Mayor Catherine Pugh and top administration officials toured the growing homeless encampment under the Jones Falls Expressway in Mount Vernon Wednesday as temperatures in the city turned frigid.
“With this freezing weather, we’ve got to move folks,” Pugh said. “We don’t want people dying in the streets. We just can’t have it.”
Walking between the tents, talking to people living there and surveying the area for trash, Pugh and her deputies said they were trying to come up with individual plans to the get the roughly 20 people sleeping overnight in the encampment near Bath Street into shelters and supportive housing.
Pugh and Terry Hickey, who runs the Mayor’s Office of Human Services, said outreach workers have been visiting the encampment daily in recent weeks to help move people into shelters and get them enrolled in rapid re-housing and permanent supportive housing programs.
Their work took an increased urgency this week as temperatures dropped below freezing. An area of high pressure sweeping down from the Arctic is expected to dominate the region’s weather over the next week. A chance for snow showers late Friday or early Saturday is the only expected interruption to otherwise clear and cold weather.
Early morning lows are forecast in the mid- to upper teens from Thursday through at least Tuesday, as much as 10 degrees below normal for this time of year. With wind chills, it’s forecast to feel as cold as the single digits.
Afternoon highs could remain below freezing across that same stretch, potentially one of Baltimore’s longest periods of sub-freezing temperatures in years. Temperatures were 32 degrees or colder for five straight days in February 2016 and January 2014, and for six days in February 2015.
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The city extended the Code Blue warning through Tuesday. The designation triggers multiple city agencies to work together to reduce the risk of cold-weather deaths by providing emergency assistance, outreach and home weatherization to vulnerable people.
All people are encouraged to stay indoors in heated areas. Low body temperature, or hypothermia, kills Baltimoreans every year. Last winter, 11 people died from hypothermia in the city. One person has died so far this season.
Hickey said the encampment will not be cleared until outreach workers have conducted needs assessments on every person and identified a definitive, safe place for each. Department of Public Works crews are expected to clean up the trash to keep the area as sanitary as possible.
“It’s getting dangerous out here,” Hickey said. “We’re going to come out and talk to everybody here, make sure they’re on board with what we’re doing and at some point, yeah, we’re going to have to move people inside.”
Hickey said the city’s winter shelters have “hundreds of extra beds” every night. Outreach workers take sweeps at nighttime around Health Care for the Homeless and other places where people sleep outdoors to encourage them to come in from the cold.
A 52-year-old woman who would identify herself only as Susan said she has been sleeping in a tent at the encampment for more than two months. Bundled up in several scarves and a black jacket with a fur-lined hood, she said she has signed up for a shelter bed, but was told there is a wait for the one she wants to go to.
She said her housing became unstable about five years ago following a divorce.
She said she thought the mayor was visiting for publicity. Pugh’s office did not tell The Baltimore Sun that she would be touring the encampment. The area is behind The Sun’s Calvert Street offices.
Her advice for the mayor: “Do something that’s going to last so we don’t end up back here next winter. It is a revolving door. As soon as it gets warm out, the help stops.”
Pugh spoke with 55-year-old Timothy Pindell on his walk from Our Daily Bread Employment Center, where he received a free meal, to the library, where he planned to use the computer to look for work. He said he sleeps at a friend’s house and said he is desperate for work.
The mayor’s team took Pindell’s phone number and offered to help. He said he could use the assistance: A criminal record holds him back from getting a job.
“It was nice that the mayor did that,” he said. “I put in applications, I go on interviews and it’s all, ‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you.’