There was gas and electricity but no water, and he kept the lights off so no one would see he was living there. And no one seemed to mind. So he came back the next night and then the next, using the home to keep warm until spring came, although he’d turn off the gas at night since he was worried about leaks.
“They need to fix up these homes that we have here,” he said, sitting under a highway bridge in downtown Baltimore, a navy blue hooded sweatshirt snugly covering his head. He now sleeps in a tent under the bridge, alongside dozens of other homeless people, some in wheelchairs, others who have come draggingmattresses or couches upon which to lay their heads. Loitering in a vacant home in Baltimore can get you arrested, and though he misses the warmth, Jeremiah didn't want to take the chance, so he moved out of his adopted home when the weather got warmer.
But one group in Baltimore is pushing to help others do officially what Jeremiah did on the fly: take vacant homes and turn them into permanent affordable housing for the homeless. Housing Our Neighbors, part of the Housing Is A Human Right Roundtable, is made up of labor activists, homeowners, and homeless people. The group is currently surveying the McElderry Park neighborhood in Baltimore in order to present the city with a report on the number of vacant homes there. They say the data will show there are far more vacant homes in Baltimore than the city has previously
“Clearly there’s a moral crisis when you see so many people in need of homes and there’s such a glut of vacant ones,” said Rachel Kutler, a leadership organizer with United Workers, which works with the Roundtable.
I went along with Tony Simmons, who is homeless, on a tour through a neighborhood the group recently surveyed. Simmons, 53, is wiry and energetic, and talks constantly about vacant homes, the project, and his own history. He served in Operation Desert Storm, after which he spent some time as a drug runner, driving cars filled with drugs between cities on the Eastern Seaboard, partially so he could fund the heroin habit that was taking over his life. Now, though he’s kicked his habit and has thrown himself into activism for the homeless, although he doesn’t yet have his own home.
We start at the church where the group meets before it begins its surveys, and walk down an alley where vacant homes have been turned into a community garden. Crossing a busy street, Simmons points out a deflated helium balloon tied around a telephone pole alongside a photo of a smiling teenager marking a spot where someone had been shot and killed.
Some of the homes we pass seem almost new, others are sagging, their paint peeling. Simmons has an eye for which ones are too far gone to save, and which are uninhabited, even if they don't have plywood on their windows and doors.
“This house is perfect—the windows are intact, the doors are intact, the foundation is strong and there’s no leaking in the basement,” Simmons says, in front of one home, with gray and tan bricks on its facade and a bright plywood board on the door. “Yet it’s all boarded-up.”
There are more than 16,000 vacant homes in Baltimore, according to the city. About 30,000 people in the city will experience homelessness over the course of the year, 3,000 on any given night. That’s partially because Maryland, one of the richest states in the union, has some of the least affordable housing in the country. A minimum-wage worker in Maryland would have to work 138 hours a week to afford a two-bedroom unit at fair-market rent, according to the National Low-Income Housing Coalition.
As more central parts of Baltimore get trendier, housing there is expected to get
even more expensive. Earlier this year, Baltimore put forth a plan that would sell 40 percent of the city's affordable-housing stock to private developers so they could rehab it, a move that advocates worry could exacerbate the housing shortage extremely low-income people face. In a report this spring, the Urban Institute estimated there were 29 affordable units for every 100 extremely low-income households in Baltimore.
Even in the gutted streets of McElderry Park, where drug dealers still sell on some corners, Simmons and others have noticed green signs posted on the buildings lately. “For Sale: Finished, The Homes at Griffon Station,” they say, even though they are posted on plywood-covered doors and burnt out houses. Simmons says he suspects the signs are related to nearby John Hopkins University, which is constantly expanding its footprint in the city.
Baltimore closed the waiting list for Section 8 Housing vouchers eleven years ago, though it's purging the list and re-opening it this year. Adam Schneider, of the Baltimore group Health Care for the Homeless, estimates there are 25,000 people in homes through the Section 8 program, and 25,000 more who need the vouchers. It’s not just Baltimore: There are 7 million fewer affordable housing units than are needed in the country, said Nan Roman, the president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
“Most people are homeless largely for economic reasons,” she said. “If there’s not enough affordable housing, people who have additional barriers are not going to be competitive in the market and they’re going to lose out.”