After weeks of frigid temperatures, city officials are planning to clear the sprawling homeless encampment that has spread under the Interstate 83 overpass downtown.
Officials say they have offered the people in the tent city beds in a new shelter program designed to cater to people who are resistant to help.
Terry Hickey, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Human Services, said the city will provide beds for up to 40 homeless men and women in a dormitory in East Baltimore where they can receive three meals a day, access to case managers and transportation to jobs and other services.
Like similar initiatives in other cities with large homeless populations, Hickey said, Baltimore’s new $1.5 million program is intended to eliminate barriers, such as mandatory drug screenings, that keep some people sleeping on the street.
The facility opened Tuesday, allowing about a week and a half for the people at the encampment — which stretches from Guilford Avenue and Bath Street to the shuttered Hollywood Diner near City Hall — to accept the offer or make other arrangements.
Advocates for the homeless say forcing vulnerable people to leave the encampment will be traumatizing and drive them further away from the systems working to help them. They warn that destroying encampments and temporarily sheltering those who have been living there have done more harm than good.
Fallon Fisher says the prospect of moving into the new housing sounds as promising as it does worrying. She says she has been living at the encampment with her husband for two or three months.
Fisher keeps a dozen blankets stuffed inside her tent to try to keep warm. She says the residents have built a strong community — they watch out for one another and work to keep the area clean.
“I don’t know how I would feel moving into one of those places,” Fisher said. “I have been out here most of my life, on the streets. I am used to it. This is my home.”
Fisher is not sure what she will do when the encampment is cleared.
Hickey said officials decided to clear the encampment in response to “escalating health and safety concerns,” including the risk of deaths in the frigid weather. Nine people have died in the city this winter of hypothermia. City health officials have not said whether any of those deaths occurred at the encampment.
Hickey also cited other troubling conditions at the encampment, including sanitation problems and open flames inside tents.
“This isn’t a tenable situation that we want people living in,” Hickey said. “The administration’s stance has been, we can't ask people to move until we have stable, solid living conditions coupled with a plan for permanent housing.”
Jeff Singer, a longtime advocate for the homeless, called the decision to clear the encampment “insensitive and ineffective.” He noted that a work group convened by Mayor Catherine Pugh has advised against destroying encampments.
The group said that “improperly engaging individuals and failing to support them in moving toward permanent housing is likely to result in the encampment returning or moving to a new location.”
Singer said the program waiting to accept the encampment’s residents sounds great, but only if leaving the community they built is voluntary.
“When you destroy encampments, all you’re doing is making their lives worse and making finding them harder,” Singer said. “Should they go to shelter? They should, but many people won’t.
“Aside from the humanity of it, it’s poor public policy.”
Hickey said the mayor’s work group echoed the position of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, which advises that closing encampments and dispersing the people rarely leads to positive outcomes. But Hickey said the council also acknowledges that clearing them under some circumstances, coupled with specific supports, can be a viable alternative.
In Baltimore’s case, he said, officials believe the risks compel the city to act.
Hickey said the program, launching in partnership with Volunteers of America Chesapeake, will provide communal living for up to a year in the 4900 block of East Monument Street with showers, bathroom, laundry and dining facilities. He said case managers will be available to help people find permanent housing, provide rental assistance and address factors that contributed to their homelessness.
The contract to operate the program is still being finalized.
The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty has reported that homeless encampments appear to be increasing.
In a report entitled “Tent City, USA,” the organization describes different efforts to clear such communities. Police in Denver took away blankets from people overnight, spurring an outcry. Workers in Santa Cruz, Calif., put up loudspeakers to emit high-pitched noises at night to drive homeless people away.
An estimated 600 people sleep on Baltimore streets on a typical night. On extremely cold winter days, more than 1,000 shelter beds are available. The city and nonprofits send crews of outreach workers to forge relationships with the homeless, encourage them to sign up for aid and talk to them about services available.
Hickey said the city considers the design of its new program, called a bridge or safe haven program, a best practice with demonstrated success elsewhere in the country.
Russ Snyder, president Volunteers of America Chesapeake, said the nonprofit operates has space available in its large Monument Street facility to run a program for Baltimore. Half of the building is used to house ex-offenders as part of a re-entry program, to be operated separately from the homeless housing program, he said.
The organization and city are working together to draft final rules and regulations for the residents. Snyder said the goal is to keep entry as permissive as possible while also maintaining a safe and productive environment. The facility will be operated 24 hours a day, but residents may be restricted from being there during certain hours.
A handful of people at the encampment said they were interested in moving into the Volunteers of America program.
Two brothers, who would only identify themselves by their first names Chance, 33, and John, 38, said they both said they struggle with addiction and mental health challenges. Shortly after Chance left prison after a long sentence, he said, his mother died, leading to his homelessness. He has been sleeping for weeks in a tent near the Hollywood Diner, saying he is desperate for a program that will accept him.
John is in a short-term housing program that requires sobriety, but he said he is scared he could be kicked out with one “mistake.”
“I’m not out here right this second, but I know at any time I could be,” John said. He said the city’s new program sounds like a “good opportunity.
“I am struggling to stay clean, so whether I go to a recovery house, a halfway house, an in-patient program after this, it remains to be seen how good I am doing. I still have a lot of issues. I am not the best at following the rules. I walk on pins and needles. I try to do the right thing, because I don’t want to be out here in the cold, but sometimes my bad decisions get the best of me.”
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Baltimore Sun reporter Christina Tkacik contributed to this article.