A Real Crisis: One block away from wealth and development and Poe Homes can’t get water

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For more than a week, residents of Poe Homes public housing have not had adequate running water due to water main issues—and it took Baltimore City’s Department Of Public Works days to even adequately respond.

“The water main break happened Sunday into Monday morning and from what I was told the city did not respond to it until Thursday, Friday,” said Rich Akwo of Generosity Global, who provided residents with portable shower stalls. “So it’s almost five days before the city had any resources down here to help the people.”

“There is no end in sight. I just went to the community meeting and what we’ve discovered is that just recently the city installed in 228 units here at Poe Homes, low-flow toilets and showerheads which is not compatible with the pipes underground,” said Beth Hawks, a Pigtown resident who heard about the Poe Homes on late Wednesday and has been helping out. “So when they started doing the work, the connectors disintegrated.”

According to Mayor Jack Young’s spokesperson, Lester Davis, around 100 toilets have been replaced so far and the city is working on replacing the rest.

In the area surrounding Poe Homes, apparent wealth and palpable poverty are just one block away from each other: It is less than a mile from City Hall and now sits in the shadow of University of Maryland BioPark. In 2016, the Biopark’s developer Wexford Science and Technology was approved for a $17.5 million dollar TIF. 

“We can’t even flush our toilets, can’t take baths,” said Naji, a Poe Homes resident. “It’s a real crisis.”

The United Nations recognizes access to water and sanitation as fundamental human rights. On Thursday June 20, Poe Homes residents, frustrated by with city’s slow response, began reaching out to the media about the issue: “We have kids and elderly people around here. No one is taking our situation serious but us…the city workers has went home and the maintenance people have went home as well leaving us still with no water,” a resident posted on Facebook.  Images of residents gathering around fire hydrants with pots and buckets spread across the internet apparently pushing DPW to finally respond.

“City officials, I guess they have their methods of doing it, but I think it’s too slow. There’s not enough urgency, you got people who cannot bathe, cannot cook, cannot clean,” said Dennis Wise of Safe Streets who has been helping out in lieu of city support. “To me, it seems like the city has a nonchalant attitude, we’re trying to motivate them to do what’s right and do it in a speedy time.”

The city had been dropping off bottled water for residents and the water coming out of the fire hydrants was often brown.

On Friday June 21, DPW attempted to install a new water main bypass to fix the problem but it did not work. That same day, portable toilets and showers arrived.  On Saturday, DPW announced water was restored. The next day however, Naji showed The Real News Network that there was almost no water pressure coming from the faucet in his kitchen.

“It’s a trickle that’s coming out,” Naji said, as a weak stream of water dripped out of the faucet.

The water pressure in the development is around 10 PSI (pressure per square inch) and should be around 45 PSI. The failing water lines point to decades of disinvestment in public housing exacerbated by a slow response from city officials that many residents and activists point out, would never happen in tony neighborhoods such as Canton or Federal Hill. 

“What it actually tells us is that there’s second-class citizens,” Naji said. “If you’re not in a certain tax bracket, or have a certain category—because I don’t want to put race in it, but it’s a reality—you’re just second-class and they look at second-class citizens as someone who’s expendable,”

A Saturday morning announcement by Baltimore Police Department that overtime was available to any officers who wanted to go over to Poe Homes shocked many. What exactly police were there to do, is unclear and Baltimore Police have not responded to comment.

Baltimore activists including members of Baltimore Bloc and the Johns Hopkins University Sit-In have continued dropping off water and food and groups such as Safe Streets and Kinetic Capital have been present.

Over the weekend, Davis from the mayor’s office, City Council President Brandon Scott and some of his staffers continued to deliver water and check in with residents about the status of water pressure in their building. The city has also offered residents hotels to stay in though picking up and moving for a few days is not easy for everybody to do—and some of the hotels allotted for the residents are all the way in Baltimore County.

On Sunday, Akwo of Generosity Global, who provided mobile shower facilities gave The Real News Network a look at the showers offered to Poe Homes.

“Each stall has its own shampoo, soap, and conditioner. They get their towels,” Akwo said, opening up one of the stalls. “We make it as homey as possible.”

The stalls are inviting with tiled walls and patterned shower curtains.

“No city in America should have to deal with this type of crisis for so long,” Akwo said. “It’s been a week and so my question is…do they have the proper resources to tackle this problem and bring it to an end?”

“We should have learned our lesson after Katrina. We saw what happened in the marginalized communities and the lack of response. Like, every city should have a program and a protocol built in for a response like this,” said Kinetic Capital’s John Huffington, who works with Wise and like Wise, is formerly incarcerated. “It shouldn’t have to be community organizations, it shouldn’t have to be ex-convicts stepping out. Like, we’re here, where’s the city officials? Where are the people paid to do this work?”

“The thing we were trying to push and preach was we’ve got to operate like this is a state of emergency and just make sure we can mitigate whatever disruption people experience,” said Lester Davis. “There were people who were extremely gracious, more gracious than I would probably be in their shoes. That wasn’t lost on us in trying to understand that we’ve got to work that much harder to get it up and running.”

Additional reporting by Lisa Snowden-McCray.