Homeless advocates and a civil rights group renewed threats Tuesday to sue the city over discrimination at its newly completed $8 million shelter, which offers far fewer beds for women than men.
"The city chose to provide beds for men and not for women. That's discrimination," Sonia Kumar, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, testified at a City Council committee hearing. "Women were literally sleeping on the street because of these discriminatory actions."
City officials said they found 20 additional overflow beds for women earlier this month to supplement the 75 beds at the shelter. The shelter has 175 beds for men, and another 100 men can stay at an overflow shelter. Since the beds were added, officials said, they have not had to turn away women from the shelter on Fallsway.
"No one has been turned away since Nov. 1," said Kate Briddell, the city's director of homeless services.
But Carolyn Johnson, an attorney with the Homeless Person's Representation project, questioned the veracity of the city's statistics on the number of people turned away.
Johnson also pointed out that November has been unseasonably warm, and that more people could seek shelter when temperatures fall.
About 1,380 men and 700 women sought shelter in Baltimore on a night in January when Morgan State University students took a census count. That study counted a total of 4,088 homeless people in the city.
The ACLU and the Homeless Persons Representation Project sent a letter to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake last month threatening legal action if the city does not make equal numbers of beds available for women and men. The city's new shelter also has 25 additional beds in a long-term convalescent unit. City officials say those beds can be used by men or women, though advocates say that in practice they are used by men.
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, on Guilford Avenue, held 350 people. Now, the city puts 100 men in overflow beds there, Johnson said.
City Solicitor George Nilson said the number of beds available for women was commensurate with the number of women who seek them.
"The demand for beds by single homeless women is not the same as the demand for beds by single homeless men," he said.
But Kumar said that denying anyone a service because of their gender violates state law. Kumar and Johnson said that they are compiling more information but could soon file suit against the city.
City officials denied allegations by the ACLU and advocates that shelter staffers had threatened homeless people who spoke with attorneys about their experiences.
Linda Trotter, program director for Jobs, Housing and Recovery, the company that has a contract to run the shelter, said an employee had simply told a person waiting in line who was speaking with an attorney that she would lose her spot if she stepped out of line.
Johnson said officials had also pledged to post a notice informing homeless people that they had the right to speak with attorneys or the press.
Sonita Wong testified that she is homeless and was denied shelter in the city's facility because she is a woman. She said she slept in the parking lot of the shelter, where she was attacked.
"I was assaulted in the parking lot and wound up in a fight with five other people," she said. "I was hurt very badly."
Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who called the hearing, asked city officials to rework the city's 10-year plan on homelessness.
The plan was drafted with the assumption that vouchers from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development could be used to place homeless people in permanent housing, eliminating the need for some shelter beds. However, those vouchers have not been available for more than a year, when funding dried up. Meanwhile, numbers of homeless people continue to climb due to the economic downturn.
Mayoral spokesman Ian Brennan said in an email that Rawlings-Blake planned to use grant money to hire an executive director for The Journey Home, the city's 10-year plan to end homelessness. That person would be tasked with updating the plan, Brennan said.