The city, as part of what it says will be regular cleanups, cleared the downtown homeless encampment located beneath the Jones Falls Expressway. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun)
Scott Hutchison packed his meager belongings — a tent, a sleeping bag, some clothes — and piled them into plastic bags bearing a yellow card with his name, waiting for city officials to take them away.
Hutchison, a former Marine who said he was laid off from his job as a mechanic, first sought shelter about two months ago under the Jones Falls Expressway at a site that was targeted Monday by the city for regular "cleanups."
"I knew it would happen eventually," said Hutchison, 27, after neatly packing his tent.
City spokeswoman Caron A. Brace said the cleanups are meant "to rid the area of unsanitary conditions" and provide an opportunity to connect residents with housing. She said the people displaced on Monday were being directed to emergency shelters where they would be provided a bed.
"This was not haphazard. It involved multiple agencies," Brace said. "For various reasons, it was decided there need to be cleanups at this particular site."
City officials said the area under the JFX will be cleaned regularly on Mondays and Thursdays between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Brace said officials would evaluate the program on an ongoing basis and perhaps expand it to other locations.
As city garbage trucks sat nearby to collect whatever was left, city workers gave the dozen residents bags to store items they wanted to save. They'll be able to retrieve their possessions from a city facility on Reedbird Avenue in Cherry Hill between 6 a.m. and 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Some homeless advocates criticized the clearing of the encampments, arguing it will only scatter some of the city's most vulnerable residents, some of whom suffer from mental illness and substance abuse.
"Everybody should live in a place that's clean. Nobody should be living in encampments. The problem is that there is not an adequate supply of housing for people who are very poor in the city," said Adam Schneider, chairman of the Maryland Alliance for the Poor.
Schneider, who is also the director of community relations at the nearby Healthcare for the Homeless, said the concern is the perception of those who are being forced to move.
"If they feel they are being harassed or moved along," he said, it makes it more difficult for outreach workers to gain their trust and help them into housing.
"This is an opportunity for us to reach out and offer support to Baltimore's homeless and to make our city cleaner and safer," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said in a statement Monday morning. "As we clean up, we will work diligently to ensure that those who are in need of shelter receive the support and attention they need to improve their lives."
City officials said they've previously provided housing for nine of 21 people counted in the area since June, when officials last cleared the encampment. The area regularly attracts a steady stream of residents.
"We cannot make anyone go into a shelter," Brace said. "Maybe they take us up the second or third time. … We want to put them on track where they can get temporary or long-term housing. If they are choosing to stay there, we want to make sure it is livable."
In 2008, city officials announced a 10-year plan to address homelessness, which included opening a new 24-hour emergency shelter and 500 housing vouchers set aside to house homeless individuals.
Homeless individuals also could compete in the lottery for a place on the city's wait list for Section 8 housing vouchers, which was opened recently for the first time since 2003. More than 58,000 residents signed up for a chance to be randomly selected for housing.
City officials have estimated there are 2,500 to 4,000 homeless people in Baltimore.
While some, like Hutchison, only had possessions they could carry, another group of residents located along the east side of Guilford Avenue, just south of Eager Street, had collected a small apartment's worth of furniture, including a bed complete with a dust ruffle, a bookshelf and a charcoal grill. A James Patterson novel and a terrarium containing a green vinyl plant lay atop a blue wooden coffee table beside a chain link fence.
Hutchison said he spends most days looking for work and hopes to find housing soon, after being out on the street for a year. His mother lives in the city, but he said he is reluctant to stay with her.
Breaking News Alerts Newsletter
As it happens
Get updates on the coronavirus pandemic and other news as it happens with our free breaking news email alerts.
He said he used to have a regular bed at the nearby shelter but was kicked out after workers there found his pocket knife in his belongings. He's eligible to return, he said, but he faces a lengthy waiting list.