Baltimore’s Poverty Cleansing Program

by Brendan Walsh
      REMEMBER the game of musical chairs? Players circle around assembled chairs until the music stops. Then everyone rushes for a chair. There are never enough chairs for each player. The object of the game is to gradually eliminate the players until one player grabs the last chair. During the game, stronger players often knock weaker ones off the chairs. It can be a fierce game if you want to win. And you can always assure victory if you control the music and own the chairs.
      We are playing this game in Baltimore. It’s a “poverty-cleansing” game, and the poorest of the poor are gradually being eliminated. No one is assessing the ramifications of the policies that are causing people to lose life’s necessities--a home, a just living wage, a real chance at an education, and even basic food stamps.
      According to “Plan Baltimore,” more than 156,000 Baltimoreans live in poverty. That’s 24% of the city’s population struggling to hold on to the “chairs” that sustain life.
      To live a human life, to raise a family, to build a community, you need housing. You need meaningful work that pays a living wage. You need food, a sense of dignity, human recognition and respect, and hope in large doses. Poor people are being denied each of these necessities.
      Keep a close eye on our housing programs, our jobs and wages, our incarceration rates, and our educational disasters. We are developing a “zero tolerance” for poor people. We are, intentionally or through neglect, cleansing Baltimore of poor people.
      On July 3rd, when the Murphy Homes were demolished, there was rejoicing. Buildings designed to “teach the poor a lesson” were leveled in a controlled implosion. Bleak, sterile, cheap places of confinement were removed from the landscape. It also means the loss of 658 units, housing for 1,500 to 1,700 people.
      One decade ago there were 18,162 public housing units, 18,526 “other subsidized” units, and 53,002 families “still in need” in Baltimore City. These numbers represent at least 90,000 families--more than 200,000 Baltimoreans, some of the poorest of the poor--all of them desperate for housing.
      But, as we enter the new millennium, we learn that the federal government is getting out of the housing business. When they level places like the Murphy Homes, they do not build new units for the majority of those displaced. The major fact in Baltimore is demolition. Houses are bulldozed without rhyme or reason. There is no comprehensive plan. Of the 66,000 rowhouses in center city, the plan is to demolish 20% by the year 2004. Virtually all of these houses are in the poorest neighborhoods.
      Think about it. We have a poverty rate of 24%. We are in the process of tearing down all public housing and 20% of the existing affordable rowhouses. So where will the poor go?
      We are told that the private sector, through programs like Section 8, will take up the slack. It is suggested that the poor should just get themselves to the five surrounding counties and “things” will work out. The unbinding of Baltimore will save us all. Does anyone believe there is a welcome mat in Baltimore, Howard, Carroll, Anne Arundel and Harford counties?
      The reality is that the poorest of the poor will just go wandering--a forced march to nowhere. Or they will “double up” with a relative or friend, or simply hide out in whatever abandoned building is still standing.
      If you are one of our 50,000 addicts, you will not be considered “housing-ready.” Thus, you will not be eligible for any subsidized housing. If you have been arrested for some drug-related offense, you too will not be eligible for subsidized housing. The number of people not “housing-ready” grows daily.
      Look at jobs and wages in the Baltimore metropolitan area. According to the recent report of the Job Opportunity Task Force, 62% of all jobs in the region are “low skill” jobs, and two out of three of these jobs are located outside the city. A “low-skill” job means a “low-wage” job--a poverty wage. The economic boom of the ’90’s has clearly created a sharp division between “high-skilled,” well-paid workers and “low-skilled” underpaid workers, and more and more unemployed. For every “low-skill” job, there are three “low-skill” job seekers.
      Our response to this crisis is abominable. We continue to remove the necessary chairs. There are more cries for “quality of life” arrests and we build more and more prisons. We lock people up and add fuel to the fire. People get out of jail fully enraged and then return to poor neighborhoods with no skills, no hope.
      One big result of our “welfare to work” program is that young children often have no adult parent or guardian at home when they return from school, or during the summer months. At our soup kitchen, more and more children are coming without an accompanying adult.
      When we began Viva House 30 years ago, we only saw single men over the age of 50. Now women and children are 70% of our guests. By the year 2004, will it be only children coming to soup kitchens?
      We are going in exactly the wrong direction.
      It is time to end the game of musical chairs. We can’t eliminate poverty by eliminating the poor. The federal government can’t drop out of the housing business at precisely the moment people are in dire need of housing. We can’t permit 62% of our labor force to work “low-skill,” “low-wage” jobs, while a few people pile wealth on top of wealth. We need to invest in the poor. In their lives. In their schools. In their neighborhoods.
      We can either change priorities, or that big bulldozer will level all of us.
      Everyone is entitled to a chair at the table.

Brendan Walsh and his wife, Willa Bickham, operate Viva House, at 26 South Mount Street in West Baltimore. Call 410-233-0488 to arrange donations or to volunteer.

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This story was published on September 1, 1999.