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Growing Tent Villages Of Homeless People Caused By The Pandemic

Robert Baker beside his tent.JPG

I was walking through the Charles Village neighborhood in Baltimore. And after passing blocks of rowhouses, I was in the cool shade of a wooded park called the Wyman Park Dell.

Just beyond the park was a grove of trees. And hidden among the trees, just beyond the stately formal lawn of the Johns Hopkins University’s undergraduate admissions office, were three tents. There, out of sight, a group of homeless people had been living for months, with clothes lines, a table, a heap of trash bags, and a makeshift outhouse.

One of the residents of this tent village is Robert Baker. He’s a 37-year-old former diesel mechanic who said he started living outside last year after he was hospitalized with Covid and nearly died from the disease. After being released, he said he was fired from his job – and so received no unemployment. Then he lost his apartment, just before a national moratorium on evictions. So now he lives in a tent.

“The neighbors do call the cops every now and then because they don’t like us being over here,” Baker said. “But we’ve actually been in contact with a guy from the mayor’s office – I have his card here – and he told us that this is state owned land. So they’re not allowed to tell us to leave.”

Camping, permanently, in Baltimore, is not a vacation.

“It definitely has its setbacks,” Baker said of his life in a tent. “If it’s a really heavy rainstorm, even with all the tarps and everything, somehow water will still get into the tent. So I woke up one day, and my mattress was flooded. All of my clothes, like my clothes over here, are still wet from the last rain.”

Although many people think of homeless people as being unemployed, Baker said he works. He earns about $100 per week, cleaning trash from the parking lot of a Dollar General store on a part-time basis. But he said it has been hard for him to find a full-time job because – one night, while he was off going to the bathroom -- someone stole his book bag containing his computer, driver’s license and everything else.

“It’s a lot harder to get a job when you’re homeless,” Baker said. “That’s one thing that I’ve been struggling with. Plus, I don’t have an ID right now. My wallet got stolen from me. So I got to work on getting the ID, social security card, birth certificate, all that stuff again. it’s impossible to get a job with out a driver’s license, or at least an ID.”

So he’s been trapped in a bureaucratic nightmare, with no documentation to get an ID, no real address, and no way out of the woods.

He is not alone. More than 580,000 people were homeless in the U.S. last year, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. And although America’s official unemployment rate stands at 5.8 percent, this does not count tens of millions of people like Baker who have fallen through the cracks or who the government chooses not to include in its statistics. In reality, only about half of adult Americans have full-time jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the U.S. Census.

Nan Roman, President of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, said tent communities like the one in Baltimore began popping up all over America when the Covid pandemic struck. This was in part because of all the layoffs, but also because the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued rules that led homeless shelters to start turning away people, because of social distancing concerns, Roman said.

“The CDC had given them guidance about how apart the cots need to be placed,” said Roman. “And a lot of shelters around the country reduced their capacity – had their capacity reduced because of that. The shelters ‘decompressed,’ as they called it, and just put people out onto the street because they didn’t have any alternatives.”

Some cities, like Baltimore and Los Angeles, have been trying to clear away these tent cities from parks and public areas. But taking down tents won’t take away the desperation that all too often, remain out of sight– even on the edges of the lawns and parks of the wealthiest nation in the world.

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The Environment in Focus is independently owned and distributed by Environment in Focus Radio to WYPR and other stations. The program is sponsored by the Abell Foundation. The views expressed are solely Tom Pelton's. You can contact him at pelton.tom@gmail.com.