How Do We Build Community When We Can’t Be Near Each Other? (with Baltimore Safe Haven and Project Waves)

This is the third part of a series. Go to Part 1 or Part 2.

Maryland’s official count of confirmed coronavirus cases reached 149 on Friday morning. That’s up from 57 on Tuesday. Baltimore City’s total jumped from one to 11 in that time. The state’s first coronavirus death happened in Prince George’s County on Wednesday, and multiple children in Maryland have been infected.

Governor Hogan has now reduced the legal limit on gatherings to 10 people, and has ordered all enclosed shopping spaces to close, except for essential services such as grocery stores, pharmacies and banks.

Police call box 600The Baltimore Sun has live coronavirus updates here. City Council President Brandon Scott has assembled a list of COVID-19 resources. Extinction Rebellion Baltimore, a climate activist group, is hosting a “virtual grief circle” on Saturday evening for residents to share their feelings and support each other during the crisis. And for anyone who wants to volunteer to help their vulnerable neighbors, or ask for support, you can do so on the Baltimore Mutual Aid spreadsheet or at individual neighborhood support groups.

As always, please send me any community resources I can add to these stories.

Earlier this week I spoke with Mally Hatcher of Baltimore Safe Haven and Adam Bouhmad of Project Waves, again asking, How do we build community when we can’t be near each other? Here’s what they said…

Baltimore Safe Haven

Baltimore Safe Haven is a trans-led organization specializing in harm reduction services, outreach and advocacy for people impacted by drug use or sexual exchange, or who are experiencing homelessness. Clients frequently include members of the LGBT community who have few options to support themselves other than sex work.

In other words, the organization serves those who were already vulnerable before COVID-19 was an issue. It is not yet known how the virus affects people with HIV. But if it’s anything like influenza, those with HIV could face substantially higher risk of hospitalization or death if they are not being treated.

Mally Hatcher, Director of Operations at Baltimore Safe Haven, seemed exhausted when we spoke. (The organization just moved into a new space, and is still setting up.) But she also seemed at times to take the pandemic as just one more in a series of challenges. “Some days it’s easier than others,” she told me.

Drop-in services have been shut down, but the nightly outreach van is still operational. In addition to the typical snacks and “survival kits” for people on the street, the outreach team has been handing out hygiene kits complete with hand sanitizer, hand wipes and disinfectant spray.

The kits are helpful, but they don’t address the deeper problem. “There aren’t enough programs to suffice when it comes down to taking care of people in situations like this,” Mally said, pointing at the elevated risk that comes with homelessness right now. “Not knowing where you’re going to sleep at night already stresses you out,” she said. Adding a pandemic on top of that “doubly adds pressure.”

She didn’t know how financially realistic it would be, but Mally said she wishes the city had an emergency fund to provide hotel vouchers in a situation like this. It’s never safe for people to live on the street. But when it’s as unsafe as it is now, no one should be without a place to stay.

On a broader level, Mally said, she hopes this crisis prompts people to do more to end homelessness. That means, for example, being more accepting of transgender people and providing more opportunity for them to participate in society as equals.

“It’s that time for advocacy to ramp up towards individuals that have been displaced,” she said.

Project Waves

Adam Bouhmad started Project Waves, which was featured on this site last month, in an effort to offer affordable internet access to everyone in Baltimore. By partnering with neighborhood anchor institutions, his model bounces internet signals from rooftop antennas to homes that need them for a suggested monthly donation of $10. He got two homes set up with access in Sharp-Leadenhall last year, and has been in talks with people about possible installations in Greenmount West and Park Heights.

“The internet’s promise was to provide access to information provide access to each other, allow for unfiltered communication,” he told me earlier this week. But the reality hasn’t lived up the promise for nearly a third of Baltimore households, which lack a broadband subscription.

Adam gave Comcast credit for making its Xfinity hotspots available for free during the outbreak. I haven’t been able to find out if many people in Baltimore are benefiting from it. Digital literacy, adequate computers or awareness could still be barriers. Email me if you know of evidence that people in the city are benefiting from free internet access.

One idea Adam had already been thinking about before the crisis was to install community “portals” on neighborhood internet networks set up by Waves. A portal would be visible to anyone on that connection, and could contain information about local resources, contact information for community leaders, and anything else the community deemed important for people in the area to know. An emergency like this only emphasizes the importance of being able to collect information to share with neighbors, as many neighborhoods have been trying to do with quarantine response teams. (You might notice if you visit that link, though, that the White L is better represented than the Black Butterfly.)

Adam has slowed down efforts to make individual installations in people’s homes during the outbreak. But he has been in preliminary talks with city schools and recreation centers to take their mostly dormant internet connections and turn them into hotspots. Whether this crisis will lead to a broader, long-term conversation about the importance of universal internet and digital access in the city remains to be seen.

To share your own thoughts about how we build community while keeping social distance, email interactionbaltimore@gmail.com.

Go to Part 4.