In July, Perry Black started waiting in line every day under the Interstate 83 overpass with hundreds of other homeless people, leaning on crutches after losing three of his toes to diabetes.
Last month, Black finally got a bed at the Harry and Jeannette Weinberg Housing Resource Center.
When Catholic Charities took over the shelter over the summer, it set up a new system. Beds had been assigned on a first-come, first-served basis, so the homeless showed up daily, hours in advance. Under the new system, once someone gets a bed, it's theirs for up to 90 days, as long as they claim it each day at 4 p.m.
The goal was to free the homeless from waiting in line, so they could spend their days looking for work or housing. But hundreds still wait every day, hoping a spot opens up.
The persistent queue illustrates the difficulties the shelter, city officials and others face in addressing the intractable problem of homelessness in Baltimore. Many who are waiting for longer-term lodging wind up at overflow shelters where beds are too few, while others remain on the street.
The number of homeless people in Baltimore is in the thousands, but no true count exists.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development, which measures the scope of homelessness by taking a count on a single night each year, reported this month 2,683 men, women and children were homeless in Baltimore this year — down from more than 4,000 homeless people counted two years earlier.
But city officials believe this year's number of homeless is higher and that the 2011 figure was inflated by double counting.
In the end, the actual number of homeless likely hasn't changed that much, said Adrienne Breidenstine, who oversees city's 10-year plan to end homelessness.
Nationwide, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reported the number of homeless dropped by about 4 percent over the past two years to 610,000. An emphasis on finding housing for homeless veterans is one of the reasons cited for the decline.
The issue of homelessness takes on added resonance in the winter, as temperatures drop.
Kevin Lindamood, president of Health Care for the Homeless, a program that provides medical services and access to housing and jobs, is worried about those left out in the cold.
"There hasn't been articulated a broader vision for a sufficient overflow capacity this winter," Lindamood said. "Unfortunately, I think that preventable weather-related death will be the consequence."
Baltimore's 2,000 emergency beds at shelters and transitional beds in places like halfway houses are "nowhere near enough," and the need exceeds the beds by about 1,000 people, according to Lindamood.
"We've got a mass problem," he said.
Baltimore is in the fourth year of its 10-year plan to end homelessness, a venture undertaken along with the United Way of Central Maryland. The plan, called "The Journey Home," focuses on the getting the city's homeless into permanent housing, rather than temporary shelters, so they can address other needs.
When Catholic Charities took over the Weinberg Housing Resource Center, Baltimore's main 24-hour shelter, the organization made some facility improvements and implemented the 90-day rule.
It was meant to provide more time for residents to focus on long-term betterment. Catholic Charities provides case workers and other services to help homeless men and women find employment and permanent housing while they are staying at the Weinberg Center.
The change in policy is good for people like Black, who now have a space. But it has put others on a long waiting list. They face a difficult decision: Go back to the streets or stand in line for several hours to find out if they got a 90-day bed or must get on a bus to an overflow shelter.
One of the reasons the main shelter is in such high demand is that homeless people and their advocates complain some overflow facilities are unclean or ill-equipped to house them.
A men's overflow center was relocated this summer from a building on Davis Street to an old school building on Sinclair Lane. It's a temporary fix, until a new facility, a former halfway house on East Monument Street, opens early next year. The move to Monument Street is expected to improve the available accommodations, but won't add any new bed space.
Daymon Bittings, a homeless man who waited in line outside the Weinberg Center on a recent November night, said he once watched a man pick parasites off his clothes and flick them across the room of the overflow shelter.
"I was very upset," he said. "I have grandkids. I'm not going to go hug my grandchildren after that."
He wants the overflow center, operated by the Baltimore Station, to require residents to delouse before sleeping there.
Kate Briddell, director of homeless services in the Mayor's Office of Human Services, said the facility is clean, even if the men in it aren't always. She said requiring delousing would violate residents' civil liberties. The shelter does offer showers, but only about a third of the 135 who sleep there each night take one, Baltimore Station officials said.
Michael Seippe, Baltimore Station's executive director, said the school building is an improvement from the Davis Street shelter, and that while it would need renovations to be used as an overflow shelter permanently, the facilities are adequate.
Some homeless people continue to avoid shelters. A handful opt to sleep each night on the steps at Health Care for the Homeless, a nonprofit that provides a range of services. That's where busses from the Sinclair Lane overflow shelter drop off the men each morning. It's a half-mile from there back to the Weinberg Center.
"I don't know how much longer I can do it," Bittings said, adding that some people are making the decision not to go to the shelters. "I've seen the tents going up under the bridge."
The city has long touted temporary shelters as an alternative to outdoor encampments like "Camp 83," a group living in tents under the expressway. City officials cleared the camp earlier this year, claiming it was hazardous to those who lived there.
But the tents have begun to crop up again alongside the Madison Street JFX on-ramp. Briddell said the city is "aware of" some homeless people returning to the area and is planning a meeting in the coming days discuss what to do about it.
Since Catholic Charities took over, the Weinberg Center has helped move as many as 20 people into permanent housing, said Christine Kay, the group's associate administrator. In addition to its 275 beds, the main shelter takes in another 60 people, who sleep on mats in its day rooms, between Nov. 15 and March 15. Catholic Charities' philosophy is that homelessness should be a "rare and brief experience."
As he waited in line for a bus to the overflow center, Bittings, 48, surveyed the group huddled in the cold in the Weinberg parking lot. He said some of these folks will be in this situation for life — "lifers," he calls them — but he's not one of them.
"It's a hell of a situation," Bittings said. "The quicker I can get out of it, the better."
Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this story.
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