May Is National Foster Care Month

May is National Foster Care Month, which celebrates agencies like those in Baltimore serving foster children year-round. Maryland’s Department of Human Services (DHS) works in conjunction with local nonprofit organizations to facilitate foster care in Baltimore City. The department aims to place children into permanent living arrangements within 15 months of them entering the foster care system.

Maryland practices a “family-to-family” foster system wherein a child’s birth family and foster family work together in order to provide the best care possible. “Using the family to family premise, foster children are placed in homes that are in their own community, thereby keeping the children connected to their home school, friends and resources within their neighborhood,” according to the DHS website.

Other agencies also get involved in the process to assist families in need. One such group is Pressley Ridge, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit organization with an office in Baltimore City as well as locations in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia. The DHS refers cases to the agency, which then provides specialized care for a variety of circumstances.

“We typically see those kids who have experienced some kind of trauma in their lives,” said Ron Gruca, Pressley Ridge’s senior director of development. Under their specialized ‘treatment foster care’ system, “our foster parents are the therapists. They are the ones who are specifically trained” to handle unique challenges.

The organization served 29 youth in the 2018 fiscal year using this ‘treatment foster care’ system. The children were an average of 16 years old. Tesha Tinsley, the agency’s program director for Baltimore City, outlined some of the challenges that children in urban areas like Baltimore face.

“I’ve come across a lot of teens in the program who have some history or suspected history, in sex trafficking,” she said, adding that other factors like crime, poverty, and neglect can lead to children being taken into the foster care system. “We are charged with finding appropriate placements for the youngsters in the community.”

Gruca outlines the goals for foster children of the DHS and its affiliated agencies. “Number one, if possible, is to reunite them with their biological family,” he says. If that isn’t possible, “we’re looking for some type of permanency, whether that is adoption or some other kind of kinship relationship.”

Tinsley recalls a recent case wherein three sisters were displaced from their home as a result of domestic violence. “We had a case where the mother’s boyfriend, who was the children’s father, murdered their mother in front of them,” she said. The girls eventually found a permanent living situation with their grandmother, who has since legally adopted them.

The Maryland DHS estimates that roughly 1,100 families and 1,175 children were served in 2018 by statewide initiatives promoting adoption support, counseling costs, and informational events.

Pressley Ridge also offers “parent-child” foster care in Baltimore, wherein young new mothers are put into foster homes along with their children— 30 of these cases were processed in 2018. The agency also has a “pathways” program which helps older teenagers and young adults transition out of the foster system and into job training or education programs.

Tinsley emphasizes that these programs are made possible in Baltimore by the constant dedication of childcare experts and social workers.

“The social work occupation is one that is really overlooked in a lot of aspects,” she said. “When a child has to be hospitalized, it’s most likely the social worker who is going to the hospital with the child. When a child is being displaced, we’re the people moving the furniture. We help pack those children up and carry them to the next place… it’s 24/7.”

Government and nonprofit agencies could not do the work they do without the essential support of foster parents and families in Baltimore City.

“There is a big need for foster parents in Baltimore City— people who actually care about what happens to youth,” Tinsley said. “We really need people who are dedicated to changing these young people’s lives, and they need somebody who is going to stay there for the long haul.

“These families are ‘a beacon of hope’ for children in need.”

Gruca added that while being a foster parent is a difficult task, agencies like Pressley Ridge exist to help and support them as they take in children in need.

“It’s not easy. They should know that it’s not easy,” he said of prospective foster parents.

“Becoming a treatment foster parent is a calling. It can be challenging at times. But… we’re there with you every step of the way. If you can open up your heart and your home, we can make it work.”

Maryland Book Bank Prepares For ‘Books For Kids Day’

The Maryland Book Bank will hold their annual Books for Kids Day, a large-scale book donation event, on Saturday, May 4, 2019. The all-day event will take place at the Book Bank’s new warehouse space, located at 1794 Union Avenue in Woodberry.

“We hope to collect about 30,000 books,” said Mark Feiring, the Maryland Book Bank’s executive director. “We’ll have roughly a total of 100 volunteers that will be here throughout the course of the day, and they’ll help us sort out thousands of books.” The donation period will run from 9 a.m. until 2 p.m., but Feiring emphasized that the Book Bank accepts donations 24 hours per day, every day.

The Book Bank will also be offering tours of its new warehouse on Books for Kids Day. The new space, Feiring said, has been beneficial to their mission..

“The new warehouse has allowed us to bring in more,” he said. “Because of that, we’ve been able to get out more.” Until last year, the Book Bank operated out of the Baltimore Sun’s building and held their annual book drive event elsewhere.

Books for Kids Day has been happening for over twenty years in Baltimore City. Born out of an adult literacy program called Baltimore Reads, it gradually developed into a youth-focused initiative. The Book Bank accepts all books regardless of genre or reading level, and funds their operation in part by selling the adult-oriented books online.

“This past year we distributed 376,000 books to schools, organizations, and families throughout the entire state with a focus on the city,” Feiring said. “Over 800 organizations and schools have gotten books from us, and we’ve served 70,000 children.”

The Book Bank connects children with books in a variety of ways. During visits to the warehouse, children are allowed to take as many books as they can physically carry, while adults are permitted to take up to 25. However, memberships are also available for individuals and organizations who want more books on a monthly basis.

Volunteers from Johns Hopkins University sort donated books at the Maryland Book Bank.

Courtesy Photo/MD Book Bank

Volunteers from Johns Hopkins University sort donated books at the Maryland Book Bank.

“We really try to make it as easy as possible for people to get the books that they require for their programs, mainly because in Baltimore City there’s a serious lag in the supply of books to children,” said Feiring. “Any kid growing up in a home with at least 20 books are going to get at least three more years of school under their belt than the average child.”

“There have been significant studies showing that having books in the home makes a huge difference,” he added.

The Book Bank also has a Bookmobile, funded by a partnership with the Baltimore Ravens, that brings books directly to schoolchildren around the city. “The kids can come and take whatever they want. If they’re choosing a book, they certainly are more apt to read it,” said Feiring. “We’ve distributed close to 100,000 books off that Bookmobile. We’re hoping to get a second one soon.”

In addition to the services it provides to children, the Maryland Book Bank also functions as a social enterprise. In a partnership with the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development, it provides job training and working opportunities in areas such as inventory and shipping management to unemployed individuals. “We’re able to provide some skills that they can then use at just about any warehouse,” Feiring said.

Individuals interested in getting involved with the donation efforts on Books for Kids Day should visit the Maryland Book Bank’s website for more information. They do not accept magazines or literary journals as donations, but any book on any topic, hardcover or paperback, is welcome.

“This isn’t a one-day thing where we just stop after this,” Feiring says. Instead, the event marks a moment of reflection and celebration of the efforts behind the Book Bank’s ongoing mission.

“This is really a celebration of what we do and our volunteers, and bringing everyone together just for a day of working and seeing the results of what we do,” said Feiring. “Everyone that’s there is excited about reading and they’re excited about helping people… it’s just a lot of fun and there’s a lot of great energy.”

Manna House Prepares For Renovations And Expansion

The Manna House, a community resource for needy and homeless individuals in Baltimore City, plans to expand its facilities in 2019 in order to provide more services to their clients.

Located on East 25th Street, this organization has been serving free hot breakfasts to underprivileged community members in Baltimore City for 53 years.

“It’s important to us that people get fed,” said case manager Patty Feick, who has been working at the Manna House for nearly five years. “We try to set people up so they can at least have their basic needs met, so they can get to the important stuff like finding housing and a job.”

In addition to serving breakfast, the Manna House provides a diverse array of services to the struggling and homeless individuals of Baltimore City. Clients can access shower facilities, apply twice a month for clothing, have mail delivered to the Manna House’s address, receive food bank vouchers, and access weekly on-site healthcare services.

“I’ve been coming here for about five years,” said Fred Owens, a Manna House client. “This place is awesome— they bend over backwards to help you.” Another client, Leonard Wayne Wright III told The Baltimore Times, that facilities like the Manna House can help provide the dignity its clients need to better their lives.

“We all need a support team,” he said. “I come here because of the showers. As long as I got my shower, I say thank you God because I want to be clean.”

Jennifer Dubreuil has been the program manager of the Manna House for the past decade. She expressed hope that the facility’s upcoming expansion project will allow it to help more clients in a wider variety of ways.

“We want NA and AA groups to be able to hold meetings here, we want a computer lab, job training programs,” Dubreuil told The Baltimore Times. “We’re planning to double our dining area, which means clients won’t be waiting outside as long or at all.”

Construction is expected to start in April, expanding the space into the buildings next door. The 1.2 million dollar project is funded by a combination of grants and donations. During the renovation, Feick and Dubreuil emphasize that the Manna House will remain open.

“We’ll find a way to provide some kind of a meal. We do plan to feed people one way or another,” said Feick.

“We’re the only agency in Baltimore that’s open seven days a week, because our clients rely on it,” added Dubreuil. “We will probably have to scale back services [during construction], but our clients are our top priority.”

The Manna House serves clients from a variety of backgrounds, and recent years have seen an increase in housed individuals seeking the organization’s services.

“The cost of living is rising at a very rapid pace, but the wage earned is not. Low-income clients end up spending all of their money on rent and not having enough left for food,” said Dubreuil. “We are not only serving homeless people, but also a greater amount of low-income people because of the nature of the economy.”

The Manna House relies largely on volunteer work and private donations. The organization is especially eager to receive fresh fruits and vegetables, coffee, sugar, creamer, and donated clothing. Organizations can also make a monetary donation to sponsor a breakfast, or send members to help serve food and organize the dining room.

“The volunteers are great. They don’t look down on nobody,” said Owens, who also expressed overall appreciation for the organization’s staff and services. “I can’t say nothing bad about it.”

Wright added that he considers the Manna House an invaluable community resource.

“These things help people out,” he said. “You’re saving people’s lives when you open up these organizations.”

Baltimore Community Divided Over Private Police Debate

State representatives are expected to vote on a bill that would allow Johns Hopkins University to create a private police force on Thursday, March 7, 2019. Delegate Cheryl Glenn (D-45) and State Senator Antonio Hayes (D-40), both of whom represent Baltimore City, are sponsoring the bill in the House of Delegates and State Senate respectively.

After an unsuccessful bid to pass a similar bill last year, the university is trying again to gain needed legislative support. At press time, neither sponsor had responded to requests for comment from The Baltimore Times.

The portion of the bill authorizing a private Johns Hopkins police force, however, has sparked controversy in the University community and beyond. University faculty released a letter in opposition to the bill signed by 68 faculty members on February 18, 2019.

“We do not support the creation of a police force that is not accountable to the citizens of the city where it operates,” the letter reads. English and History professor Lawrence Jackson, a Baltimore native and co-author of the faculty letter, added that the measure has the potential to increase surveillance and tension in the surrounding neighborhood.

“When I became a teenager here in Northwest Baltimore I began having violent and deeply traumatic encounters with the city’s police,” he said in a statement during a policing forum last year. “For me, at a deeply reactionary level, I find it difficult to resolve problems by applying more police force.”

Controversy over the bill has also permeated the student body. Shortly after the proposal of last year’s bill, a coalition of graduate and undergraduate students created a campus organization called Students Against Private Police. One of the group’s organizers, sophomore Barae Hirsch, spoke to The Baltimore Times about the group’s concerns.

“One of the things that has become really clear over the course of this year-long battle is that Hopkins is proceeding with this endeavor in a completely undemocratic fashion,” she said. “Our ideal would be for Hopkins to invest in community organizations and initiatives that provide the underlying stability that helps give rise to decreasing crime.”

Students gather on Johns Hopkins' Homewood campus in protest of the private police bill on February 13, 2019.

Courtesy Photo/Students Against Private Police

Students gather on Johns Hopkins’ Homewood campus in protest of the private police bill on February 13, 2019.

“There’s no saying exactly what the effects [of a private police force] would be, but in the event of possible police brutality or possible harassment or profiling, the accountability is extremely lacking,” she added.

In a paid Twitter post being promoted to community members online, the University offers a different analysis.

“The Johns Hopkins police department proposed in SB 793 and HB 1094 would be public-facing, public-serving, and publicly accountable,” the post reads. University President Ronald Daniels also stated his commitment to addressing community concerns in a letter to Johns Hopkins students, faculty and staff on December 21, 2018.

“We recognize the legitimate and deeply held concerns, particularly from our students and faculty of color and in the LGBTQ community, about bias and injustice in policing. We take our obligation to prevent and address these wrongs extremely seriously,” the letter stated.

Hirsch, however, argued that attempts at opposition to the bill have been stifled by inaccessible public meetings, insufficient time for sharing community concerns, and the logistical difficulty of making students voices heard by both the University administration and lawmakers in Annapolis.

“All of the efforts at open discussion have been purely for optics,” she said.

A poll conducted by Johns Hopkins’ student government suggests that as many as 75 percent of students oppose the introduction of private police on campus.

Also included in the current bill are provisions to create and fund a Law Enforcement Apprenticeship Cadet Program at the state level. Its goals are to train early-career law enforcement officers and improve youth relationships with police.

This measure comes on the heels of a July 2018 bid by Mayor Catherine Pugh to establish a similar program in Baltimore City. According to a press release, “Mayor Pugh has made reviving the long-dormant BPD Cadet program a top priority over the past year.”

These provisions, however, are not enough to inspire support from the bill’s critics.

“We view the inclusion of those articles as really deceitful and pernicious, because they basically cloud the intention of the bill,” said Hirsch, speaking on behalf of the Students Against Private Police group. “Our position is no private police. No amendments, no compromises.”

Impact Hub Celebrates Three Years In Baltimore City

The Impact Hub, a shared office and event space designed for social entrepreneurs, recently celebrated three years of operation at its Station North location in Baltimore. The venue hosts a wide variety of events, including: skill-share workshops, market space for local vendors, and lectures by members of the surrounding community, in addition to providing co-working space for small businesses.

“We’re more than just space. This space is really just a container for all of the incredible people and resources that are here,” executive director Michelle Geiss told the Baltimore Times.

A variety of freelancers, small business owners and entrepreneurs call the Impact Hub home. For a monthly membership fee, these individuals can access the venue’s facilities, connect with other startups and find assistance and support to help their businesses grow.

Kieta Iriarte-Amin, the business consultant behind Mpolo Business Solutions credits the Impact Hub with helping her business to flourish.

“Membership at IHB continues to be one of the best businesses decisions I have made,” she told The Baltimore Times. “When I joined IHB, my professional circle was very small and I did not trust the opinions or suggestions from others. IHB helped me perfect the vision and the mission of my business while getting feedback from others in my same place professionally.”

In addition to professional networking opportunities, the Impact Hub provides forums in which local small business owners can engage with the public they serve. Almost all of IHB’s events are free and open to the public.

“When I talk to people who come into the space, members or not, a lot of them see this as a public meeting space,” said Michelle Antoinette Nelson, the IHB’s director of community engagement. “I think people see Impact Hub as a community-based platform that they are welcome to.”

Diversity is a core component of the Impact Hub’s nonprofit model. In 2018, 59 percent of its members were women and 46 percent identified as black. Major areas addressed by its members’ startups

included education, economic opportunity, health and the arts. In 2018, 45 percent of members worked in the nonprofit sector, mirroring the setup of the IHB overall.

“We’re one of the few [Impact Hubs] in North America that’s a nonprofit model,” said Geiss. “We wanted to be able to make sure this space was accessible and working towards economic opportunity and racial equity— we changed our whole co-working model in 2017 to reflect those values.”

A basic IHB membership fee for freelancers and other individuals costs $50 per month, while $150 per month gives members access to business support and an experience more tailored for entrepreneurs. These “Grow” memberships can also be earned through the IHB’s work trade program.

Iriarte-Amin considers the work trade program to be ideal for her needs as an entrepreneur.

“As a small business owner, the access to the space and the openness of the community made me want to invest more of my time. I then became a member of the work/trade program,” she said. “This was a perfect partnership. Giving tours of a place I love, greeting guests, all in exchange for a membership I would have gladly paid for.”

In total, there are over 100 Impact Hubs in cities around the world, including twelve in the United States. Their success has largely been dependent on their roots within their local communities. For

instance, the New York City Impact Hub recently shut its doors. However, Geiss notes that it faced difficulties due to being run from outside of the city.

“What’s different about us is we started in Baltimore, grew up organically here, and started with the community building piece of it,” she said. “It’s important to be investing in the entrepreneurs and the small businesses of Baltimore. Our city is full of people who have an idea of what could be better, and what neighborhoods could look like, and how we can re-imagine the city for people that are long-term residents.”

“We need to be spreading out the investment in people really far and wide so it gets into neighborhoods that need reinvestment,” she added. “A lot of the folks that are working on that in really transformative ways are working out of this space.”

Natalie Wallington

Baltimore City Awaits Vote On Statewide Minimum Wage Bill

State legislators in Annapolis are expected to vote on a proposal to gradually increase Maryland’s state-wide minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2023 on Thursday, February 21, 2019. The bill has 77 co-sponsors, and comes after years of campaigning by community activists and labor groups.

Twenty of the 22 state legislators representing Baltimore City are either co-sponsoring the bill or expressed support of it to The Baltimore Times. The other two, Dalya Attar (D-41) and William Ferguson (D-46) did not respond to requests for comment.

Founded in 2012 by fast food workers in New York, the Fight for 15 campaign has been active in supporting such wage raises across the country. Ricarra Jones, an organizer for Maryland’s Fight For 15 group, says a bill like this one is long overdue.

“We’ve spent a lot of time on the ground talking to residents about the need to raise wages, and how when we raise wages it has positive effects on the community,” Jones told The Baltimore Times. “We have a lot of residents expressing the concern, or the need, that the bill should be implemented faster.”

The bill would also remove the lower legal wage for tipped employees by 2027. Jones says this change would mark a victory for some of Maryland’s most vulnerable workers.

“Most tipped workers, especially in Baltimore, are women and they’re women of color,” Jones explained. “They also have some of the highest rates of poverty, of having to receive public assistance, and some of the highest rates of sexual harassment. So this issue is very, very important to us, and we absolutely want to see these workers receive a full minimum wage.”

Jones added that the Fight for 15 campaign has received the most resistance in Baltimore from the Chamber of Commerce. The Baltimore City chamber did not respond to requests for comment, but Jones stated that some business owners she has spoken with were not consulted about their opinions on the bill.

Columbia business owner Brian England supports the minimum wage increase, and describes feeling frustrated when his local and statewide Chambers of Commerce take strong stances without consulting business owners.

“I was on the legislative committee of the [Howard County] Chamber of Commerce about a decade ago, and… it’s not very democratic,” England told The Baltimore Times. “What happens is, the board will decide on a position and send it down to the legislative committee to be approved.”

In England’s experience, many small businesses adopt the Chamber’s position on important issues because they lack the time and resources to do their own research. The Chamber itself, however, is often reluctant to reveal the reasoning behind its decisions.

“One of the frustrations I’ve had is I’ve never been able to get data from people,” England said of the bill’s opponents.

When another local businessman told him a minimum wage increase would “cost a fortune,” England calculated how a $1 per hour wage increase would affect the man’s restaurant franchise. He found that food prices would need to

increase by only 1.6 percent to give fifteen restaurant employees each an extra $2,000 per year under such a change.

“That money goes back into the local economy,” England said. “Raising the minimum wage up to fifteen dollars over a period of time is the right thing to do

because it’s going to take pressure off the social safety net, and it’s right that people should earn enough money to live. They shouldn’t have to rely on food banks and [other public services] to get by.”

A fifteen dollar minimum wage is not a brand-new proposal in Baltimore City. In 2017 the City Council voted in favor of a gradual increase in the city’s minimum wage to $15 per hour, but the measure was vetoed by Mayor Catherine Pugh.

Former state Delegate Donald C. Fry supported Pugh’s veto, arguing that wage increases at the city level would have negative economic impacts. Fry is now the president of the Greater Baltimore Committee (GBC), a group of local businesses and civic organizations.

The GBC expressed support for the current bill on the condition that it adopts a number of amendments, including eliminating provisions that raise tipped wages and protect seasonal and youth workers. It also expressed desire for an extended timeline for some businesses to implement the new wage.

“Small and mid-size employers need additional time to plan and adjust to ensure their financial stability and future growth. Otherwise, they may face hardship,” said Fry in a press release.

Jones, however, emphasized that citizens should put pressure on their representatives to vote for a “clean fifteen”– a bill with no such amendments to the new wage law.

“[We need] a bill that covers the most people,” Jones concluded, “meaning that there’s no carve-outs, no exceptions, and we’re not leaving big groups of workers behind.”