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Leaving Women Out in the Cold

Deborah J. Vagins,
ACLU Washington Legislative Office
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October 28, 2011

This week, the ACLU called on Baltimore City to stop leaving women out in the cold. Literally. When the city’s only emergency homeless shelter is full, it provides “overflow” shelter beds to men — and not women. Turned away, single women seeking shelter have been left to fend for themselves, sleeping in parking lots and backyards, where they face exposure to the elements and have fallen victim to physical and sexual assaults.

The city created this problem last summer, when it downsized its only 24-hour emergency shelter for single adults, reducing the number of beds from 350 to 250. When advocates for the homeless raised concerns about the dramatic reduction in beds, city officials assured everyone that it would not transition from the old shelter to the new shelter until a plan for additional overflow beds was in place.

But inexplicably, the city set up a plan for overflow beds for men only. When the 175 beds for men at the new shelter fill up, any additional men seeking shelter are bussed in to a100-bed overflow shelter. When women turn up seeking shelter after the 75 beds for women at the Center fill up — usually, by around 2 pm, they are simply turned away to sleep in the streets.

But the injustice does not end there. Outrageously, when women sought legal counsel to challenge the city’s discrimination, they were told by staff members at the shelter that they will lose their beds and will be “blacklisted for life” if they speak with lawyers. Apparently, the city expects women to blindly submit to second-class citizenship.

The city is acting with disregard both for the safety of vulnerable women and for equal protection rights guaranteed by the state and federal constitutions. That’s why the ACLU of Maryland has joined with the Homeless Persons Representation Project to demand that Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake immediately intervene.

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