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Baltimore's Homeless Tent City of 2017

Bruce Emmerling writes about the city of Baltimore and the homeless.

Occupy 2.0 for the Homeless and Racial Equality

Remember the Occupy movement of 2011-2012? A similar type of movement sprung up on the doorsteps of Baltimore city hall in August 2017. The encampment was planned and created by the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC), the Baltimore Bloc, 300 Gangsters, and other groups.

The Tent City was an attempt to shed light on the plight of those experiencing homelessness as well as racism in Baltimore. The Tent City presented to the city a list of demands including a call for jobs and housing, and a program for felony record expungement. The planners and leaders of the tent city hoped to bring long term change to how Baltimore city handles those experiencing homeless within its boundaries.

The tent city was started on August 14th by SCLC. Numerous tents sprung up, filled with a number of individuals that had been homeless in the city. For a week, the small encampment grew, with numerous supporters dropping off daily donations. A sizable white tent housed the core “administration” of the camp, where volunteers, many living onsite, help organize the daily workings of the site. For the most part, the responses from the community have been highly positive.

In many ways the tent city appeared to be a model experience. Food was served daily by different groups including the Free Farm, water was constantly being donated, and there was a medical tent to help with first aid. Many tent residents spent their first week cleaning up any trash and working to maintain a sense of community.

Each person living there had their own story to share. Some were longtime residents of the streets, while others have been on the streets only for a short time. Aside from the constant donations, volunteers have stayed with the camp to help with any developing problems. Ongoing security has also been provided by members of the 300 Gangsters movement.

Many observers and planners alike are still amazed that the camp was allowed to stand past its first week. More than a few predicted that the city would raze the encampment on its first night.

Baltimore has a number of laws that could be used to remove the tents with little notice. Occasional visitors and tourists walked through the area, taking pictures and looking bewildered at the tents. A few asked about the purpose of the camp. With the exception of several signs, there weren’t any major displays of political or social discourse there. For the tent city residents, it’s a place to have a temporary safe space.

Baltimore's Homeless Encampments

Throughout Baltimore city, there are tent cities with homeless residents. While shelters, transitional housing units, and services are available, often the demand can exceed availability of services. Drivers can often see small tent encampments under bridges or overpasses when driving to and from work. While some decry their existence as a plight against humanity, others swear about them due to their appearance. However, for the most part, most simply ignore their existence with apathy. On occasion, the tent cities are torn down by city workers with bulldozers. To deal with this apathy, the planners of this Tent City hoped to provide a more visible community of people showing their humanity to the city at large.

Many residents of the camp expressed different political and personal views of their experiences there. One gentleman residing in the camp hoped that the city would just provide temporary housing for those residing in the tents. Another female resident wanted more long term assistance, not just short term “fixes.” At one meeting, more than a few tent city residents voiced concerns over whether the city would actually follow through if they provided services. Many residents appeared ready to stay for the long haul if it’s needed.

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Not everyone in Baltimore agreed with the idea of the encampment or the demands. Some city officials spoke off the record about the availability of services to the homeless as well as nearby shelters. Others believed that the residents were simply there to make a political statement and could be staying at transitional housing units throughout the city. Then there were those who saw the homeless residents as being used for political purposes. Others countered that many housing units are often filled up and that some services are too dispersed for everyone to access.

People thought the city police might enforce charges against those staying in the tent city for potentially breaking different city ordinances. Others thought the residents would forcibly removed without charges by city officials. Others hoped the residents would have their demands met and leave.

Politically the encampment provided both a startling reminding of the plight of the homeless anda potentially embarrassing spotlight on the city government at its very doorsteps. To tourists, it showed another site of Baltimore away from the tourist hotspots of the Inner Harbor.

Ultimately, Tent City reminded us of the humanity of those that society had left behind. For the mayor, it was an unavoidable reminder that even the city’s homeless population deserved attention.

The Next Phase: Tent City West

Later in August 2017, the city bused 55 Tent City residents to a temporary housing site, an unused school building, which became "Tent City West."

Further Reading: A “Tent City” outside City Hall to press the mayor on homelessness and more

WBAL-TV 11 Baltimore Video: Activists, homeless camp out for racial equality

#TentCity: Christina Flowers

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

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