Fifth Annual Interfaith Forum on Homelessness brings out stories of survival

Goucher college’s Heubeck Hall set the stage for the Fifth Annual Interfaith Forum on Homelessness, Oct. 23, 2014 sponsored by Baltimore United Congregations, the Baltimore Homeless Youth Initiative, Coalition for Homeless Children and Families along with SHARP (Stop Homelessness and Reduce Poverty.)

Dennis Dorsch introduced the topic of homelessness and re-entry. In his remarks, Dorsch said, “ Society has trouble remembering the principle of forgiveness. We don’t talk about rehabilitation. We talk about incarceration.”

David Waller is an HIV positive returned citizen, who spent decades in jail gave the keynote address. “Even people living under the bridge got rules and those who live under the bridge must follow them,” Waller said. “It’s the same thing with society. People coming out of jail must learn the rules if they don’t know them. “

He also spoke about the problem of handouts. “ I watch people under bridges changing shifts with the cup and the sign. That’s crazy to me. Part of the problem is us. We promote this. I’m not saying don’t give but there must be a way for those returning to society to give back.

“We don’t ask people returning from jail what their needs are we assume we know. If I got 200 charges and you talk to me about expungement, in my mind it’s not going to happen,” Waller said. He runs the At the Door re entry program.

This is what the panelists had to say about their experiences and re-entry.

Mark Matthews at one point was a returning citizen addicted to crack. He now runs a program called Clean Slate America. “Maryland has a Subsequent Conviction Law, he said. “Even if you get a few things dropped and you get convicted of a crime like littering, you may not be able to get your record expunged. The courts know this, yet they will take your money and not give it back. Returning citizens must go in masses to Annapolis next session to advocate for themselves. Gun Rights people show up, Pit Bull people show up. We must show up!”

Tony Simmons was arrested while serving our country as a marine.

“I was arrested for intervening while my commanding officer was trying to rape a woman, ” Matthews said. “When you come out of prison, all you see is darkness. I can sit on the Board of Directors at HCH, testify in Annapolis and at City Hall, but I can’t get a decent job or house because of my record. I want to live the American Dream like everyone else.”

Simmons also talked about Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day (HPMD). “ One hundred and five people died homeless in 2013,” he said.  “I don’t want to wake up wondering is today my day? Am I going to live?”

Duane “ Shorty” Davis recalled hustling on the street until 1975.

“I had never worked.,” he said. “I didn’t have too. I never got in trouble until I tried to stop. I took my guns and drugs right into the police department. You don’t give ex felons careers. You give them just enough to survive. I was arrested again in 2011 for putting a toilet at the courthouse. I was charged with terrorism. In jail you get one toilet and you must share it. It’s a resource for doing your laundry and keeping milk cold.”

Teddy, who didn’t give his last name, said he spent 31 years in prison. “ It’s just been me and God,” he said. “I never met my family. I’m thankful for opportunities like this to advocate for myself. I lived under the bridge for over a year and now I’m housed. As ex cons or homeless people, there is no adversity we can’t overcome.”

He also explained trying to live off  social security disability income. “Rent takes almost all my money. I’m determined not to go back to prison. One of those doors is going to open for me.”

Damien Haussling, who coordinates the Faces of Homelessness Speaker’s Bureau was also a panelist. Haussling married young. His wife and mother- in -law were killed by a drunk driver. He was charged  with a crime at a college he attended, which he said he didn’t commit. “By the time the charges were dropped, it was too late,” he said. “The damage had already been done. While I was homeless, I did commit a few minor crimes to sustain my lifestyle.”

Gerald Grimes operates the Mayors’ Office of Employment Development re-entry center.  “Society is stuck in the mindset: You do the crime. You do the time,” Grimes said. “Lock ‘em up and throw away the key and if you have a criminal background that you are less than. That must change.”

Cynthia Williams is a Marian House Resident. “Rent is the most responsible thing I can do for myself,” she said. “There’s a connection I have to find in myself.  if I can’t help you, I can’t help me.”

Jessica Statesman is a program director at Marian House. “ Re-entry has to begin before someone is released,” she said. “The women’s pre release programs are gone. We need to see people as human beings with something to offer.”