Helping the Last, the Least, and the Lost: Compassionate Planning for Baltimore’s Unsheltered Homelessness came into being after I met a panhandler on MLK Jr. Blvd named Cricket. I had given her some pocket change a few times when one day I decided to engage in some conversation. Rather than engage in small talk, I dove straight into personal questions and asked her where she stayed – “do you live over there where the tents are?” She said that she did…and then told me that if I wanted, I could come visit her anytime – she was usually over there in the evenings. One day I did, and the rest is history.
I already had a partially written paper and had invested some time on a completely different topic, but felt moved to completely start over because I genuinely wanted to write a paper that could help improve the lives of the residents at the MLK Encampment and other encampments across the city. My ethnography of the camp extends from Spring 2016 – March 3, 2017, when Baltimore City closed the encampment with only a week’s notice. I wrote most of the paper from January – May 2017.
The most important takeaway from my experience (which I talk about in Chapter 6) is that the unsheltered homeless have more than just a physical housing need — they have social, emotional, and intellectual needs, too! The simplest thing planners, city officials, and neighbors can do is engage them in conversations that aren’t about money or homelessness. I helped them feel normal because I cared about them and their needs and took a sincere interest in their lives and well-being.
Obviously because it’s a graduate thesis, it is quite long, but if nothing else, I highly recommend reading Chapters 5 and 6 (the ethnography) because they really dig into the lives of people experiencing homelessness. (I’ll cover Chapter 7 – my recommendations – in my next post.)