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Activists March For Housing, Saying Shelters Are “Death Traps”

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SARAH Y. KIM/WYPR
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Activists experiencing homelessness in Baltimore led a march from the Shot Tower to City Hall on Saturday.

They chanted “evictions have got to go” and “cancel rent” and carried signs reading ‘homeless can’t stay home,’ ‘homeless, not hopeless,’ and ‘empty shelters now.“

Their demands included permanent housing for all, rent cancellation and an end to the use of congregate city-funded shelters.

During the pandemic, the city moved people experiencing homelessness from shelters into hotels to contain the spread of COVID-19. Now it’s considering putting them back into congregate shelters by the end of  December, just as new COVID cases are on the rise. 

“They’re not shelters. They’re death traps,” said Mark Council, lead organizer of Housing Our Neighbors (HON).

He argued that it’s impossible to stay six feet apart in a shelter and said the city might as well put them in coffins.

“Yes I feel like crying. Yes. I have worked here in Baltimore City,” Council said. “Yes. I'm a registered voter. Yes, I helped build Baltimore City. And this is how they turn their back on me. Yes, I'm making it personal. Because they left me out here to die.”

HON member Koumba Yasin said the city has too much money for people to be living in shelters.

“None of us should have to die,” Yasin said. “Nobody else should have to die.” 

Along the way, the marchers stopped at Marriott Baltimore’s Fairfield Inn & Suites to pay tribute to Kathy Marks, a HON member who passed away there. 

Alexis Garnett lived in the hotel, as well as Pinderhughes Shelter in West Baltimore. She said living in the shelter was traumatizing.

“I was asking myself, am I going to get sick? Am I gonna get COVID?” Garnett said. “If they couldn't keep the shelter clean before COVID, how could they keep it clean after COVID?"

Council said that the mayor has not been hearing their demands.

“We've been here fighting this battle and we will continue to fight,” he said. “We’re not asking for diamond rings for everybody. We’re just asking for the simple things to survive.” 

Delegate Robbyn Lewis, whose district includes Southeast Baltimore, was among lawmakers and other advocates who spoke at the rally. Lewis said that since August, more than 400 Baltimore residents have been evicted, despite state and federal moratoriums on evictions.

“We know that African American women with small children are at highest risk of eviction. What the hell are we doing?” she said.

City Councilman John Bullock, whose district covers West and Southwest Baltimore, called on the mayor and the state to provide safe housing for all. He said it’s critical for public health.

“We're getting into the cold weather months. People are scared, people are hungry,” Bullock said. “Unfortunately, some people are dying.”

Diamont’e Brown, President of the Baltimore Teacher’s Union, said she has tried to find housing for her students who are experiencing homelessness and provide them basic necessities.

“I have experienced a lot of times not having the resources for my students that are homeless. I've had students that are homeless that asked me for things like sanitary napkins, because they can't just go to the school nurse’s office or the main office for something like that,” she said.

She said these students are some of her best writers.

“When the educator runs out of the resources to be able to provide those things, we don't have a lot of resources to turn to,” Brown said.

At the end of the rally, Council said their fight for housing isn’t over.

“Housing is a human right. Fight, fight, fight,” he said. “That saves lives. That’s what we’re trying to do here.”