Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Dr. Ben, HUD, and Speaker Ryan

Posted: December 27, 2016 in Uncategorized

Surgeon Ben Carson, who during his presidential campaign struggled to understand even the most basic details of public policy, will now administer the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which oversees federal housing and development assistance in communities while furthering homebuilding and mortgage lending. Among HUD’s six core functions are the ownership of public housing (administered by local Public Housing Authorities), the provision of housing subsidies for low- and moderate-income families, and the allocation of community development grants to States and localities.23carson-hp-master768

It is unclear whether Carson’s own impressive journey out of childhood poverty included a stint in subsidized housing or not. But his expressed values about housing and public assistance leave little doubt that his approach will see poverty as a product of individual failings and misguided government programs, rather than the offspring of a failed economic system.

In May 2015, he said “Many people are critical of me because they say, ‘Carson wants to get rid of all the safety nets and welfare programs even though he must have benefited from them.’ This is a blatant lie. I have no desire to get rid of safety nets for people who need them. I have a strong desire to get rid of programs that create dependency in able-bodied people.” (more…)

Memes & Homeless Encampments

Posted: February 28, 2013 in Uncategorized

The encampment for economic refugees that has been created under the JFX soon will be destroyed by Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake not because of health, public safety or homeless concerns.  In a City camp83that was dealt a bad economic hand in the 1970s (like most in the North) and decided to play the Tourism card (using federal money deigned for neighborhood development), image and narrative are everything.  To Blake and other city leaders, Baltimore’s narrative is simple–“we lost jobs, but it’s our people, not business, who are now to blame.  Addicted to either substances or an underground economy or public handouts, they need to be replaced by others–tourists, empty-nesters, new urban pioneers, all who know what success requires and how to enjoy its rewards.”  innerharbor 

This story is assisted by visions of Baltimore like the Inner Harbor, an image that portrays order, prosperity, and hope–one created with  public subsidies and give aways that have robbed the City of the resources needed to aid the economic refugees under the JFX, in homeless shelters, and in Rent and Foreclosure courts of Baltimore.  

Strangely enough, the tent city is more offensive than a common Baltimore image that many of us see as prima facie evidence of the City’s failed public policies:  Vacant Housing.  Whether it’s 20,000 houses, as the City says, or 40,000 as most activists think, is of little consequence.  They exist, to us, as evidence of a failed private housing market and vacanthousingcity policies that do nothing but attempt to placate the profit-driven market.  But to the Mayor and others, the meme of vacant housing works in their favor.   It evokes ideas of failed responsibility, dysfunction, and class exodus.  It’s bothersome, in a sense, but vacants are just buildings, and ones that eventually will be torn down (if the City has their way and the money).  

But a tent city is different.  It’s too human.  The blankets, personal belongings, people–well it’s just too much of the wrong message.   For the City (and the housing market) to win the battle of the story, it needs to de-personalize and objectify economic refugees, not recognize their humanity.  This is why the tent city itself is important.  It shows what images of homeless shelters or rent court cannot–humans struggling to find respect and dignity in the worst of economic circumstances.  It shows us, in some respects, at our innovative and courageous best, with the few resources left to us.  With the City and the marketplace unwilling to respect, protect or fulfill our human right to housing , self-help will do–for now.   That’s a dangerous meme for the powers that be–but an important one for the powers to come.  

peter sabonis

The Myth of 75 Journeys Home

Posted: February 4, 2013 in Uncategorized

The following is a letter from Jeff Singer, retired CEO of Health Care for the Homeless-Baltimore, on the occasion of a very public announcement that 75 Homeless folks in Baltimore would soon benefit from coordinated services and secure housing.

homelessFebruary 3, 2013

An Open Letter to the Leadership Advisory Group Overseeing Baltimore’s Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness:

Having attended Friday’s community meeting regarding the Homelessness Point-In-Time count and the 75 Journeys Home project, I wish to explain why some individuals stood  outside and in the rear of the hall, silently holding signs with messages such as “75 Journeys Home  Is Not Enough”.  Given that our mutual goal is to make homelessness in Baltimore rare and brief, such an explication may be instructive.

The compassion and hard work of everyone involved in 75 Journeys Home was quite evident during the event.  Surely the effort to house some of our most vulnerable neighbors is laudable.  Speaker after speaker described various roles: securing resources including housing and services; organizing an event requiring the collaboration of many agencies – public and private; facilitating the participation of more than one hundred volunteers; and reaching out to some of our most vulnerable neighbors.  All who engaged in these activities are to be congratulated, and the role of the LAG is commendable.


There is little that is new in the “75 Journeys Home” project, and no reason to believe that it is a model for ending homelessness.

What did this project actually achieve?  The event organizers made the following assertions:

For the first time, public and private agencies are collaborating to end homelessness.

Of course, this claim is inaccurate.  Nearly every agency involved in this project has worked with every other agency involved to ameliorate homelessness.  Ironically, some of these agencies have also contributed significantly to creating homelessness [more about this anon].

Outreach and a vulnerability index finally are being used to identify the people who most need help.

Agencies such as People Encouraging People [PEP], Baltimore Health Care Access, and Health Care for the Homeless [HCH] have been conducting street outreach for decades, as well as using indices to assess people’s vulnerability.  Insufficient resources may be devoted to these undertakings, but the “75 Journeys Home” project does not address this ongoing problem.

Informing people living on the street that services are available makes all the difference in ending their homelessness.

Many, many people experiencing homelessness access existing services.  In the vast majority of cases, these services do not provide a path out of homelessness.  In conducting outreach for more than thirty years in Baltimore, how often have I asked someone sleeping on the street if he or she has been to the various homeless service agencies? The most frequent answer is “Yes, but they couldn’t help me with housing or a job.”

 We have finally begun to utilize the “Housing First” model to provide housing and supportive services to truly vulnerable individuals living on the streets.

Beginning in 1983, the Baltimore City Department of Social Services implemented a “Housing First” approach to homelessness.  In 2005 Health Care for the Homeless, with the support of Baltimore City, housed the 35 most vulnerable people on the streets of Baltimore. In 2007, the City officially adopted this evidence-based practice and PEP, St. Vincent de Paul, and HCH placed in supportive housing the 200 most vulnerable people living on the streets.  These initiatives failed to end homelessness in Baltimore – not because they were ineffective (to the contrary, they were wildly successful, with 85% of those placed in housing remaining there), but because, in the words of Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano, “We’re assisting more households than we ever have.  We’re maxed out.” [The Sun, 9/28/10 – more regarding this anon.]

 Finally, more than one speaker observed that “this only the beginning – we will house 75 more, and 75 more, until homelessness is ended.” 

As noted above, it is simply incorrect to think that the 75 Journeys Home project “at last” begins the process of reducing the number of vulnerable people experiencing homelessness in Baltimore.  More importantly, it is incorrect to believe that this sort of project will substantially impact upon the problem of homelessness in Baltimore.   We all wish that this were the case, but wishing will not make it so.

First, the project did not increase the availability of supportive housing in Baltimore.  Most (if not all) of the 75 housing units to be used for this project previously had been dedicated to housing people experiencing homelessness.  Now, however, a specific set of 75 people [perhaps the number is 100; the analysis is correct in either case] will be housed and 75 or 100 other people, who may have been waiting for housing for months or years, will not be housed.   It does not appear that many – if any -“new” affordable housing units have been produced or acquired for this project.

Secondly, the 75 Journeys Home project may be characterized correctly as a mechanism to connect a small number of very vulnerable people to housing and supportive services.  It cannot be described, however, as a model for eliminating homelessness.  As the Journey Home document itself recognizes, homelessness fundamentally is caused by the imbalance between incomes and housing costs (as noted by several speakers at the 75 Journeys Home event), and secondarily by lack of access to health-related services.  Consequently, it can only be ended by increasing incomes and producing a sufficient supply of affordable housing, as well as by enhancing access to health-related services.  The 2014 expansion of Medicaid to many impoverished adults in Maryland will help to some extent, but a vast array of services (including outreach, case management, dental & vision care) and a significant number of people will remain inadequately covered.  Yet there is even less cause for optimism with respect to the incomes and housing aspects.

Thus, the sine qua non for making homelessness rare and brief, not mentioned by any speakers at the event, is developing a set of public policies that address poverty and the dearth of affordable housing.  These policies include living wages, adequate disability assistance, and a dramatic increase in the availability of subsidized housing.  For example, the mean hourly wage of the 325,797 renter households in Baltimore is $15.52, only 65.6% of the $23.67/hour necessary to afford market rate housing in Baltimore.  It is not surprising, then, that 69,698 warrants of restitution were awarded in Baltimore’s Rent Court in 2012, a fine proxy for the risk of homelessness.  The market rate for a one-bedroom apartment, $1,000 per month, requires a minimum wage of $17.31 per hour unless the rent is subsidized.  Recipients of Federal and State disability assistance, having incomes well below the Federal poverty guidelines, are completely priced out of the housing market.

If we are serious about ending homelessness, our focus must be on the policies that create it far faster than projects such as 75 Journeys Home can solve it.  In addition to admirable efforts oriented toward individuals, toward increasing collaborations, and toward improved outreach, we are required to engage in public policy advocacy at every level – and to be effective, such advocacy ought to include the participation of people experiencing homelessness, who were notably absent as speakers at today’s event.

A few such policies in need of sustained advocacy could include:

– Opposing the further criminalization of homelessness and poverty, such as City Council bill 13-0186, introduced just this week – and not even mentioned at Friday’s event.

– Dedicating all Vacants-to-Values units to housing for families and individuals with extremely low or no incomes.

– Ending the practice of granting waivers to the Inclusionary Housing law (such as occurred in the case of the Lexington Square development).  Montgomery County has produced more than 10,000 units of affordable housing through its inclusionary zoning law; apparently, Baltimore has produced fewer than one dozen units (although no public accounting appears to exist).

– Withholding tax subsidies from developments that do not increase the supply of jobs with living wages or the supply of housing affordable to our impoverished neighbors [e.g. oppose new City Council legislation (13-0176) that limits certain tax subsidies to market rate housing only].

– Prohibiting the continuing destruction of public housing; during the past fifteen years, HABC has demolished 40% of Baltimore’s public housing, a policy that impacts directly upon the availability of affordable housing.  This is not solely a Baltimore City problem: since 1994, the Federal Government has authorized not a single new unit of public housing, has overseen the destruction of more than 150,000 units nationally, and continues to appropriate insufficient funds to maintain the existing stock (80% of the amount necessary for FY12).  HUD estimates a $26 billion backlog in public housing capital needs, simply to maintain the existing, inadequate stock.

– Adopting a Living Wage in Baltimore that applies to all employers, and advocating for such a measure with Congress and the President.

– Advocating forcefully for the Federal and State governments to increase the payments provided to beneficiaries of disability assistance, in order that they have an opportunity to escape homelessness.

– Implementing a general policy of Fair Development that incorporates the elements of universality, equity, indivisibility, participation, transparency, and accountability such that economic development benefits everyone in Baltimore.  The United Workers’ Fair Development Campaign is a model in this regard.

I am certain that you will find many other public policies that can move us toward the day when a Homelessness Census is superfluous, and all of our neighbors can make a journey home whenever they wish.  Only a grander vision will produce such a lofty outcome.


Jeff Singer

[The following was delivered as a speech to the Baltimore County Communities for the Homeless on March 19, 2012.)

I first visited a soup kitchen in the 1970s.  I volunteered at a homeless shelter when I was in law school in the early 1980s.  At my first job, I wrote a report on Homelessness for the Massachusetts Senate Ways and Means Committee—that was in 1983.   In 1986, at the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau, I began visiting homeless shelters and making my attorney skills available.  In 1987, that led to the creation of the Homeless Persons Representation Project, which supported other attorneys doing the same.  And for about 20 years at the Project I sued, and lobbied, and mobilized, and organized, and educated, and wrote, and argued, and fought against homelessness.

It’s getting close to forty years since I first visited a soup kitchen; since homelessness was described as “new” and “different” from the skid row alcoholics who been affectionately described in lore and literature as “bums;” since soup kitchens and shelters began to crowd the landscape; and since McKinney and other funds starting supporting lawyers, social workers, and advocates to “help” take care of this problem.

Almost forty years—so why is it still here today?  This “new homelessness”?  It was new in 1980s.  New because it was families.  New because it was the unemployed.  New because it was children. And every few years it becomes “new” again,   New because now it is the employed.  New because now it’s the foreclosed upon.  New, again, because it’s the newly unemployed.

We’ve done some great things with McKinney money, with private foundation grants, with contributions, and even with a shoestring, but why , why, forty years later is Homelessness still here today?

Because we never fought the real demon—the private housing market.  We’ve fought the other demons—the mental illnesses, the addictions, the personality disorders, the Aixs 1’s and Axis 2’s, the dependency—and we’ve won a lot of these fights.  And we’ve noticed along the way that other people have these demons too—people who are housed.  People who live in homes.  People who have support, a family, a friend who will pay a rent or mortgage when the  demons get out of control.

But not everyone has that.  And as we try to create a service system that guarantees that everyone does have that, I have to wonder what did people do in the 40s, the 50s, and the 60s when they didn’t have it?

Well.  They lived in rooming houses.  They lived in boarding houses.  They lived in low rent apartments and dwellings.  They lived in some marginal housing.

They did what an alcoholic did when the anthropologist Kim Hopper asked him why he was homeless.  “I’m homeless because I’m an alcoholic,” he said.  “How long have you been an alcoholic?” Hopper asked.  “Twelve years,” he said.

Hopper:“How long have you been homeless?”

A:“Three years”

Hopper:“What happened during the first nine years of alcoholism?

A:“I find a place to live.  I drink, I get drunk, I get kicked out.  I find another place to live.  I drink, I get drunk, I get kicked out.  I found another place.  I get drunk and get kicked out.”

Hopper:“What’s been going on the last three years?”

A:“I can’t find another place.”

Between 1973 and 1983, demolitions and structural conversions permanently removed 4.5 million units from the housing stock—half of which were occupied by low-income households.  Rental rehabilitations more than doubled from 1982 to 1986, after remaining constant in annual terms from 1970 to 1982.  As housing that had once “trickled down” to the poor became scarcer, those dependent on fixed-income public assistance checks or low-wage or sporadic employment faced a housing squeeze.  They got “gentrified out of the market.”  And they  became homeless.  People we hadn’t seen before on the streets.

And in the midst of this market transformation, the federal government retrenched.  It began withdrawing from public housing investment in 1978, then in the next thirty years AS it supported increased emergency assistance to persons without housing, it  accelerated its withdrawal from public and permanent housing.  In 1996, the Clinton Administration introduced the Hope VI program, which provided federal support for the conversion of public housing to mixed-income housing, thereby resulting in a net loss of 75,000 public housing units, while another 75,000 units were transformed into private market rate housing.

Funding for Section 8 vouchers increased marginally, from $15.5 billion in 1996, to $16.2 billion in 2010; however, in real dollar terms, this amounted to a 24% reduction.  Between 1995 and 2011, the nation’s supply of affordable housing was diminished by 290,588 units of public housing and by 360,000 Section 8 units.

This is why homelessness is still with us today.  Because Housing is not recognized—even by our government– as a Human Need that has Human Rights Obligations.  Housing is recognized as an investment and a source of speculation.  It’s seen primarily as a source of profit.  “Real estate, my son, go into real estate.”    And for forty years, folks on fixed incomes and folks without support when the demons strike have become victimized as others “have gone into real estate,” have been victimized by the rising costs this speculation and investment create, and then demonized as if they are not human.  Sentenced to Public lives in public spaces–and then they are treated like criminals.

But something has changed in forty years.  The greed of the housing speculators got worse.  And inequality increased. Wages stagnated.  Pressure for profits in the housing market drove up housing costs, but incomes failed to keep pace. “The number of renters paying over 30% of their income for housing reached 18.5 million nationwide in 2009, representing 52% of all us renters. A decade ago, 40% of renters were in this predicament, AND only 25% of renters faced such a burden in 1960.”  The increasing gap was filled by increased debt.   And as those in an increasingly concentrated top income and wealth classes searched for the greatest return on investment, the debt of the housing market became an attractive target.   In short, they looked to real estate!

They looked and then they found  new financial instruments that allowed more and more players to invest, and the increased demand by those investors led to an explosion of “predatory” and “fraudulent” lending to satisfy that demand.  The inevitable and subsequent collapse of the instruments caused a major financial crisis that threatened to bring down the entire financial system (because so many large financial players were tied to housing debt instruments).   The system was bailed out ostensibly to save the economy, and you know the rest.

Banks, at the time of this article, are sitting on an historic pile of cash reserves–derived indirectly from U.S. government rescue—and are hesitant to lend.  Consumer demand continues to falter, foreclosures continue–as does unemployment.  And we have a new homelessness.

As gentrification and rental housing conversion and homelessness forty years ago made visible those who could no longer compete in an increasingly competitive private housing market, the foreclosure crisis now has done the same.  The Housing Market has simply CAPTURED the next higher rung on the income ladder: 

  • more than half of homeowners who are delinquent borrowers (57%) earn less than $50,000 per year
  • another 30% earn between $50,000 and $100,000.

While those with fixed or low-incomes were hidden in rooming houses, low-cost rentals, and substandard housing in the 1970s, and became visible on the streets as this supply of housing disappeared in the 1980s,  those in the current foreclosure crisis were able to hide their housing cost squeeze by debt.  When these debts ballooned, a new class of consumers was swallowed by the housing market.

And so forty years later we have strangely—what we who fight for  against homelessness have always wanted—Clear demonstration that folks who are homeless are no different than anybody else.

They are products of a housing market that is founded on profit, encouraged to profit, and even given subsidies to profit.

And a Housing Market that can’t afford them anymore!

And we—the Advocates, Service Providers, and Fighters, are left like Lazarus, in the biblical parable, begging for scraps from the master’s table.  “Give us the scraps of some more housing vouchers.” “Give us the scraps of some more Housing First slots.  Give us the scraps of more supportive services.”

And the God of the marketplace looks at us in pity and amusement.  Making us grovel and fight and scratch and claw for some slots, vouchers, and services, knowing that it caused the housing crisis of the 80s that led to homelessness,  and the housing crisis of 2008  that led to foreclosures, but convinced that folks like us will never make the connection,  and even if we do, we won’t have the power to do anything about it.

But Markets are not Gods.  Perhaps to some, but they they are false gods.  Idols, golden calves.

Markets make good servants, but terrible masters.  And just as there came a time when tablet stones needed to be shattered to demonstrate that the laws of god, the laws of human self realization, the laws of human fulfillment were superior to idols and golden calves, it is time put the god of the marketplace into its proper place:  To serve human beings.  To meet human needs.  To recognize the human right to subsistence with dignity and respect.

And as a lawyer, I know there are laws of the market place.  Laws that ultimately determine who wins and who loses.  When is a contract enforced?  When is a tort recognized?  Who is liable for unintended consequences?  What promises are legal, which are not?  The market doesn’t determine that—we do.

And those laws allow speculation on any piece of land, any home mortgage, any gentrified apartment, any development where someone has an idea to turn a profit.  Don’t’ get me wrong.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with profit.

But as with the Landowner in scripture who took all his harvest into the barn and stored it up for years to come, only to find himself dead that very night, we need to ask—how much is enough?  Tolstoy said it in a short story based on that scripture:  How Much Land Does One Man Need? 

We can limit that by law.  We can limit speculation and profiteering by law—yes we can–it’s called Limited Equity, Deed Restricted Sales, Land Trusts, Shared Equity, Limited profit cooperatives.  We have 18.5 million empty homes in the U.S. and 3.5 million homeless.  What’s the problem here?  Why has it become intractable?  Why can’t these properties be converted to serve human need and not stand idle– waiting for profit?

Let’s bring it down to the local level.  We have twice as many  bank owned properties in Baltimore County– already foreclosed upon properties held now by banks—as we do folks in Baltimore county homeless shelter beds:  1006  bank owned properties vs. 550 living in shelters.

And with another 1,050 foreclosure filings in Baltimore County in 2011, we could have more than enough property to house all without housing in Baltimore County (roughly 881).

If we were able to convince banks to simply write off  ¼ — 25% — OF their foreclosures by donating them to land trusts and shared equity arrangements (where profits would be forever limited by deed restrictions and law, and housing thus perpetually affordable) that would SURPASS the number of public housing units and Vouchers we have nationwide!  If we did it in Baltimore County, it would house all those currently in shelters.

Forty years is too long.  Do you want your sons and daughters at a rally like this 40 yrs from now?  Still battling the personal demons that individuals have, while the big demon of the housing market terrorizes another group higher on the income ladder–putting more and more on the brink of homelessness?

Yes, battle for Housing First slots, and the vouchers, and the services, but unless our advocacy and target includes the private housing market, we will be here forty years from now.   The market is our servant — not our master.

We have an historic opportunity to do something now–   now when the market has gone too far.

When it has made no distinction between the foreclosed upon homeowner and the gentrified homeless.

When it has made no distinction between black, white or brown

No distinction between old and young

No distinction between middle class and lower class

No distinction between the addicted and the clean

When it has done, ironically, what we are all called to do in every spiritual tradition—

See ourselves as connected,

See ourselves as one body,

See ourselves without attention to color, gender, or class.

Without attention to personal failings, demons, and challenges

See ourselves as human beings, with human needs, and human rights—that we can secure in our lifetimes.

The market can’t see that.  And even if it could, it has no power to act on that realization.

But we see it.

And we have power—if we come together as one

If we squat

If we occupy

If we legislate





And motivate

And make the market serve us—as it was intended.

Forty years is too long.

–peter sabonis

The announcement last week that 49 state attorneys general had come to a $25 billion  settlement with five major banks relative to foreclosure fraud came with notice that the settlement contained money for legal aid for foreclosed upon homeowners.   While the amount is hard to determine, one attorney general claimed,  “This will get a lawyer for everyone facing foreclosure in the state.  This will stop every wrongful foreclosure.”

Wishful thinking or reality?  It depends on the lawyers who get the money.  For the last three years, Lawyers from Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS) and law students from Harvard Legal Aid have teamed with community organizers from City Life/Vida Urbana to wage an effective “shield and sword” combination that has kept hundreds of already foreclosed upon owners housed and led to favorable state and local policy changes.  In Jacksonville, April Charney of Jacksonville Area Legal Aid has pioneered creative and aggressive legal challenges that have been recognized and copied nationally.  Some Legal Aid programs, like Pine Tree Legal Assistance, were quick to recognize the magnitude of the problem and shifted resources program-wide, which led to the robo-signing discovery and lawsuits that prompted the $25 billion settlement.

But others were slow off the mark, and even when they turned their attention to the problem, they found their program cultures and staffs ill-equipped to handle one of the major legal challenges the poor have faced since the start of federally funded legal services.   From my own experience, Maryland Legal Aid was one of those programs from 2008 to 2011.  Despite landing a grant to forge a “train the trainer” model which enabled the Bureau to allocate roughly 2 attorneys (in a 300 employee $22 million statewide agency) exclusively to foreclosure work, the seed sprouted very little.   Attorneys and advocates who were accustomed to triaging a host of legal issues and handling only the familiar, struggled with the complexity of foreclosure work and, not surprisingly, found few foreclosure cases of “merit”  to tackle.  Those that did found themselves in a culture with few tools for litigation support.   For a program that litigated less than 1% of its overall caseload, this was not surprising.

Despite this, I am sure that when the settlement money for attorney aid becomes available, Maryland Legal Aid will get the lion’s share in Maryland.   Other states, however, should examine program applicants carefully and prioritize those that can handle not only litigation, but the creative partnerships with community organizations that expand leverage and led to policy changes statewide.  This will not only “multiply” the impact of the money (as demonstrated by GBLS and City Life), but will facilitate the movement toward  the greater objective:  the human right to housing.

Occupy Baltimore: It’s Working

Posted: November 1, 2011 in Uncategorized

It’s business as usual for those who occupy Baltimore and for Occupy Baltimore.  Mayor Stephanie Rawlings’ growing impatience with the protestors who insist on camping out in McKeldin Square may be truly founded upon legal interpretations of the First Amendment right to speech, but it’s hard not to suspect that Occupy Baltimore is simply bad for business.

In a city hitched to the tourism, image is everything.  And except for some unfortunate incidents last summer, the Inner Harbor of Baltimore has always projected an image of order, safety, and relative cleanliness.

But no one can deny that McKedlin Sqaure, which operates as the Inner Harbor foyer, looks a bit untidy with the multi-colored tents, tarps, cardboard, and placards of Occupy Baltimore.  And while Rawlings spoke of allowing free speech “during the day” in McKeldin, her Parks and Recreation Department advanced a proposal that belied the city’s concern about tidiness.

The Parks Department offered its own, uniform colored tents for the protesters to use during the day, replacing the sagging collection of tarps that have sheltered Occupy’s media, food, and medical areas.  Parks also was willing to allow one occupier to stay overnight in a single tent—presumably provided by the city.  Other instructions by the city related to vacating the square for other scheduled events, and limited Occupy’s sprawl to a designated section of the public square.
If camping is not free speech, why is the City even offering a single occupier the opportunity to continue camping in McKeldin?  Presumably, the city’s offer to allow one nightly tent recognizes that the Occupy movement involves occupation, and that the occupation is speech.  The fact that Rawlings is willing to allow a little speech, but not a lot, again points to her concern about Baltimore’s image and its businesses.

There is no denying that the Occupy movement is antithetical to business—particularly the domination of government by an upper class of citizens and entities that appear capable of making even democracy a commodity to be purchased.

Cash strapped local governments like Baltimore sacrifice to the business gods daily, hoping that commerce will boast tax coffers, wages, and property value.  Worse, cities that rely on tourism need to vigilantly monitor and keep up with other tourist cities that compete for conventioneers and visitors.

The fact that Washington, New York, Philadelphia and Boston have their own Occupy sites is irrelevant for convention analysis.  Those are “first tier” convention cities.  Baltimore is second tier—at least according to the Greater Baltimore Committee which is currently pushing a a convention center expansion that would elevate the City’s ranking.

Even more relevant is that a rag tag tent rant against greed and inequality hardly encourages visitors to open up their wallets when they pass through McKeldin to get to the restaurants and stores that ring the Inner Harbor promenade.

Distractions from the real business of the Inner Harbor is, perhaps, is a prime reason the City historically has limited protests and leafleting in the area, which is a public park.  As a veteran of marches and protests to bring visibility to persons who were homeless or employees exploited by Inner Harbor restaurants, I’ve had many opportunities to witness these limitations first hand.  As an attorney, I was hard pressed to explain to protestors why the 1st Amendment right to speech was “different” in the Inner Harbor compared to other City public places. All of us who have labored under these restrictions look forward to the still-undisclosed changes promised by the City as a result of a 2003 lawsuit brought the anti-war protesting “Women in Black.”

But Under Armour didn’t need a lawsuit when it wanted to emblaze its logo on the slopes of the City’s Federal Hill park last year.  The same City Parks department that is now seeking to limit Occupy Baltimore, appeared then to welcome the message that the city houses professional football’s primary supplier of athletic merchandise.  The corporate logo was communication that was consistent with commerce; this political protest is not.

In the 1990s, a group of persons without housing constructed shanties in Henrietta Szold Park on East Baltimore St. near the McKim Center.  They lived for weeks without complaint from the city, and police officers often stopped at the park to drop off blankets and coffee.  Then suddenly, with no warning, the police chased the homeless out of the park in an early morning raid, and city public works employees carted away the shanties and the personal property therein.  As homeless advocates like me attempted to recover the property, we learned why the city’s attitude had changed: a nearby bank had finally lost patience and complained to the city about the shanty town and its impact on customers.  With one business complaint, a social issue became a criminal one.

Last week,  The Economist, become the latest mainstream publication questioning the purpose of the Occupy  movement, opining that the New York City protestors have had little effect on Wall St. financiers and the corporate business interests they represent.

Ironically, the tent flap in Baltimore means Occupy Baltimore already has outdone Occupy Wall St.   If city officials are concerned about a camp-out that looks no worse than its 16,000 abandoned houses or the roughly 4,000 homeless wanderers that mark its landscape, you can be sure it’s getting under the skin of Baltimore businesses.

-peter sabonis 11/1/11

The Poor As Teachers of Economics

Posted: September 20, 2011 in Uncategorized

What can the poor teach us?  Yes, I know and truly believe that the poor teach us about God, ourselves, and our relationships with others, resources, and the environment.  But would you pay to take a course taught by “the poor?” 

A lot of us who chose “human services” as a profession would have said “yes” when we first read Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed Father of critical pedagogy (which means teaching),  Freire challenged educators to learn from the oppressed—to the point of relearning that which was thought already learned.  He also challenged all of us to recognize that underlying the traditional “value-free” education process were a set of values that were de-humanizing.  The quest of the educator, according to Freire, was “to fight alongside the people for the recovery of the people’s stolen humanity.”

When human service work is done with a similar awareness and attitude, it is truly transforming.  When it’s combined with the lessons and experiences documented in Pedagogy of the Poor, a  short but insightful book by Willie Baptist and Jan Rehman (and recently featured in Organizing Upgrade), societal transformation can be hastened.

Baptist has played the role of an intellectual among the poor for years.  Raised in Watts during the racial uprisings of the 1960s, he threw himself into grassroots activism on race and class issues and has emerged with an economic and social critique that could be shared for the price of tuition.   Instead, he shares it with others who are poor, old and new, in the fight to recover his and their stolen humanity through the Poverty Scholars Program

He now shares it with us.   Along with Jan Rehman and a creative literary structure, he uses his direct experience and the tools of social science to critique, act, reflect, and share–and invites us to enter the same process wherever we work or live.    While the market price of admission is $28.95 (Amazon), the true price is to see the poor or persons who are poor– clients, customers, patients– first as agents of the societal change we seek.   It’s also the heart of human rights—and a small cost for the learning and re-learning that all of us desperately need.

peter sabonis

The Rev. Jim Wallis, noted Christian liberal, recently faced off against the Rev. and Dr. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention about the morality of the U.S. Budget Deficit and its solutions.   What’s notable is Land’s claim that $700 billion of our tax dollars goes for “means tested programs” that support single parent families—an immorality that apparently should be addressed by any thoughtful policy maker.

Land’s argument demonstrates that even if you end “welfare as we know it” in the U.S.—we did that 14 years ago—it will never die as a political target.  His budget numbers were dubious, as Wallis suggested.  The primary cash aid paid to “single parents” comes through the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program, once known as Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).  State and individual entitlement to TANF was ended on the federal level in 1996, and assistance was conditioned on participation in work searches, work activities, and what is known in the trade as “rapid labor force attachment” (i.e., take the first job, regardless).    Federal payments to AFDC-TANF since welfare reform have hovered in the $20-25 billion range. See  While Land is surely referring to other “related spending” on single parent families, it is difficult to reach the $700 billion mark no matter how you count it.   Total Medicaid spending, the most expensive portion of which is for those in long-term care, costs us roughly $250 billion per year, while the total bill for Food Stamps is $73 billion annually.   See .  While Land is without a doubt a “fisher of men,” (Matthew 4:19), his net on this issue is cast so wide it must include a portion of the Afghan war attributed to single parents.

It’s possible Land simply made a mistake and got his numbers wrong.  It’s not difficult when it comes to  welfare–$700 billion was the amount Congress authorized the Treasury Department to use under the Troubled Asset Relief Program(TARP) to bail out the banks in September, 2008.   See

But TARP is more than a punch line in moral debates about the budget.  It demonstrates our worship of the private market and the government’s role in ensuring its needs are met.  Let’s put aside the rhetoric about the bills we’re leaving our children.   Why, in a time of depressed consumer spending is Congress obsessed with decreasing government spending, which augments spending power, and thinks a sovereign, destined, and exceptional country like the U.S is going to follow Greece to bankruptcy?  It’s because “less government” has become an ethic onto itself, one that embraces an even more suspect ethic—the private market.

Philosopher Jan Rehman summarizes this perspective in Pedagogy of the Poor, written with Willie Baptist (a scholar-in-residence at Union Theological Seminary).  See  Rehman notes that economist Friedrich Hayek, an Austrian Economist who became the father of neoliberal (market worship) theory, argued that social justice is illusory and misleading.  Why?

“Justice can only exist among individuals, [Hayek] assumes, and therefore cannot be applied to the anonymous and spontaneous mechanisms of the market.  [Hayek] frankly admits that this market gives to  those who already have.  But this is its merit than its deficit.  One cannot apply a standard of social justice if there is no one  in charge who can be blamed and to who one could appeal if the standard is not met.”  Pedagogy of the Poor, at 54.

Rehman observes that this establishes the market as a “kind of deity” which operates like a hidden God.  Attempting to understand its workings and influence its outcomes leads, according to Hayek, straight to socialism and totalitarianism.  Rehman concludes that Hayek’s hidden God is “definitely not the biblical God of the Exodus and the Jubilee Year, of liberation and social justice, but the reified rule of  money, capital, and shareholder values, namely the very  fetishism the Bible so forcefully condemns as idolatry, epitomized  in the ‘golden calf.’ “ Pedagogy, at 55.

This is the moral issue at stake in our budget deliberations.

J.Peter Sabonis Esq.

The inherent worth and dignity of every person is embodied in Human Rights.  While rarely enforced legally, Human Rights have inspired groups to organize and mobilize to achieve social change.  Grassroots groups such as the United Workers, Coalition of Immokalee Workers, and the Vermont Workers Center have used Human Rights language to organize workers, mobilize communities, and achieve systemic change.

"Law is not power. Power comes from organized money or organized people."

The Maryland  Human Rights Authority is the legal advocacy arm and “in-house” counsel of such a group, the United Workers (UW).  Patterned after the legal unit created by Cesar Chavez in the early days of the United Farm Workers, the Maryland Human Rights Authority puts the achievement of organizing goals above the achievement of legal victories.  In representing workers or the organization, or while strategizing with organizers or members, the Authority asks simply, “What can law and legal strategies do to build power for this movement at this moment?”

Legitimate legal claims for unpaid wages, overtime, waiting time, sexual harassment, discrimination, worker safety are analyzed by the Authority not only for their legal merit, but their “discovery,” publicity, and solidarity value in advancing the goals of the United Workers.  All of these claims are treated within the United Workers as violations of human rights—the rights to worker dignity, just and favorable conditions of employment, living wages, and health—despite being litigated as state or federal statutory violations.  Legal help is provided free of charge for United Workers members.

Led by attorney, J. Peter Sabonis, who provided legal support and advocacy to the United Workers successful campaign to achieve living wages and worker dignity for laborers at Camden Yards, the Maryland Human Rights Authority has direct experience making human rights real.

The Maryland Human Rights Authority uses all advocacy tools to advance human rights in Maryland (litigation, lobbying, mobilizing), but its mission is to support organizing and the movement  to end poverty.  While it believes access to justice and legal representation is a human right, such access is not  its primary concern.  The Maryland Human Rights Authority is  not  a traditional  legal  services  organization.   It sees it clients as agents of social change and active participants in  their cases.   Litigation and advocacy are used to achieve movement  goals and to assist  in developing leadership among UW members.

for more information contact:   301-639-2561

By J. Peter Sabonis, Esq.  

In June, the United Workers began a series of monthly meetings with ex-offenders to discuss their employment rights.  Given the conventional wisdom, the meetings should have been over in ten minutes.  Other than an entitlement to expunge non-convictions if they happen to fall into the myriad qualifications within Md. Criminal Procedure §10-102, what rights can ex-offenders possibly have, save the right to beg, plead, or grovel before employers for the chance to make an honest living?

The notion that the behavior of felons warrants not only punishment and correction, but a loss of certain privileges of citizenship, like voting, is longstanding.    Many states, however, have had second thoughts, given evidence that conviction-related voting disqualification disproportionately disenfranchises minorities, and that participation in civic life can be an important part of individual rehabilitation and community support for the ex-offender.

But civic life is one thing—minimal economic sufficiency is another.   In Article 45 of its Declaration of Rights, the Maryland Constitution recognizes, as does the federal, that certain inalienable rights exist—rights that that flow from the very fact of that we are human.  Call it what you want—natural law,  higher law, or human rights—but the concept is clearly entrenched in our legal history.