Crossing the train tracks under the highway near the Schuster Concrete building, Jim Petway looks hale and hearty on this sunny Friday morning. He looks pretty good for a guy who is being evicted from a tent.
"They came down here last week and gave me 'til the 17th to vacate," he says on Nov. 5.
"They" are Kevin Plank's people. Petway has camped on their land for five years, since long before Plank's $2 billion Port Covington development became a news item. The ground leading to Petway's camp—two small tents arranged under a tarp with more tarps as windbreaks—is soft and flat and covered in straw. New green shoots of fescue grass and weeds emerge from the newly cleared ground, which stretches a quarter mile between the road and the fence line hemming the Sun's printing plant.
"They cut all the woods down," he says. "I think they want to put a bike path in there."
Petway says he woke up to the sound of wood chippers and chainsaws and earth movers one morning a couple of weeks ago. The crew took most of a week to munch up all the underbrush and stopped at the edge of his little compound, even leaving a good sized tree he had tied some of his tarps to, until Petway could sink a 6-by-6 to replace it. He came back to his home one night and the tree was gone, but the workers had roped the tarps to the six-by, he says. Nice.
Still, without all the trees and bushes to block it, he says, "the wind really beats me up back here now." The tarps are torn. He spent $80 at Harbor Freight last week on new ones, secured with bungee cords so the first strong wind won't rip the grommets out of them. "They work OK for what I need them for," he says.
Most of the other homeless who had camped in these (former) woods have moved out: the addicts who came in after Victory House closed down, the other long-timers. Tony and Pat got a place through the VA, Petway says. "Shannon is still around. The day they started doing the cleanup along the fence down there, he hauled-butt." But he's camped nearby.
Petway is one of the last ones left. A hard case. "Bon Secours works with me," he says, pronouncing it "bon-secures." "But no one is offering what I need, which is affordable housing."
Jim Petway is a union carpenter. He makes $26 an hour, when he works. But he says his income is too unsteady for him to commit to more than $400 a month for rent. He wants his own place for that amount. Those are his terms. That is his final offer. The negotiation is at an impasse, because reality will not conform to what Petway thinks it ought to be.
It is unclear what happens next. Sagamore Development has dispatched executives—including co-founder and President Marc Weller—to work with Petway, though they won't to go into detail.
"Below is a statement attributed to Tom Geddes, CEO of Plank Industries," Mitchell Schmale, a public relations person employed by Plank, wrote in an email:
"Homelessness is a national issue that impacts our city in a significant way. We strongly support the citywide effort to make homelessness in Baltimore rare and brief, and we were proud to partner on the recent Journey Home event to bring resources and attention to the effort. For over a year we have enlisted the help of Bon Secours to provide the best possible support for those who are homeless in Port Covington, keeping them safe from ongoing work on the site and providing them with an array of services ranging from finding more permanent housing options to the very basic needs of food, clothing and transportation. Bon Secours has our full support as they take on this very important work."
Schmale suggested Valeri Hampton at Bon Secours would have more information, but the hospital's Community Institute of Behavioral Services responded to City Paper with a boilerplate paragraph saying it is working diligently to "provide all identified homeless individuals in the Port Covington encampment with outreach supportive services. The homeless issue is one that we are dealing with throughout Baltimore and now, with development in Port Covington underway, we have an opportunity to assist the many in need in that part of the city as well. We have identified a number of homeless individuals and have offered each of them assistance with housing resources that they may be eligible for including shelters, permanent housing options, income-based housing and other housing resources as appropriate. In addition, each of these people have been offered assistance in the areas of case management, mental health, substance use, general medical care and help with their most basic needs including food, clothing and transportation. The Bon Secours team will continue engagement efforts in providing assistance to the homeless individuals in Port Covington, and we thank Sagamore Development for their support in our efforts to fulfill our mission of being Good Help to those in need."
Repeated efforts to confirm Petway's story with Weller yielded only a two-sentence email: "Jim is a great guy and we are hoping to help him along for years. Hopefully we can help make his life safer, healthier and secure in the future."
No one would confirm that they put Petway in charge of looking out for illegal dumpers near his camp. No one would confirm the Nov. 17 deadline, or say what will happen if Petway remains after that.
"He's a nice guy," Petway says, of Weller. "He got a trophy elk last year and shared some of the meat with me."
He flips through his phone. There's a picture of an elk, and a picture of sausage. "It was about Monday they put the 'No Trespassing' signs up," he says.
Petway wants to believe that the land he occupies might not belong to Sagamore. "Between CSX, the Highway Administration, I'm not sure they have the authority to ask me to leave," he says. "I went to a lot of the meetings [at City Hall]. They got their $660 million. They said there was some land that they didn't have access to." He is trying to find a lawyer to press his rights.
There's a guy living in the scale house, a small block structure on the back of the Schuster building next to the railroad tracks. The train scale is right in front of it, and Petway says the balance is inside—like a triple beam, where you put weights on it to weigh the trains. There's also a round pit in the floor with a steel ladder leading underground (presumably to service what must be a massive iron scale works). The building is boarded, windowless, but six feet up the back wall is a two-foot square hole with a 55-gallon drum underneath to give the acrobatic sort a boost through, up, over, and in.
Aaron Fisher is the current resident, since about three months ago. He's a white guy missing half his left ear. He has some scarring round his shoulders and neck, too, from a burn endured as a roofer, he says.
"Before I lived here I lived under the bridge with Terry," he says. He has a sister in Dundalk he stays with sometimes. He is 44 years old.
Fisher says Bon Secours is trying to find him a place. He sounds hopeful.
Petway says he hasn't had time to get a new place. He says he went to the Middle Branch Apartments, and they asked him for pay stubs. The ones he brought were big, so they told him he earned enough to pay for the unit without subsidy. Rents there start at $729. Petway explained that his income is choppy. They asked him to pony up $30 for a credit and background check, like any other potential tenant. Petway balked. "I don't want to pay $30 to lose," the man who just spent nearly three times that on tarps says.
Petway is not always here. His son sometimes persuades him to stay with him. Petway also stayed with a friend in Harford County during the blizzard last year.
He shows photos of the campsite after the storm, which flattened it. The overtarp got weighed down (despite a goods slope), and the tree branch it was on broke, crushing the tents below and snapping the shockpoles. He saved the broken branches as a souvenir.
Took him four or five days to rebuild, Petway says. He got some 5/8 PVC pipe to repair the tent poles. They work well.
He's got a steel fire pit, some good split wood (he uses two axes and a small sledge to split it). "I don't work too hard at it," he says, demonstrating.
"Living like I do now, I guess it's stressful. But I don't look at it as stress. I look at is as challenge."
Petway is pretty proud of what he's been able to build here on the cheap, with little help. He's got a solar phone charger, solar shower, warm bag. "I love it out there, they just won't leave me alone," he says. "I tried to get them to implement me into the development; they said 'We can't have homeless people in there.' I said, well, I could snazz it up a little."
The city's "Code Blue" homeless initiative, in which outreach workers fan out on cold days to try to bring people into shelters, started Nov. 15. Two days later, Jim Petway was assembling huge steel displays in the Baltimore Convention Center, setting up for American Towman Exposition, "celebrating 100 years of towing."
His campsite was still there after noon. Petway knew he would be working late, though, and could not be sure it would be there when he got back. "I got most of the stuff I want to save out of there," he says, waiting in the shadow of an enormous truck for his boss to bring a bigger wrench. "Most of it I'm not gonna worry about."