Advocates for the homeless called on Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake Tuesday to open more shelter beds for women, arguing that the city discriminates against women by making significantly more beds available to men.
"Women are literally being left out in the cold," said Sonia Kumar, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland. "It's so egregious it's hard to believe."
Carolyn Johnson, managing attorney for the Homeless Persons Representation Project, said women are being turned away from the city's new $8 million shelter on Fallsway when the beds are filled.
"We have women who have histories of domestic violence or sexual assault, and they're terrified to sleep outside," she said. "We have women with very serious physical and mental disabilities. They can't protect themselves and they're very vulnerable."
The ACLU and Homeless Persons Representation Project sent a letter to Rawlings-Blake threatening legal action if the city does not make equal numbers of beds available for women and men. The city's new shelter, which opened in July, has 175 beds for men and 75 for women, with 25 additional beds in a long-term convalescent unit.
The letter also alleges that shelter workers have threatened to bar homeless women from the Fallsway facility if they spoke with lawyers about their plight.
In response, Ryan O'Doherty, a spokesman for the mayor, said in a statement that the city was planning to add beds for women, though not as many as the advocates are demanding. O'Doherty said the city had found money to add 20 beds for women on Nov. 1.
"Any credible allegations of retaliation by contractors charged with operating the city shelter will be investigated and addressed," he said.
The new shelter, which was built in a former city transportation garage, features televisions, phones, game tables and laundry facilities — but has fewer beds than the city's old shelter. That facility, in the 200 block of Guilford Avenue, held 350 people. Now, the city puts 100 men in overflow beds there, Johnson said.
About 1,380 men and 700 women are homeless in Baltimore City, according to a January count conducted by Morgan State University and city officials.
Johnson said the dearth of beds forces homeless women to line up for a bed as early as 2 p.m., causing them to cancel doctor's appointments or job training so they are not forced to sleep outside.
"The only thing they can focus on is they want to get inside," Johnson said.