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Michael Harris

Michael Harris, a client at Project Plase, that suffers from homelessness in Baltimore

Michael Harris, a 63-year-old resident of Project Plase, sat at the end of the table with his arms crossed and dark shades covering his eyes. He had been quiet for some time now, but he was eager to tell his story.

When Harris moved from Jamaica to the United States in 1996 with his ex-wife, son and daughter, he was ready to experience the American dream. A year after the big move he was already working four different jobs to provide a comfortable life for him and his family.

In just a few short years later in 1999, Harris was able to start his very own trucking business.

“I acquired one truck, and with another three to four months I was able to acquire another one. I started working on my own as a private contractor,” said Harris in his strong almost inaudible Jamaican accent.

Through all of the hard work, Harris purchased his family a home and then opened up yet another business. The distribution company he started with his son, which made natural juice from fresh fruits was quite successful, being marketed with a total of five other companies in Poland, Brazil, Korea, and Jamaica and bringing in a profit of 12,000 to 15,000 dollars per week.

At this point Harris was on top of world. That was until 2007 when he suffered a massive heart attack. From that moment on things continued to spiral out of control for him. He had to undergo bypass surgery five times. The costly medical expenses forced Harris to close his businesses. Seven months later he was unexpectedly served divorce papers by his wife.

“I was left on the street in some way or the other because the courts took almost everything I had and gave it to my wife and daughter. My son and I were left out in the open,” said Harris.

The stress of the world was all too much. For a while he found himself in and out of hospitals and by 2011, Harris and his son were officially homeless.

For some time they traveled around until they were able to find a stable place to live at Project Plase.

“We been bouncing around from one house to another house, one shelter to another shelter until we came here last year in July,” said Harris.

For a man that experienced such success, and was as goal driven and hardworking as Harris, becoming homeless really took a toll on his pride.

“Being homeless is not really one of the best things to an individual who used to run their own business, who used to employ people, who used to see that others are taken care of, and to be left in a position where they are to be dependent upon others is not really the best,” said Harris with his arms still folded tightly against his chest.

He explains that becoming homeless is easier than what most people would think.

“It doesn’t take much for you to become homeless these days,” said Harris with a straight face and a serious tone. “Homelessness is like a disease, if you are not careful once it starts, it takes it on a wrong road, which you don’t really want to go.”

***

Baltimore has become yet another city in America to implement a 10-year plan to make the preventative epidemic both rare and brief. The Journey Home was established in 2008 by a number of community leaders like local business owners and service providers, to government officials, to address the issue of homelessness in Baltimore City.

The 10-year plan was broken down into four broad, yet very critical objectives that are targeted to help reach the goal of eradicating homelessness. The first objective is affordable housing. According to journeyhomebaltimore.com the plan’s solution for this is to “create and maintain a supply of housing sufficient to rapidly re-house homeless individuals and families.”

The second objective on the list is comprehensive healthcare. A study completed by Barbara Yarnell DiPietro in 2008, found that there is a strong correlation between people that are homeless and the amount of visits to emergency rooms in Baltimore City.

The study also reported that, “individuals experiencing homelessness have higher rates of chronic and acute health conditions, have worse health in general, and have increased levels of injuries and mortality than the general public.”

Sufficient incomes is the third objective on the Journey Home’s plan. According to the official website, the solution for this is to ensure that “Baltimore workers will earn a wage sufficient to afford housing; sufficient funding for public benefits will prevent the homelessness of recipients.”

Lastly, the fourth and final objective is comprehensive preventative and emergency services. Healthcare for the Homeless is an organization that helped to draft the initial plan and is currently a partner of the Journey Home.

“There are 43,000 households that are poor and can’t pay for their rent every month,” said Adam Schneider, their community relations coordinator.

He explained that what the objective is really about, is trying to ensure that if someone is at risk of losing their home, that there are enough resources set in place to prevent that from occurring.

“It is much easier to help someone stay in their home than to have to put someone into a home,” said Schneider.

The Journey Home’s four objectives are believed to be one of strongest points of the 10-year plan.

“One of the main strengths of the plan is that we have the right framework. The plan lays out a framework that tells us what we need to do and how we can do it most effectively,” said Schneider.

Although The Journey Home has been in place for six years there is still a lot of work to be done. Advocates of the plan are not sure that homelessness will be nonexistent by the end of the plan but they do believe that with the plan they are that much closer to achieving their goals.

“I don’t think that the issue of homelessness will be solved by 2018, but the great thing about it is that the community is committed to the plan whether it takes 10 years or 200 years,” said Adrienne Breidenstine, the Director of the Journey Home.

By 2018, it is with the hope of the Journey Home that homelessness in Baltimore City is both rare and brief. With the support and dedication of non-profit organizations, politicians, shelters, and hundreds of Baltimoreans that are truly committed to changing the plight of city it can be done.

***

With fidgety fingers Lonnie Edwards speaks about his past. Edwards is a man that has been homeless for quite some time now. He and Harris both come from Project Plase, the nonprofit organization that has been working with clients such as Edwards and Harris for 40 years. Their goal is to provide hope and housing to Baltimore’s most vulnerable homeless individuals.

Edwards came up in a well-rounded family with both parents that gave him a lot of love. He lived in Florida where he graduated from high school in 1964. He decided to move to upstate New York where he fell into the wrong crowd. The same crowd who introduced him to heroin and cocaine.

“I started snorting heroin then began skin popping, then lead to main lining which is injection straight into veins,” said Edwards. “I was eating when I could. I lived in abandoned buildings because I became homeless due to my drugs. Anything I did, I did for the heroin or coke. Every little bit of money I had went to the dope man.”

Lonnie Edwards

Lonnie Edwards, a Project Plase client, that faces a past of drug addiction and homelessness.

Edwards draws a long sigh and further speaks about his time before Project Plase. The 67-year-old believes moving from such a small town in Florida to a big city in New York was a contributing factor to his homelessness. He believed he was a loner. He always liked doing things on his own and when he moved to the big city he started to surround himself with the wrong people.

***

According to the Director of Development and Communication at Project Plase, Kristen Kearby believes that homelessness has decreased from 2011 to 2013.  According to the Point in Time Census there were 2,638 homeless persons identified during the count, a 35 percent decrease from 2011. Kearby explains that all agencies for the homelessness does not trust those numbers because homelessness is hard to track.

“The numbers on the census are unrealistic because we do a lot, with that said the numbers should be at a decrease,” said Kearby. “Homelessness is hard to track; it’s not like tracking the whale population every year once individuals are out they don’t claim to be homeless.”

Plase Project is working hard to find housing for the homeless. Typically 70 percent of their homeless populations are chronic homeless situations. Chronic homelessness means the individuals have been homeless for a year or more.

“It breaks your heart,” said Kearby. “No one deserves to live like that especially since we offer free living. Plase Project housing provides for 65 homeless people a night. We provide their basic needs until permanent housing comes available.”

Despite a housing crisis, a great recession, rising income inequality and elevated poverty the number of homeless individuals is decreasing. It is decreasing because of homeless shelters like Plase Project. Plase Project says on average two of their clients every year buy their own homes.

“It’s very inspiring,” said Kearby. “They are all hoping for something better.”

Plase Project addresses homelessness in Baltimore by providing transitional housing, permanent housing and supportive services to homeless individuals. They serve the most helpless and underserved. Most of their clients include individuals with mental illness, HIV/AIDS, addiction, developmental disabilities, and ex-offenders.

***

Kearby, says, “I give every single one of our residents credit, it’s a hard life.”

At Project Plase 49 percent of their clients face being HIV positive. Unfortunately, Edwards is one of those clients. Edwards also faces several mental disorders from anxiety to mood swings, and even deep depression. According to Project Plase, 70 percent of their clients have also been diagnosed with a mental illness. This could mean that the clients are facing these problems from their past and present with homelessness.

Before coming to Baltimore, Edwards spent time homeless in New York. He went from abandoned building to abandoned building.

“A couple times in those abandoned buildings we had to fight the people coming in because we had a warmer building so they wanted to take it over,” said Edwards. “I have seen many people fight, get killed, get cut just over a place where they could lay their head because they had nowhere else to go.”

He folds his hands and looks down. You can hear the raw emotion in Lonnie’s voice. He does not want to go back to that ever again. He is so thankful and appreciative of his life at Project Plase. All of the clients at Project Plase receive supportive services from case management to counseling. They want their clients to come out and improve themselves. 90 percent of the shelter’s clients annually access health support, education, and benefits.

“Homelessness can hit anyone,” said Edwards. “That’s the amazing thing about this, it does not discriminate. One sure thing about it is that when you’re homeless your spirit is broken. Once you break a person’s spirit what else do they have left. We need to get some help.”

Edwards looks up and begins to become very passionate about what he is speaking about. He spoke with much excitement. His birthday is in April and he plans to be in a stable apartment by then. His plans for after his time at Project Plase is to come back and volunteer and give back to the organization that has helped him so much.

“With the love of god and through Jesus that I am being changed and I’m just so thankful that I am meeting people,” said Edwards. “He is sending me people in my path that are helping me even at my old age. I just wish I could have seen the light back then as I see it now; the outcome would have been different.”

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