Two women died in a homeless encampment under I-83 in downtown Baltimore on Thursday and Friday, prompting city officials to pledge to get more people into shelters and housing.
A 68-year-old woman died on Thursday and a 55-year-old woman died on Friday in the encampment, said Tisha S. Edwards, acting director of the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services. Officials were still trying to reach relatives of the women, she said, and the causes of death have not been released.
Edwards said city staff repeatedly visits the encampment, and others in the city, to offer shelter and other services, but they can’t force people to accept them. “Everyone has agency over their life choices,” she said.
The coronavirus pandemic has made previous city efforts to clear the gathering spots impossible now, Edwards said.
“According to [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines, encampments should not be disrupted,” she said.
The guidelines say dispersing the residents can increase the potential for spreading disease. While the city has sought to clear the camps in the past, the CDC guidelines encourage those living there to sent up tents so they have separate spaces.
Edwards said the city has been offering flu shots, COVID tests, blankets, masks and other supplies to those living in encampments. There is currently adequate space in shelters, she said.
The city recently received $7 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for “rapid re-housing,” Edwards said, which gets homeless people into housing quickly and provides services to help keep them from returning to the streets.
Edwards said the pandemic has exacerbated the problem. “Homelessness is growing in the city because of the economic downturn,” she said.
The deaths come as advocates in Baltimore held a virtual gathering on Thursday to remember homeless people in the city who died in 2020. According to a tweet by Kevin Lindamood, the president and CEO of Health Care for the Homeless, that number was at least 155.
The gathering on Zoom was part of the 30th annual Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day, traditionally held on the winter solstice, the longest night of the year, in which advocates across the nation honor those who died.
Mayor Brandon M. Scott was among those who attended the Baltimore memorial, held on Zoom, and on Friday evening he expressed in a prepared statement his sadness and condolences to friends and families of the two women.
Scott said in the statement he was committed to making homelessness “rare and brief.”
“The Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services and our community partners will continue to provide daily outreach to those living on our streets,” he said, “with the goal of providing our neighbors with more stable housing options and the necessary support to ensure their health and overall well being.”