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.
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