Tent City organizer Carl Banks shakes your hand real hard when he meets you. It's not just a greeting but a challenge, as if to say you're welcome into the fold if you want to be. He holds on tight so you know it's real.
Banks is the "leader of the central committee" responsible for "the day-to-day operations, as well as the expansion and preservation" of Tent City, a cluster of blood-red tents (and maybe Blood red, too—security was in part run by 300 Gangstas) camped out in front of City Hall last week, put together mostly by the city's homeless with help from groups such as Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Baltimore Bloc, Food Not Bombs, Baltimore Free Farm, and others to call attention to homelessness and demand racial equity.
"Tent City is—was—designed to be a silent protest against the atrocity of homelessness, and I call it an atrocity," Banks said. "We basically try to encourage Baltimore City residents, as well as try to force our Baltimore City Council through P.R. tactics, to address this issue and bring some rectification to it. Homelessness is a very big and a very prevalent issue in Baltimore City. We believe that everyone deserves a home and a house."
Banks, who is currently homeless himself, referred to Tent City as not just a protest but a "militia"—something organized as supplemental to grassroots activists and in opposition to the city and mayor's current approach.
As dozens of tents went up on Aug. 14, Tent City also released a Racial Equity Benefits Agreement (REBA) demanding $2 billion in funding for a 21st century jobs program, the expungement of non-violent offenders' records, changes to homeless shelter policy, a citywide housing first program, and the removal of lead paint. It also asked that City Council consult with Tent City and provides useful precedents in other cities for its demands.
Kenneth Gwee, the new president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and one of the main organizers on the grassroots side, came at it a little differently than Banks.
"Over the past few days, individuals from the homeless community and grassroots organizations decided to come together and let the mayor know that they were tired of being neglected and tired of being left out of society," he said. "So we brought some bright red tents to the doorstep of City Hall to demand jobs and houses, and with that issue we want to make sure it's at the forefront and that people have access to opportunities to be able to prosper in this economy."
On Thursday, Aug. 23, day 10 of Tent City, the collective as a whole made an informal agreement with Mayor Catherine Pugh after some debate: The tents came down and the tenants—well, at least 55 of them—headed to the former William Pinderhughes Elementary in Upton, where there were beds and food and a roof over their heads for a transitional housing period. There they could also receive "case management and counseling," according to a statement put out by Pugh. There is an informal agreement to talk about Tent City's demands later on, leaving the vague possibility that the co-op style organization of Tent City could continue in Pinderhughes.
"The mayor herself has shown an openness and willingness to do what was necessary to make sure people out here have houses," Gwee said. "We just have to make sure we see the manifestation of what we all believe could be the beginning of a good process."
Banks was not as optimistic.
"If the mayor sticks to her side of things, she will hopefully come through with housing," he said. "But there's a huge concern that she won't stick to her side of things and she might not stick to her agreement because well, first of all, politicians are liars, she's a career politician and her job is to stay in office. Career politics shouldn't be maintained."
And while he did ultimately consent to the agreements for the good of Tent City, Banks realized it comes at a great cost.
"Honestly, our leverage is Tent City," he said. "The only reason they're listening to us is because of Tent City. As soon as we let go of our leverage, we will lose. The agreement that they structured sounds like a shelter. The best way to really address it is to really continue to hammer her and get more out of it—the city can allocate way more funds than give us an old school building with rats and roaches in it."
He was referring to what some have said about Pinderhughes Elementary, typically used as winter housing for the homeless, but offered by Pugh to Tent City now. Many said it's less than ideal—it's far away from downtown, it's in a high-crime area with lots of drug trafficking; many of the homeless struggle with addiction. It all felt like a way to just get them off City Hall's lawn.
Around 3 p.m. on Thursday, buses for residents pulled up to City Hall and organizers called numbers, in the order of how long residents stayed at Tent City. Some didn't board the buses and instead just took their tents and walked away. Within a few hours, a couple red tents popped up under I-83.
One man, who moments earlier was on all fours, pressing his head into the sidewalk in pain, howling, argued with those waiting in line. He's homeless, he wanted to jump the line—he also wanted nothing to do with this whole thing.
"The state ain't natural," he screamed.
He told everybody he's not from Maryland and that all the people in Maryland just want hand-outs. Nobody was having it, a few dismissed him as drunk, and Tent City security tried to make sure he didn't start any fights. Everybody was aware of the television cameras that showed up for the eviction—here for the first time, by the way, as this thing came to an end.
Gwee approached the man and shook his hand.
"Let's go get some water," he said. The two walked away.
At Pinderhughes, homeless advocate Christina Flowers welcomed people as they arrived, taking down their names and showing them around, which mostly means leading them into the dirty (though not too decrepit or anything like that) school gymnasium full of cots.
"It's the winter shelter but we can use it as a different shelter," she said gently. "We'll see where it goes, but Tent City kicked it off. I say we just bullied the mayor, somebody got to go hard or go home."
Back at Tent City, Pugh quietly spoke to a few organizers, remaining tenants packed up, and city officials tried to determine which garbage bags were full of trash and which contained belongings. This was a kinder eviction than usual, where trucks pull up to encampments in the middle of the night and throw out anything the homeless staying there can't carry with them.
PFK Boom, a member of 300 Gangstas, which helped with security at Tent City, said they could possibly do all the collectivist things they did at Tent City at Pinderhughes: "If there's lead in the building, we can find someone to help remove it."
He dismissed some of the grumbles about the building not being in great condition.
"Unless you've been homeless, you don't know what it's like," he said.
"It's hard to determine the full impact of Tent City until ultimately everybody's placed in houses and processed," Gwee said. "That's how we ultimately evaluate what Tent City was."
Gwee acknowledged that Pugh's main interest was in adjusting the homeless issue and not in the REBA, but getting the homeless people who were camped out inside was a victory for now and top priority: "That has been our [main interest] as well because of the nature of the people that's out here, there was homeless people out here sleeping overnight. So that took our primary focus—as well as it should. But there's still a lot more issues that need to be addressed."
Something was lost when Tent City's occupation ended; you could feel it among a few of the organizers. Working with the city is a risk, Banks noted. He felt as though they were creating something special in front of City Hall—a new template for something that might continue.
"Our committee was structured around day-to-day activities. We did trash pick-up, we had our own bathrooms, we had medical personnel on site, we had our own food operations, we had our own central meeting committee, we had a loudspeaker for speeches, group conversations, we had donations, and those donations were used for our logistics. That's what we did," he said. "We wanted to generate our revenue for Tent City. We believe this fight will go on longer than this, and honestly, the way the agreement looks like and the nature of politics, this will not be the end of Tent City. I see this as an ongoing issue."
Additional reporting by J.M. Giordano.