Clearing out Baltimore's homeless — again

Baltimore has cleared homeless encampments from its streets and underpasses many times before. Sometimes it’s been done brutally and suddenly, with people’s few belongings trashed. Sometimes the city has tried to be more sensitive, preceding the action with ample warning and efforts to connect each person with services and a new place to live. But there’s one thing all previous efforts have in common: They didn’t work. For a time, perhaps, a tent city would disappear. But then it would move slightly and reconstitute itself, often bigger than before.

Mayor Catherine Pugh’s administration is trying again with some new tactics. In addition to concerted outreach in recent weeks, it is seeking to move the residents of the tent city near the intersection of Guilford Avenue and Bath Street to a new east side facility designed to overcome many of the obstacles that have prevented homeless people from taking shelter in the past. It promises better facilities (showers, laundry, food) more comprehensive services and less restrictive policies, for example forgoing drug tests and providing storage for residents’ belongings. And crucially, the facility’s services will be geared toward putting residents on an immediate path toward permanent housing. Officials have listened to reasons some prefer the streets to shelter, and they have sought to design a new paradigm that takes them into account.

We don’t for a minute doubt Mayor Pugh’s sincere commitment to the city’s homeless. She’s been known to sketch her own design for a homeless shelter (that sounds a lot like the new one) on pieces of scratch paper. This fall, she put a dollar figure on what it would take to end homelessness in the city ($350 million) and committed herself to start raising money to make it a reality. In the depths of this winter’s cold snap, she personally toured the downtown tent city to encourage people to take shelter and to offer what help she could. We understand her concern that the people living in tents are at serious risk of physical harm or death in the current cold weather — they are — and we are certain that she has not made her decision lightly. Still, we hope she will reconsider. While her administration’s plan is more humane and better considered than the city’s previous encampment clearing, it nonetheless risks doing substantial harm along with whatever good it achieves.

Chronically homeless people often face a great many barriers to securing safe, stable housing, including physical and mental health problems, substance abuse, estrangement from family and community, criminal records that make getting a job difficult, and so on. They are often the victims of trauma, and the experience of homelessness itself is traumatic. Many have reasons for preferring life on the streets to that in a shelter. They may have experienced physical or emotional abuse there. They may have been separated from family. They may fear having their few possessions stolen. They, like the rest of us, may value their freedom and chafe at the restrictions that come with shelter life.

The city officials dealing with this situation know and understand all of that, yet they have come to the conclusion that they have no choice but to act. The instinct to step in when weather conditions make a homeless encampment manifestly dangerous is entirely understandable. It’s not just the cold that’s the issue but also the risk that people will use unsafe means to stay warm, whether that means a jerry-rigged heater or a fire. It’s not an easy thing as a mayor to let a tent city remain knowing that some of its residents may not survive the winter.

The problem is one of trust. People in homeless encampments typically get there only after many, many things go wrong in their lives and after they have been let down over and over again. Advocates say the only path to success in helping the chronically homeless is to meet them where they are, to slowly build relationships and to offer assistance as many times as necessary until they are ready to accept it. Distrust, often based on hard experience, can be the most difficult barrier to overcome, and Baltimore’s history of sometimes heartless encampment-clearing makes that problem worse. Even if the new shelter and new approach offer a genuinely better option than was available in the city before, it will take time for many of those now sleeping in tents to be willing to take the leap of faith that this time will really be different. Clearing the camp now may prompt some to try the new facility or to move into another shelter, but it will likely drive some farther from the point where they are ready to accept help. Some might be saved by this action, but how many others will be at greater risk next week, next month or next year?

If city officials feel they must clear the Guilford encampment, we ask that they at least push back the deadline for residents to move — currently Jan. 26 — until the new bridge housing facility has been in operation for enough time that those who are willing to give it a try can experience it and spread the word. There is no perfect answer here, but the more time city officials can take to demonstrate that their new approach is not just talk, the more successful it will be.

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