With a historic eviction crisis looming over cities across America, its citizens are bracing for the very possible reality that by the end of 2021 more Americans per capita could be homeless than in any other period in history since the Great Depression. While the societal issues of access to affordable housing, the criminalization of poverty and mental illness, and the failure of local governments to provide an adequate safety net have permeated American discourse, it is impossible to deny the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 anti-police uprisings have had in not only pushing those conversations forward, but also in motivating communities to do the work necessary to ignite change for the most vulnerable in society.
One such community that spurred action to abolish homelessness exists locally. Kristen Lundy founded Frederick United, a community organization focused on “promoting change within black and brown communities,” over a year ago during the height of the George Floyd murder and events thereafter. Since then, through collective struggle and constant agitation, Frederick United and similar community organizations have found themselves fighting an issue that activists across America are rapidly drawing more and more attention to. While the effects of police brutality and extrajudicial killings by law enforcement resound in our minds with blatant and horrifying memories, the issue of homelessness, although intertwined with the exact same systems that create the conditions for racist policing, is one that is far less visible in today’s public discourse. It is for these reasons that oftentimes community activists who set out to advocate against racial inequality find themselves fighting for those without adequate housing.
For those community activists in Frederick, their most recent campaign of direct action against homelessness began on May 4th, 2021 when the City of Frederick effectively evicted an entire emergency tent city just three days into what community activists say was supposed to be an 11-day notice. According to reports from those who were present at the eviction, construction began on site of the tent city while many campers were still present, putting those without homes into harm’s way and leaving them to immediately find shelter elsewhere in the city. These conditions outraged both the residents of the tent city and advocates alike. On May 16th, together they held a protest by setting up a new tent city, deemed “Tent City 2.0” on the Frederick United Facebook page, right in front of City Hall.
What ensued that day was a hodgepodge of what normally occurs when public officials are unapologetically called out on their blatant public failures; Mayor Michael O’Connor exclaimed, “If solutions to this problem existed, then everybody in America would have solved this problem!” Public comments from Housing and Human Services Director Ramentta Cottrell are few and far to come by, except to say that the City of Frederick is always open to working towards solutions. That day, demands were relayed from tent city residents to the City of Frederick via community activists. Among the demands were calls for rapid re-housing, the decriminalization of homelessness, mental illness, addiction and more social programs for those experiencing social upheaval. After hours of discussion, interruptions and negotiations, it was agreed that the protesters who showed up on the lawn that night would be housed on the City of Frederick’s dime – for one night.
Needless to say, the agreement hardly presented a sustainable fix to the concerns that those in the tent city had raised. As a result, on May 21st, a second demonstration was held on the lawn of Frederick’s city hall. This time, a new local target was identified as a culprit in creating the conditions the homeless endure. The Religious Coalition for Emergency Human Needs (RCEHN), which is responsible for running Frederick’s only emergency housing and human services shelter, was also named as being negligent towards the needs of those experiencing the housing crisis in the city. According to Lundy, the Coalition, run by executive director Nick Brown, has been the ire of community activists since Frederick United was established; grievances resurfaced on May 21st in an effort to corral other service providers into advocacy that Frederick residents had initiated.
Advocates claimed that those who attempted to get services from institutions run by the Religious Coalition found that there were no case management programs available, only one social worker to oversee more than 90 cases, and programs for affordable housing and rapid re-housing were non-existent. In addition, members of the community complained that the eligibility requirements for the emergency shelter in Frederick had become arbitrary post-COVID, with conditions and requirements changing on a whim. Nick Brown, Executive Director of the RCEHN, was quoted as calling these complaints indicative of “misinformation” and “untruths,” but was unclear as to what the specific inaccuracies were.
“We also surfaced issues that arise when a homeless person doesn’t fit the ideal mold. They are discarded and forgotten in our current system,” says Frederick United’s Kristen Lundy. Activists have even raised concerns over the commonality of death in Frederick’s tent cities, detailing make-shift shallow graves that deceased community members are buried in, or the rushed nature in which bodies will be removed from the streets without public consent. “Currently none of these situations have been addressed, corrected nor a plan of action discussed,” says Lundy. Frederick Mayor Michael O’Connor claims that the City of Frederick is not aware of any deaths in Frederick’s tent cities since the outbreak of COVID-19.
Nevertheless the City of Frederick seems to have found its course of action when it comes to addressing these issues. As recently as August 7th, the Frederick News-Post reported that the City of Frederick, Frederick County and the Religious Coalition for Emergency Human Needs have reached a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that will send an additional $160,000 a year to the Alan P. Linton Shelter in Frederick, an institution run by the Religious Coalition. According to the article, the deal is a “memorandum of understanding” (MOU) that states that the City of Frederick pledges $50,000 annually to the shelter while Frederick County will contribute $112,500 each year. At this time it is not clear how long this agreement will last.
“The City has been willing to enter into MOUs with providers in a variety of areas to ensure transparency in the allocation of public funds and to collaborate with the specific expertise of non-profit organizations,” says Mayor Michael O’Connor. “We also allocate funds annually through a community grants process. So, if there are organizations that want to talk to us, we are here. This is a specific agreement with the RCEHN.”
So, while the door is hypothetically open to any community based partnerships, the City of Frederick is using MOU’s as a way to outsource their own work to third parties such as the Religious Coalition while maintaining limited transparency. When asked if these these funds will be used to address concerns about the quality of service provided by the RCEHN, Mayor O’Connor responded, “Since we are not an oversight body for RCEHN, our MOU addresses their use of the funds we provide in accordance with the MOU,” which indicates the only oversight the city government plans to do is to ensure that the money allocated in this deal is spent according to MOU guidelines. Mayor O’Connor also specified annual meetings with the RCEHN to review operational standards, census data and expenditures; however, no mention was made of the public criticisms of and actions taken against the Religious Coalition in Frederick nor of this MOU being used to address said concerns.
“I think giving more money to the Religious Coalition means that the leaders who came out to the protests learned nothing…If the Religious Coalition had better leadership then giving more money to provide adequate services would make sense,” Said Lundy. “However, this isn’t the case.”
Perhaps this marks a new stage in the struggle for universal housing, healthcare and dignity in Frederick. Unless changing course, it seems that the City of Frederick is satisfied with the job that the Religious Coalition has done thus far despite the, at times, overwhelming calls for justice and integrity. “I honestly think this is a way of hushing the community a bit despite not meeting any of the demands. Much like housing the homeless after the first camp out for merely two nights max,” says Lundy.
One thing is for sure, that something is going to happen very soon. According to a recent story by the Washington Post, Frederick County was one of the few counties in the D.C. region that actually experienced an increase in homelessness during the eviction moratorium which was supposed to keep people in their homes and off the streets. With the eviction moratorium being lifted and a recommitment to programs which have proven to fail, community advocates, their supporters and the communities they serve are left to answer questions that the City of Frederick has, in large part, refused to even acknowledge.
Written by Mate Muhammed.