxine: I needed the additional funds. And the great thing about me is I have a big heart.

St. Ambrose: Shared housing, the idea of sharing housing with non-family members, is very popular in other countries. For example, if you study abroad in university anywhere from Germany to Ecuador, you will be invited to stay with a host family. Why do you think it’s less popular in the U.S.?

Maxine: Well, I didn’t know about it until a few years ago. I heard about it on the radio. Then I read this article about a woman sharing her home with a gentlemen and it really impressed me.

St. Ambrose: You’ve shared your home with a number of people from other cultures. How do you communicate when you don’t speak the same language?

Maxine: She (Tarik) had someone who could interpret for her. She would call them up. Also, even though we don’t speak the same language, there’s a million other ways to work things out. Like when she wasn’t locking the door, I couldn’t make myself understood verbally, so I’d take her to the door and show her how to lock it. And she would do the same thing with me. The mattress was lumpy and she took me to the bed to show me. So I went out and bought a new mattress—for both of my Homeseekers.

St. Ambrose: Would you recommend Homesharing to others?

Maxine: Yes. 100%.

 

… and now for our Spanish readersEn Español:Mientras los ‘baby boomers’ de los E.E.U.U. maduran, la mayoría reportan que ellos quieren quedarse en sus casa, donde ellos puedan estar cerca de sus comunidades. En 2009, el Pew Research Center, conducto una investigación de adultos de 65 de edad viviendo en Baltimore, encontrando que nuevo de los diez respondientes tienen su propio casa o apartamento y la mayoría están muy satisfechas con sus vivencias.Pero muchos estadounidenses también tienen un sueño de viajar a otros países, algo que puede ser difícil cuando tiene una hipoteca grande. ¿Un vuelo a Francia? No es muy viable cuando Ud. tiene una hipoteca de $1200.Homesharing, el idea de rentar un cuarto en su casa a una persona quien no es familia, permite que el dueño de la casa obtener un fuente de dinero disponible mientras participando en un intercambio cultural.Maxine Hudley, uno de nuestros dueños de casa viviendo en el barrio Belair, ha tenido una buena experiencia compartiendo su casa con una persona de otra cultura. Este ano pasado, a ella alojo una mujer de Ethiopia quien no hablaba mucho inglés y no podía afordar un apartamento con su trabajo en 7-11. En los 16 meses compartiendo su casa con Tarik, Maxine ganó $6000. Tarik guardo $11,600 en renta.St. Ambrose: ¿Por qué decidió Ud. compartir su casa?

Maxine: Yo necesitaba los fondos adicionales. Y lo bueno de mi es que tengo un gran corazón.

St. Ambrose: El idea de compartir una casa con otra persona quien no es familia es muy popular en otros países. Por ejemplo, si Ud. estudia en otro país por su universidad en Alemania hasta Ecuador, le van a invitar a Ud. quedarse con una familia. ¿Por qué piensa Ud. que este concepto no es tan popular en los EEUU?

Maxine: Pues, yo no conocía el concepto antes de unos años atrás. Yo oí un advertismo en el radio. Después, leí un artículo en el periódico de una mujer compartiendo su casa con un hombre y me impresiono mucho.

St. Ambrose: Ud. Ha compartido su casa con gente de otras culturas. ¿Cómo comunica ustedes cuando no hablan el mismo idioma?

Maxine: Ella (Tarik) tenía alguien para interpretar por ella. Les llamaba por el teléfono celular. También, aun cuando nosotros no hablamos el mismo idioma, hay un millón de otras maneras comunicar. Por ejemplo, cuando ella no estaba cerrando la puerta con candado, yo no podía explicarlo verbalmente, entonces yo le llevaría a la puerta y le mostraba como hacerlo. Y a ella hizo lo mismo conmigo. El cochón estaba lleno de grumos y a ella me llevo a la cama para mostrármelo. Y por eso, yo salí a comprar un nuevo cochón—para los dos Home Seekers.

St. Ambrose: ¿Ud. recomendaría Homesharing a otra gente?

Maxine: Sí. 100%.

 

 

For our Spanish readers, connect with Southeast CDC for help purchasing a home

What you’d need to make in every county in America to afford a decent one-bedroom

Originally posted in The Washington Post
By Emily Badger and Christopher Ingraham

Last month we wrote about a report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition on how much a worker would have to earn to afford what the Department of Housing and Urban Development considers “fair market rent” in local communities across the country. The government sets these housing rates, which include rent plus utilities, based on the local market for decent-quality apartments of different sizes — neither dumps nor luxury flats. These are also the rates that HUD uses to establish local housing subsidies.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition took those fair market rents and calculated how much a worker would have to earn per hour to cover such modest housing, if we assume a 40-hour work week and a 52-week year. They call this rate a “housing wage,” and it is, unsurprisingly, much higher than the minimum wage in much of the country.

The coalition focused on one person’s hourly income that is needed to afford a two-bedroom rental, a scenario that most closely applies to single parents supporting children alone. But they also compiled data on one-bedroom “housing wages” — a metric that applies more broadly — and the organization gave us the data at the county level.

We’ve mapped this more detailed data in the interactive below. This is what you’d need to earn per hour, working a 40-hour week, to cover the kind of housing that the federal government considers modest in your county:

county rental wages

Click through for interactive version »

Mapped in finer detail than by state, several geographic patterns are clearer. No single county in America has a one-bedroom housing wage below the federal minimum wage of $7.25 (several counties in Arkansas come in at $7.98).

Coastal and urban counties are among the most expensive. The entire Boston-New York-Washington corridor includes little respite from high housing wages. Marin, San Francisco and San Mateo counties in California rank as the least affordable in the country (scroll over each county in the interactive version for rankings; click to zoom). In each of those counties, a one-bedroom hourly housing wage is $29.83, or the equivalent of 3.7 full-time jobs at the actual minimum wage (or an annual salary of about $62,000). Move inland in California, and housing grows less expensive.

A dark swathe of North Dakota that appears to cover the geography of the oil and gas boom stands out as well.

As a commentary on the national minimum-wage debate, this map is limited. While it suggests that a minimum-wage worker can’t afford housing in Seattle (where the one-bedroom housing wage is $17.56 an hour), in reality that person probably finds housing by renting a room in someone else’s home, by living in the cheapest part of town, or by working considerably more than 40 hours a week. (Remember George W. Bush’s praise for the “uniquely American” story of the single mother of three who worked three jobs in Omaha?).

But this map does succinctly portray dramatic variation across the country in housing costs, and it suggests that proposals to modestly raise the minimum wage won’t fully solve this problem. While median incomes vary broadly by county, just as housing costs do, the incomes for people who work at the bottom end of any community’s wage spectrum do not.

Top ten most expensive counties

State County 1-br. housing wage
California Marin $29.83
California San Francisco $29.83
California San Mateo $29.83
Hawaii Honolulu $26.58
Massachusetts Nantucket $25.83
California Orange $25.23
New York Nassau $25.17
New York Suffolk $25.17
California Santa Clara $24.87
California Alameda $24.13

Thirty counties in Arkansas are all tied for the honor of least expensive housing wage, at $7.98 an hour: Ashley County, Boone County, Bradley County, Calhoun County, Clay County, Columbia County, Desha County, Drew County, Franklin County, Fulton County, Howard County, Izard County, Jackson County, Lafayette County, Lawrence County, Logan County, Marion County, Mississippi County, Monroe County, Montgomery County, Nevada County, Newton County, Phillips County, Randolph County, Scott County, Searcy County, Sharp County, Stone County, Woodruff County and Yell County.

St. Ambrose Takes legal services into the community

Originally Posted in The Daily Record

Joe Surkiewicz
The legal program at St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center isn’t waiting for clients to find its midtown Baltimore office. Instead, the nonprofit is going into the community to solve civil legal problems before they escalate – and with a permanent, brick-and-mortar presence.

Earlier this month, St. Ambrose opened a walk0in clinic at 108 E. 25th St., where people with civil legal problems can get a free 30-minute consultation with a lawyer.

“You can’t sit in an office and wait for low-income people to find you,” said Jeanette Cole, St. Ambrose’s director of legal services. “They face too many hurdles, like transportation or child care. If you don’t get to them, the problems don’t get better. You must address the legal issues early on.”

Since its founding in 1968, St. Ambrose has helped more than 100,000 families with their housing needs, including counseling for first-time home buyers, a home sharing service, rental services, and a home redevelopment program that renovates vacant houses.

Foreclosure services and the legal program counsel people who can’t pay their mortgage and provide direct representation to people in default and facing foreclosure. Increasingly, the legal staff is engaging clients with legal problems that aren’t directly related to housing – but can ultimately lead to economic instability.

The key, Cole said, is getting to them early.

“What we’re seeing is that people get in denial, they get overwhelmed and deny there’s a problem,” she said. “If they knew there’s someone they can ask for help, it can prevent a problem form turning into a disaster.”

One example is payday loans.

“We try to get to them before it turns into a problem,” Cole said. “We try to firm up their financial stability so that their housing remains stable. We meet with them informally or we schedule appointments.”

The new clinic, which will formally open next month with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake in attendance, is open Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

“I hired an administrative assistant and a community liaison who also works for Councilman Nick Mosby,” Cole said. “He goes to community meetings and is really good at speaking and getting the word out…He’s a live presence in the community.”
Now that the office is staffed and operating, the next step is to meet with churches and schools where St. Ambrose staff can make presentations.

“We go where the clients are,” Cole added. “Although we’re citywide, we’re focused on the neighborhood near our office to help people access legal services. We take it to the and help them with their problems. It’s to help families and the neighborhood.”

Many people who come to St. Ambrose for housing counseling also have legal problems that need to be addressed. “By assisting with whatever needs to be done, we get to them as soon as we can,” Cole said. “It ultimately helps children, families and the neighborhood.”

Schools are also a source of potential clients.

“We’re contacting counselors to see what issues they’re seeing with the children,” Cole said. “We hope to meet with parents before or after school. We’ve prepared lots of educational brochures and show them how to use the People’s Law Library and our online intake.”

With a legal staff of just three lawyers, St. Ambrose is limited in the amount of direct representation it can provide. “We can’t represent everyone,” Cole noted. “We try to identify real problems. We can do something to help them a lot of the time, and then offer education, referrals and advice.”

The legal program will continue its collaboration with the University of Maryland Carey School of Law in providing low-cost legal help to people in the community.

“We’ll continue to work with the JustAdvice program,” Cole said. “We schedule sessions twice a month at The Living Well, a storefront available for community meetings that we rent. Maryland Law students set it up. Sometimes we have 15 people with scheduled appointments.”

Law students are also the focus of new legal clerkships at St. Ambrose.

“It gives them an opportunity to work with clients and shows them the public service aspect of the profession, either so they can pursue a career or use the experience on their resume, Cole said. “It also helps the see the huge demand for pro bono.”

Joe Surkiewicz is director of communications at the Homeless Persons Representation Project in Baltimore. His email is jsurkiewicz@hprplaw.org

The Compassion Gap

Originally posted in The New York Times
By NICHOLAS KRISTOF
March 1, 2014

SOME readers collectively hissed after I wrote a week ago about the need for early-childhood interventions to broaden opportunity in America. I focused on a 3-year-old boy in West Virginia named Johnny Weethee whose hearing impairment had gone undetected, leading him to suffer speech and development problems that may dog him for the rest of his life.

A photo of Johnny and his mom, Truffles Weethee, accompanied the column and readers honed in on Truffles’ tattoos and weight.

“You show a photograph of a fat woman with tons of tattoos all over that she paid for,” one caller said. “And then we — boohoo — have to worry about the fact that her children aren’t cared for properly?”

On Twitter, Amy was more polite: “My heart breaks for Johnny. I have to wonder if the $$ mom spent on tattoos could have been put to better use.”

“This is typical of the left,” Pancho scolded on my Facebook page. “It’s not anyone’s fault. Responsibility is somebody else’s problem.”

To me, such outrage at a doting mom based on her appearance suggests the myopic tendency in our country to blame poverty on the poor, to confuse economic difficulties with moral failures, to muddle financial lapses with ethical ones.

There is an income gap in America, but just as important is a compassion gap. Plenty of successful people see a picture of a needy child and their first impulse is not to help but to reproach.

To break cycles of poverty, we have the tools to improve high school graduation rates, reduce teen pregnancies and increase employment. What we lack is the will to do so.

There may be neurological biases at work. A professor at Princeton found that our brains sometimes process images of people who are poor or homeless as if they were not humans but things.

Likewise, psychology experiments suggest that affluence may erode compassion. When research subjects are asked to imagine great wealth, or just look at a computer screen saver with money, they become less inclined to share or help others. That may be why the poorest 20 percent of Americans give away a larger share of their incomes than the wealthiest 20 percent.

The generosity of the poor always impresses me. In West Virginia, I visited a trailer that housed eight people and sometimes many more. A woman in the home, Lynmarie Sargent, 30, was once homeless with a month-old baby, and that discomfort and humiliation seared her so that she lets other needy families camp out in her trailer and eat. Sometimes she houses as many as 17.

Sargent is an unemployed former addict with a criminal record, struggling to stay clean of drugs, get a job and be a good mom. She has plenty to learn from middle-class Americans about financial planning, but wealthy people have plenty to learn from her about compassion.

A Pew survey this year found that a majority of Republicans, and almost one-third of Democrats, believe that if a person is poor the main reason is “lack of effort on his or her part.”

It’s true, of course, that the poor are sometimes lazy and irresponsible. So are the rich, with less consequence.

Critics note that if a person manages to get through high school and avoid drugs, crime and parenting outside of marriage, it’s often possible to escape poverty. Fair enough. But if you’re one of the one-fifth of children in West Virginia born with drugs or alcohol in your system, if you ingest lead from peeling paint as a toddler, if your hearing or vision impairments aren’t detected, if you live in a home with no books in a gang-ridden neighborhood with terrible schools — in all these cases, you’re programmed for failure as surely as children of professionals are programed for success.

So when kids in poverty stumble, it’s not quite right to say that they “failed.” Often, they never had a chance.

Researchers also find that financial stress sometimes impairs cognitive function, leading to bad choices. Indian farmers, for example, test higher for I.Q. after a harvest when they are financially secure. Alleviate financial worry, and you can gain 13 points in measured I.Q.

The tattoos that readers saw on Truffles are mostly old ones, predating Johnny, and she is passionate about helping him. That’s why she enrolled him in a Save the Children program that provides books that she reads to him every day. In that trailer in Appalachia, I don’t see a fat woman with tattoos; I see a loving mom who encapsulates any parent’s dreams for a child.

Johnny shouldn’t be written off at the age of 3 because of the straw he drew in the lottery of birth. To spread opportunity, let’s start by pointing fewer fingers and offering more helping hands.

I invite you to comment on this column on my blog, On the Ground. Please also join me on Facebook and Google+, watch my YouTube videos and follow me on Twitter.

Shortage of housing for the poor grows

Originally posted on The Baltimore Sun

By Natalie Sherman, The Baltimore Sun
nsherman@baltsun.com

6:07 PM EST, March 8, 2014

It’s growing increasingly difficult for the poorest families in Baltimore to find affordable rental housing, and some housing advocates worry new housing policies such as privatization could make the problem worse.

An analysis by the Urban Institute found a yawning gap between the number of low-income renter households and affordable units available in every jurisdiction in the country.

In Baltimore City in 2012, there were 43 affordable units available per 100 extremely low-income households, down from 58 in 2000, according to the study published last week. The number dropped to 16 in Howard County in 2012 from 38 a dozen years earlier.

The forces behind the widening gap vary. Many experts say the gap comes down to money: The private market rarely builds or rehabilitates units for the poorest families, cities and states can’t afford it, and federal spending hasn’t kept pace.

“You can only house the really low-income with a significant cash subsidy, and the question is: Where is that money going to come from?” said Robert Embry, a former Baltimore housing commissioner who is now president of the Abell Foundation.”Housing was only provided when the federal government made money available, and the federal government is reducing its role in this area.”

The Urban Institute’s report came out the same week the Housing Authority of Baltimore City disclosed a plan to sell 22 of its high-rises — nearly 40 percent of the city’s stock of public housing — to developers that would modernize the facilities. The plan raised concerns that that might further reduce the availability of public housing among some advocates.

The Washington-based think tank’s report defined extremely low-income as households earning less than 30 percent of an area’s median income — meaning less than $25,700 a year for a family of four in 2012 throughout the Baltimore area. Affordability is measured as housing that costs less than a third of a household’s income.

The number of such families rose by as much as 10 percent in Carroll County and 60 percent in Baltimore County during the 12-year period, according to the analysis. Meanwhile, the supply of affordable units in the counties fell drastically, driven in part by surging demand for rentals at all income levels.

In Baltimore City, the number of these low-income families increased just 2 percent, but the affordable rental supply fell by about 24 percent, with much of that drop occurring before 2006, the Urban Institute found.

The study’s count of available units does not include what are considered substandard units or affordable apartments occupied by higher-income households.

For the families that do rent affordable units, federal programs are critical: Nationwide, 97 percent of the 3.26 million affordable units available to extremely low-income renters receive federal assistance, the institute estimated. Local waiting lists for some housing voucher programs are thousands of people long — 25,000 households in Baltimore County alone.

But since the 1980s, federal housing policy has shifted from deep subsidies to supporting private developers with tax credits and public financing in exchange for rent limits on some of their apartments. That has limited funds for public housing and Section 8 vouchers that guarantee rent does not exceed 30 percent of a qualified family’s income.

The new programs allow landlords to rent subsidized units to families with a wider range of incomes, still below an area median income. The looser requirements assure broader access to affordable housing and help avoid concentrations of poverty, policymakers said.

“There are people at different income levels that need assistance, and we try to make sure that we’ve got integrated housing opportunities,” said Patricia Rynn Sylvester, director of multifamily housing for the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development.

The policy changes have left out the poorest families, said Trudy McFall, chairman of Annapolis-based nonprofit Homes for America and president of the Maryland Affordable Housing Coalition

“It’s good to have housing that’s more of a mix of incomes,” she said. “The problem is we’re not beginning to replace very low-income units with these new programs.”

The state provides incentives for developers competing for the tax credits to reserve more units for the poorest families and has partnered with the Weinberg Foundation to devote some funds to units for families at 15 percent or less of area median income, Sylvester said.

Across the country, housing officials are moving to sell public housing units to private developers, just as Baltimore said it would do last week. Proponents say it will raise millions needed to renovate the properties, in part by allowing the public units to access the tax credit financing.

The city’s federal funds for public housing capital projects have fallenfrom $30 million in 1997 to $12.8 million this year, said Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano.

In addition to Baltimore’s plan, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development documents show privatization projects from housing authorities across the state, including applications from Anne Arundel and Howard counties.

Some housing advocates said they worry private ownership will exacerbate the shortage for the poorest families, allowing developers to reduce the number of units overall or steer housing toward families further up the income ladder.

“I can’t really speak definitively about that, but one would always be concerned,” said Jeff Singer, former CEO of Health Care for the Homeless who teaches at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. “It’s a little difficult to know precisely, because I am operating with a lack of information from the Housing Authority. They’ve been so secretive about the process that I don’t know what sort of contracts they’ll be signing with project developers and how they will limit the ability to rent to higher incomes.”

The average income of families in Baltimore public housing is about $12,000 a year, according to the Housing Authority.

Spokeswoman Cheron Porter said officials do not expect the makeup of tenants to change with privatization. The authority’s income-limit calculations will remain the same, and privatized units will go to households on its waiting list, currently 28,000 families long, she said.

The units will operate like so-called “project-based” Section 8 vouchers, she said.

“With a poverty rate at or above 25 percent for the city of Baltimore and our ongoing history of serving the most vulnerable population, we would not expect [income composition] to change,” she said.

McFall, whose Homes for America is one of the nonprofits participating in Baltimore’s privatization program, said it could preserve the number of housing units for the poorest families depending on how local authorities implement the program.

Moreover, she said, privatization will mean more units for the poorest families could access a state-administered pool of subsidized financing.

Gov. Martin O’Malley’s new budget seeks $24 million for the Rental Housing Works program, which provides state financing for private affordable housing projects. If funded at that level, $6 million will be reserved for the converted public housing units, according to the state.

“However this budget comes out, we will be using more of the federal and state resources that have tended to go to moderate incomes, and more of them will go to preserve, maintain or rebuild housing that serves people who get a deep subsidy,” McFall said.

But, she said, that doesn’t mean she is optimistic about the affordable-housing shortage.

“It’s creating better housing, and it might create more moderate income housing, but it isn’t creating new housing units for [families] at 30 percent or below,” she said. “And therein is why our shortage grows and grows.”

Too Poor For Pop Culture

Where I live in East Baltimore, everything looks like “The Wire” and nobody cares what a “selfie” is by D. Watkins. Originally posted on Salon.

Miss Sheryl, Dontay, Bucket-Head and I compiled our loose change for a fifth of vodka. I’m the only driver, so I went to get it. On the way back I laughed at the local radio stations going on and on and on, still buzzing about Obama taking a selfie at Nelson Mandela’s funeral. Who cares?

No really, who? Especially since the funeral was weeks ago.

* * *

I arrived, fifth of Black Watch clenched close to me like a newborn with three red cold-cups covering the top. We play spades over at Miss Sheryl’s place in Douglass Housing Projects every few weeks. (Actually, Miss Sheryl’s name isn’t really Miss Sheryl. But I changed some names here, because I’m not into embarrassing my friends.) Her court is semi-boarded up, third world and looks like an ad for “The Wire.” Even though her complex is disgustingly unfit, it’s still overpopulated with tilting dope fiends, barefoot children, pregnant smokers, grandmas with diabetes, tattoo-faced tenants and a diverse collection of Zimmermans made up of street dudes and housing police, looking itchy to shoot anyone young and black and in Nike.

 Two taps on the door, it opened and the gang was all there — four disenfranchised African-Americans posted up in a 9 x 11 prison-size tenement, one of those spots where you enter the front door, take a half-step and land in the yard. I call us disenfranchised, because Obama’s selfie with some random lady or the whole selfie movement in general is more important than us and the conditions where we dwell.

Surprisingly, as tight as Miss Sheryl’s unit may be, it’s still more than enough space for us to receive affordable joy from a box of 50-cent cards and a rail bottle.

“A yo, Michelle was gonna beat on Barack for taking dat selfie with dat chick at the Mandela wake! Whateva da fk a selfie is! What’s a selfie, some type of bailout?” yelled Dontay from the kitchen, dumping Utz chips into a cracked flowery bowl. I was placing cubes into all of our cups and equally distributing the vodka like, “Some for you and some for you …”

“What the flip is a selfie?” said Miss Sheryl.

“When a stupid person with a smartphone flicks themselves and looks at it,” I said to the room. She replied with a raised eyebrow, “Oh?”

It’s amazing how the news seems so instant to most from my generation with our iPhones, Wi-Fi, tablets and iPads, but actually it isn’t. The idea of information being class-based as well became evident to me when I watched my friends talk about a weeks-old story as if it happened yesterday.

* * *

Miss Sheryl doesn’t have a computer and definitely wouldn’t know what a selfie is. Her cell runs on minutes and doesn’t have a camera. Like many of us, she’s too poor to participate in pop culture. She’s on public assistance living in public housing and scrambles for odd jobs to survive.

Sheryl lost her job as a cook moments after she lost her daughter to heroin, her son Meaty to crack and her kidneys to soul food. It took 15 to 20 unanswered applications a week for over a year for her to realize that no company wants to employ a woman on dialysis. Sometimes Bucket-Head and I chip in and buy groceries for her and her grandson Lil Kevin who has severe lead-paint poisoning, but was diagnosed late and is too old to receive a check.

Bucket-Head is a convicted felon but not really. He was charged with a crime that he didn’t commit. I know this because my late cousin did the shooting and our whole neighborhood watched. Bucket was in the wrong place at the wrong time and as many know, we are products of a “No Snitching” culture.

As a result, the only work Bucket can find after 10 years of false imprisonment is that of laborer with the Mexicans who post up in front of 7-Eleven, or as a freelance dishwasher. Bucket’s no angel, but he’s also not a felon and doesn’t deserve to be excluded from pop culture no more than Miss Sheryl or Dontay, who represents the definition of redemption to me.

* * *

I placed our cups at the table and the bottle in the center. “Me and Miss Sheryl are gonna whip ass tonight, hurry up, Dontay!” I yelled.

Dontay cleans nonstop. Roaches sleeping in the fridge, roaches relay racing out of the cabinets carrying cereal boxes, purchasing homes, building families, slipping through cracks for fun and weaving in and out of death — Dontay bleaches them all. Dontay doesn’t take handouts from us and won’t go on government assistance. He couldn’t contribute to the chips and vodka that week so he’s cleaned for Miss Sheryl and would clean for Miss Sheryl even if there were no chips and vodka.

“Boy we ready to play the cards. Stop acting selfie and sit yo ass at the table!” yelled Miss Sheryl from another room. We all laugh. Miss Sheryl’s rooms are separated by white sheets; they look like a soiled ghost at night when the wind blows. Her son Meaty stole and sold her doors years ago and housing never replaced them.

Dontay joined us at the table. “Takin forever, boy, wit dem big ass feet!” yelled a happy Bucket. Dontay was wearing my old shoes. They are 13’s and busting at the seams but Dontay’s a size 8 and his foot is digging through the side. His arms are chunked and wrapped in healed sores from years of drug abuse. He’s eight years clean off of the hard stuff now, but I met him way back when I was 13, in his wild days.

He was huddled over his girlfriend in the alley behind my house. I watched moments before as she performed an abortion on herself with a twisted coat hanger. She screamed like the sirens we hear all day. I couldn’t stop looking at her. He gazed too, in and out of a nod and then signaled me for help. I joined them. Together we dragged her to Johns Hopkins Hospital, which was under a mile away. Blood scabbed and dried on my hands, Nikes and hooping shorts; she lived until she OD’d months later. I’ve been cool with Dontay ever since.

“Tryin get dem roach eggs, tee-he, tee-he he he, gotta get the bleach on da roach eggs! Den dey won’t come back!” Dontay replied as he sat at the table.

* * *

I dealt the first hand. Miss Sheryl reminded me to deal to the left. “Always deal to the left, boy, the rule don’t change!” she said. She has the widest jaws in the history of wide and jaws, thicker than both of her bloated caramel arms, which are thigh-size. I collected the cards, reshuffled and dealt to the left. And there we were — my job-hungry unemployed old heads and me the overworked college professor.

College professor?

Not the kind of professor that makes hundreds of thousands of dollars for teaching one class a year but a broke-ass adjunct who makes hundreds of dollars for teaching thousands of classes a year. The other day I read an article about an adjunct who died in a homeless shelter and I wasn’t surprised; panhandlers make triple, and trust me, I’ve done the research, I should be looking for a corner to set up shop.

I have a little more than my friends but still feel their pain. My equation for survival is teaching at three colleges, substituting, freelance Web designing, freelance graphic designing, rap video director, wedding photographer and tutor —  the proceeds from all of these are swallowed by my mortgage, cigarettes, rail vodka and Ramen noodles. I used to eat only free-range organic shit, I used to live in Whole Foods, I used to drink top shelf — I used to be able to afford pop culture.

But long gone are the days when I pumped crack into the very neighborhood where we hold our card game. Eons since I had to stay up all night counting money until my fingers cramped. Since I had to lie on my back to kick my safe closed and I wore and treated Gucci like Hanes and drove Mercedes CL’s and gave X5 beamers to my girlfriends — my good ole days.

Eventually the mass death of my close friends caused me to leave the drug game in search of a better life. Ten-plus years and three college degrees later, I’m back where I started, just like my card-playing friends: too poor to participate in pop culture. Too poor to give a fuck about a selfie or what Kanye said or Beyoncé’s new album and the 17 videos it came with.

“Put me on that Obamacare when you can, college boy!” Sheryl says to me as I contemplate the number of books I can make out of my shitty hand. We all laugh. I am the only one in the room with the skill set to figure it out, but we all really see Obamacare as another bill and from what I hear, the website is as broke as we are. We love Barack, Michelle, their lovely daughters and his dog Bo as much as any African-American family, but not like in 2008.

The Obama feeling in 2008 isn’t the same as the Obama feeling in 2014. Obama had us dream chasing in 2008. My friends and I wanted him to be our dad and  best friend and mentor and favorite uncle. Shit, I wanted to take selfies with him. He was a biracial swirl of black and white Jesus sent to deliver us. To bless people stuck under the slums like Sheryl, Bucket, Dontay and I with jobs, access to the definition of words like selfie and hope — REAL HOPE.

But in 2014 it feels the same as Bush, or Clinton, or any other president. The rich are copping new boats and we still are using the oven to heat up our houses in the winter, while eating our cereal with forks to preserve milk. America still feels like America, a place where you have to pay to play, any and everywhere even here at our broke-ass card game.

* * *

1 a.m. rolls around and we’re faded, everyone but Miss Sheryl, that is, because dialysis prohibits her from drinking. My kidney pounds, her 2008 Obama for Pres T-shirt stares back at me all stretched out of shape, making Barack look like Sinbad. No one knows who won because really, we all lost. Dontay is asleep because I saw the roaches creeping back and Bucket staggered out.

I looked at Miss Sheryl, “We could take a late night selfie now but I swapped my iPhone for a boost mobile, $30 payment!”

She laughed and said, “Baby, what’s a selfie again?”

D. Watkins is an author, filmmaker and native Baltimorean who graduated with honors from Johns Hopkins University. He teaches at Coppin State University and runs a writing workshop on Creative Nonfiction at the Baltimore Freedom School. Watkins also conducts artist interviews for StopBeingFamous.com and1729mag.com. Watkins work also be seen on Niche Literary Magazine, Welter, Artichoke Haircut, The Baltimore Fishbowl, Hippocampus Magazine and a host of other literary publications. Connect with him on Instagram and Twitter @dWatkinsWorld and read more at d-Watkins.com

Homesharing: Connecting Compatible Roommates

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By Emma Jornlin

Homesharing is a great option for those who don’t want to live alone. Oftentimes individuals who come to St. Ambrose are looking for a roommate but, for various reasons, don’t want to live with family or close friends.

The benefits of Homesharing abound. On the Home Provider’s part, sharing your house can mean assistance with household expenses, receiving help with chores or, as a recent article in the Chicago Tribune mentioned, just having someone with whom to watch Dancing with the Stars!

On the Home Seeker’s part, moving in with a Home Provider in Baltimore City/County can mean obtaining affordable housing while having the opportunity to share in someone lifestyle or culture—even being welcomed into the family. One of our Home Providers introduces Home Seekers to her grandkids when they visit. Another invites her Homesharers upstairs for Friday night dinners.

For those who don’t like the idea of having to greet someone before they’ve had their coffee or navigating someone  shower schedule, private baths and entrances are available for a slightly higher price than the average $450-500/month.

Our goal at St. Ambrose is to match people based on personality and preferences so that our Home Owners find the right person to share their home and our Home Seekers feel genuinely welcome there.

Here is an overview of our process:

  1. Homeowners apply through our online application or request a mail-in form.
  2. Homeowners are interviewed in their home.
  3. Homeseekers are interviewed at St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center.
  4. Homesharing staff screen and check references of Home Providers and Home Seekers to make sure they have a clean criminal history, no current addictions, and that they have a good rental history.
  5. Our Homesharing Counselors discuss and refer possible Homesharers, based on asking rent, location, and other “non-negotiables,” as well as based on personality and likes/dislikes.
  6. Home Seekers visit the Home Provider’s’ homes until each party decides on a roommate they like.
  7. Our staff meets with the Homesharers to formalize the match.
  8. We check in on the match once a quarter for the first year and provide free mediation services if needed.

The Homesharing Department is reachable at: (410) 366-6180 or you can go to www.stambros.org