Coming together to support and invest in legacy and older homeowners.

Ms. A heard about Housing Upgrades to Benefit Seniors (HUBS) through her church, and she decided it was time to reach out. 

 “My roof was leaking. There were two sun lights that were also damaged on the roof. I had to put pots and buckets out to catch the rain…And there was no way I could afford to get it fixed.”

According to the National Aging in Place Council, over 90% of seniors say that they would prefer to age in place instead of moving into senior housing, but because older adults are more likely to live on a fixed income and experience limited mobility, they often have substantial housing repair and social support needs.

In Maryland, one in four households with residents 85 years or older and one in five households with residents aged 65-74 pay at least half of their fixed income on housing. In Baltimore City, 17% of all older adults over the age of 65 live below the poverty level. 

Concerned for the wellbeing of older Baltimoreans, a coalition of service providers and funders came together to create the Housing Upgrades to Benefit Seniors (HUBS) initiative – a network of organizations with a shared mission of helping older homeowners in Baltimore age in place.

Another partnership, Safe & Healthy Homes, founded in 2021, serves legacy homeowners who have been in their home for ten years or more, as well as homeowners over 65 in Central Baltimore.

Reducing the displacement of both older and legacy homeowners is foundational to strong, healthy, and stable neighborhoods.

Hundreds of older Baltimore neighbors like Ms. A are receiving home repairs and holistic support through service providers including St. Ambrose.

“When you get to a certain age these situations really wear on you. I have peace of mind now, and I didn’t have any peace when my roof was leaking. There has been so much rain lately. I thank God for my new roof.”

St. Ambrose provides not only home repairs, but also will preparation services (to ensure the homes safe passage to heirs) and case management to support older homeowners and legacy homeowners so they can obtain resources like energy assistance and assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Comprehensive, holistic services enable homeowners to resolve a variety of issues, including legal issues threatening their housing, issues affecting their ability to afford housing payments, and issues influencing safety and habitability.

These services include home modifications to facilitate safety and health (the installation of stair lifts, grab bars, railings, shower chairs, roof and furnace repair), and legal advice to avoid the threat of foreclosure or the threat of tax sale. They also ensure that the critical asset of the home can stay in the client’s family, helping to stabilize neighborhoods and build intergenerational wealth.

Our older and legacy neighbors do so much to strengthen our communities, and St. Ambrose is honored to be one of many Baltimore organizations coming together to support and invest in our neighbors and in the strength, stability and wellbeing of our communities.

A huge thanks to Ms. A for sharing her home repair experience with us and for Ms. W for sharing the stair lift photo.

Interested in Accessing these Services?

If you or someone you know is 65 or older click here to learn more about eligibility and next steps.

If you or someone you know is a legacy homeowner who has lived in their home for more than ten years or is 65 or older in Central Baltimore click here to learn more about eligibility and next steps.

We envision everyone in our community with a place they are proud to call home.

Over 480 community members call a St. Ambrose rental property home. One of those community members is Ms. M, who has been a St. Ambrose resident for more than 20 years.

“This morning I was standing on the porch, enjoying the view, and I thought about how it feels good to be living in in this neighborhood – knowing where it came from and now where it is. St. Ambrose has made it possible for families like me to be here,” said Ms. M.

Things have not always been this peaceful. Many years ago, Ms. M had to quickly leave her home with her three children to escape violence. When she was living in a shelter, she met one of St. Ambrose staff doing outreach. She took the opportunity to rent a home from St. Ambrose and has continued renting from us ever since.  

“St. Ambrose offers opportunities. St. Ambrose has been there for me. They work with you. Even with the pandemic – they were working hard to support families such as myself.  St. Ambrose helps; not just with housing, but with food, clothing, all kinds of stuff – I used St. Ambrose services to help with my resume when I was searching for work.”

Along with raising three children, Ms. M worked as a Headstart teacher and would also make time to support other domestic violence survivors. “I used to reserve a spot to talk to women in shelters. I would share my story and talk about how I was once where they are now. I always gave them a journal book with a pen, because that is what helped me. I tell them, ‘I want you to see yourself in the word success.’” 

“I raised three kids, my daughter became a soldier, she is a veteran, she fought in Afghanistan. My son is a nurse, and my youngest daughter is in the hospital, so I am raising her daughter. I’m not trying to own a home right now,” Ms. M states, and she let us know that renting is the best option for her right now.

“I’m caring for my granddaughter. This is a full-time job – being a stay at home grandma.”  

Ms. M says her St. Ambrose rental in the Winter’s Lane community is an ideal place to raise her granddaughter. She loves decorating her porch and gardening. And she enjoys seeing the community in action, whether it be seeing families come together at local sports fields or neighbors helping each other with yard work. “It really does take a village to raise a family,” she says.

We are inspired by everything Ms. M does for her family and community. And we are so grateful for the time she took to share her story with us. Thank you Ms. M!

Decoration’s in Ms. M’s yard.

A Legacy of Black Leadership, Community-Building and History in Winter’s Lane

In Catonsville, just two miles from the Baltimore City line, is a community called Winter’s Lane. Here churches, businesses, and historic homes stand witness to an important piece of Black history, and a legacy of Black leadership, community-building and resilience.

Because of the work of historian Louis S. Diggs, much of the history of the community is readily accessible to us. Through years of documentation and genealogical research, Diggs outlined the history of this community in his 1995 book, It all Started on Winters Lane.

The Winters Lane Historic District is the largest and most intact mid-19th century African American neighborhood in Baltimore County. The community was founded in 1867, just over a year after the end of the Civil War, and many of the original founders were formerly enslaved people.

Despite widespread violence, exploitation, and systemic racism, Black community members rallied together to build a thriving community. A school was created within a year of the community’s founding. Black businesses, such as a community grocery store, sprang up and flourished. 

The business community was bolstered by support from The Catonsville Cooperative Corporation, formed by Black Winter’s Lane residents in 1890. Cut off from access to intergenerational wealth because of slavery, the Co-op allowed community members to pool their resources to support new businesses in the community and to purchase homes.

Throughout the 20th century Winter’s Lane prospered, and was well known as a civically engaged community full of beautiful neighborhoods, sports, and social clubs. The Concerned Citizens of Catonsville, founded in 1980, continue to advocate for investment and preservation of the community and uphold the community’s strong legacy of leadership.

A photograph from the late 1980’s showing one of the homes before renovation.

In the late 1980s, a group of 15 homes in Winter’s Lane on Roberts and Shipley Avenues were rental properties in disrepair, with outdated features, like dangerous staircases and no central heating. The homes had been built in the early 1900’s and were in need of extensive rehabilitation. In a partnership with Baltimore County, St. Ambrose purchased the houses and renovated them with the goal of keeping as many original tenants in the homes as possible.

St. Ambrose brought the houses up to code and did substantial work to modernize the interiors. Great care was taken to maintain the original exterior appearance of the homes to preserve their historical legacy.  These homes are representative of the architecture of the time, and they are some of the few remaining examples of this type of structure in Winter’s Lane. 

In 2016, in partnership with Baltimore County and the State of Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development, St. Ambrose began a second renovation of ten of the historic homes, essentially doubling the size of the homes and updating with more modern amenities.

 “When I look at those houses, I see the history there. It can take you back and you can imagine the people in the past, while also looking at the new generation moving forward” says Leah Mason-Grant, Lead Property Manager at St. Ambrose. 

One of the homes after the most recent renovation.

Today, the 15 homes stand as living pieces of history in our region. They also are beloved homes rented at affordable rates, with many housing families that have been in the community for generations. St. Ambrose is honored to offer safe, affordable housing in this community and to have been able to rehabilitate and preserve buildings as they originally looked. We encourage you to visit Winter’s Lane, look into the work of local historian Louis S. Diggs, and enjoy this song about the community by the R.J. Phillips Band. 

This article drew heavily from the work of many more comprehensive articles which are listed below.

This Is Home

Mary Ellen Jensen has a master’s degree in social work and has worked at Child Protective Services for 16 years. This work, she explains, is her way of giving back to the community that has supported her.

“I’m really grateful to be where I’m at in life,” she said. “I will work as long as I can work, as long as my health permits. I know that my goal is just to give back, because even now, if someone asks me to do something in regards to young folks, I have no problem to volunteer. Even if I stopped working, my goal is to bring to the table my knowledge.”

Twenty-four years ago, having a master’s degree and a steady, purpose-driven job might not have seemed possible. When Ms. Jensen first came to St. Ambrose, she had been dealing with chronic homelessness, housing instability, and addiction for two decades. Now that she has been living in a St. Ambrose home for nearly the same amount of time, she reflects on the way her life has changed.

“I was a person on drugs for 20 years. And I felt like drugs were more important than paying rent,” she said. “Once I got off the drugs, I got a job at a restaurant. And while in the shelter, I saved up $1,200. I got a house that’s in the same block as the house I’m living in now, across the street.”

After conquering her substance use, Jensen was also able to stabilize her housing. Housing and addiction often co-occur; around 38% of people experiencing homelessness are dependent on alcohol while 26% misuse other harmful drugs. Sometimes, addiction can contribute to housing instability or lead to homelessness, but often, substance use develops as a way to deal with the harshness of experiencing homelessness. Ms. Jensen’s journey toward stability had only just begun; even with her new house, the work didn’t stop.

After starting a new job in 2011, Ms. Jensen took the next major step in her search for a more stable home: a section 8 voucher. A section 8 voucher, otherwise known as a housing choice voucher, is a government assistance program that allows low-income residents to live in a home of their choosing with subsidized rent. But when Ms. Jensen went out to look for a home that qualified, she was left unsatisfied.

“Me and my two children would walk around in this neighborhood looking for someone who would accept my section 8 housing voucher and I was not able to find anyone,” she said. “I didn’t have credit for one, and the homes were not as immaculate the homes I thought I was going to be able to get, so I got frustrated; I was running to the end of my rope.” Her current home was run down, but her job was not bringing in enough money to upgrade her situation. If the housing choice voucher could not meet her needs, Ms. Jensen had few options.

Although her initial housing choice voucher search wasn’t providing satisfactory leads, St. Ambrose was able to secure a home for Ms. Jensen and her family. “It gave me stability,” she said. “And St. Ambrose would help whenever I needed assistance from them with whatever was going on in the house. And they treated you like family.”

Her children, who were seven and ten years old when Ms. Jensen moved into her St. Ambrose home, benefited greatly from the new stability. One of the best feelings was simply knowing they had a home, which was a relatively foreign concept for her children who had experienced homelessness for most of their lives.

“First of all, they were happy just to be in a home. I was trying to be the best mother I could be to them. This was the first real home that we had. A lot of people, once I got my degree, assumed that I was trying to move. But no, this is my home. It’s home.”



Read more from St. Ambrose:

Share a Home, Save for a Home

Our Homesharing department has been matching homeowners and home seekers for 27 years in the Baltimore area, but only recently have we been making a strong effort to encourage this affordable housing solution for single parents. We contacted Brandy, a homesharing mom who lives in Northeast Baltimore to tell us a little bit about her homesharing experience.parent child homesharing logo final

How old is your daughter?   4 years old

Length of time home sharing: 6 months

Length of time it took to find a match: less than a week

What have you gained from Homesharing? From this home sharing experience I have gained the opportunity to cut back on my living expenses so that I can financially prepare to purchase a home.

Do you see Home sharing as a long term or temporary housing solution?  I am utilizing the home sharing program because I have a desire to purchase a home within this year.

What is something you’ve learned from your Home Provider? What is something you respect about your Home Provider?    I respect the fact that my Home Provider was willing to open her home to my daughter & me. While being in a home were my Home Provider is a home owner I have been able to witness the importance of keeping and maintaining a home. I always knew that it was a lot of responsibility that went into being a home owner, but this experience has given me an opportunity to see firsthand.

What qualities do you think make a good roommate? A good roommate is one that is very understanding, a good communicator, clean, and friendly.

What do you like best about your house? When I was in the process of searching for a home provider I was very adamant about staying in the same community. I didn’t want to pull my daughter out of the community and environment she was familiar with. The neighborhood is in a central location and in a quiet community surrounded by homeowners.

Is there anything else you’d like to share? I am very grateful for this experience because it is truly a humbling experience. Home sharing is great for any individual that is trying to find some stability and it will only work if you are willing to communicate and be patient. I would recommend home sharing to others. All home sharing experiences may vary.

Complete this sentence: Home is…. Truly a place where you are comfortable and you can relax and feel safe. ‘Home is where the heart is…’

Do you know a single parent or a homeowner who would be willing to open up their heart or their home? Contact the Homesharing department at St. Ambrose 410-366-6180 or via email at homesharing@stambros.org

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

Housing is a Human Right…That’s the Word on the Street

Hi,

My name is Emma and I’m one of the Homesharing Counselors at St. Ambrose. This year I am participating in the Lutheran Volunteer Corps, a national program that matches college-educated individuals with a non-profit for a year to learn about issues of social justice in the United States. Part of my goal working at St. Ambrose this year is to learn about housing equity. Someone once told me the difference between housing equality and equity by telling me a metaphor about people who need shoes. Equality means that everyone gets shoes, while equity means that everyone gets shoes that actually fit their feet. I was drawn to St. Ambrose because they not only work to help people find housing, but housing that really fits their needs.

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As one way of broadening my understanding of housing equity, on November 23rd, I attended an event called “Sleep Out for Housing Justice.” The event, sponsored by Baltimore nonprofit Housing Our Neighbors, brings together people who are currently or formerly homeless with housing advocates and community members. Among the organizations represented there were St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center, Health Care for the Homeless, Word on the Street, and students from Loyola and UM’s Social Work programs. Together, we shared a meal, participated in a public forum. Following the forum, those tough enough to brave the bone-chilling winds slept outside City Hall for the night, in solidarity with those who have no other place to sleep. The event was designed to bring awareness about homelessness and to generate discussion about how housing policy is supposed to be and the reality on the ground.

Housing Our Neighbors did an excellent job organizing this event. When we arrived at the park, everyone received a hot bowl of rice and chili, with a vegetarian option available for those who don’t eat meat. It can be hard to find vegetarian food or nutritious options when you’re living on the street, one man informed me. When you lose your housing, you lose the freedom to eat what you want, when you want, and even to practice your religion–which, for some religious affiliations like Buddhism, can mean a vegetarian diet.

Another freedom that you lose when you lack stable housing is the ability to go to the bathroom when and where you need to. If you’ve ever needed to use the restroom downtown and haven’t wanted to buy something to do so, you have some idea of how frustrating this can be: Baltimore City law prohibits public urination, yet lacks public bathrooms. Imagine now that you don’t have any money to purchase access to the restrooms and you’re sleeping outside. You face the choice of urinating in the street at night and facing a nearly $1,000 fine, which, unpaid, could lead to prison time….or holding it and risking a bladder infection, leading to hospitalization and costly medical fees. Is this fair treatment for people forced to live on the street?

We like to think that this kind of situation is someone else’s problem, and couldn’t happen to ourselves, personally. But homelessness–defined by health organizations as a lack of permanent housing–can happen to perfectly ‘normal’ people, and is often not the individual’s fault. Homelessness can be the result of sudden changes like illness, divorce, or the death of a family member, which cause mental distress and ultimately result in financial distress.

Now, homelessness is an epidemic that has not existed forever. When my mother was my age, back in the 1970s, you didn’t see twenty people sleeping out on the street on any given night. So what is its cause and what is its solution?

A member of Housing Our Neighbors pointed out that it is important to give people a hand-up, rather than a hand-out. Reflecting on this concept, I realized that St. Ambrose is one of the organizations working to give people a hand up. For those already facing foreclosure, our Foreclosure Prevention provides free one-on-one counseling about how to negotiate with mortgage lenders and budget a plan to stay up on mortgage payments. For those interested in sharing their home as a way to earn extra income, or in sharing someone else’s home as a low-cost housing option, our Homesharing program carefully screens individuals and matches them with one another based on personal preferences.

Monday morning, I returned to work at St. Ambrose with a greater understanding of the nature and importance of housing equity. True, some people, like me, choose to sleep outside sometimes for fun. Coming from a Pacific Northwest background, I enjoy camping with friends on occasion. But no one should have to sleep outside every night. When someone is ready to settle down with their family—or needs a place where they can live together with their kids—or simply needs shelter when the temperatures dip below freezing at night—we at St. Ambrose believe they should have that opportunity.

For the Baltimore Sun’s take on Sleep Out for Housing Justice, you can click on this link: http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2013-11-24/news/bs-md-ci-housing-justice-20131123_1_public-housing-housing-justice-inner-harbor