Signs posted along a homeless encampment under the Jones Falls Expressway in Baltimore raised fears over the weekend that the area would be cleared out, but on Monday the mayor’s office said there are no plans to remove people from the area.
The closure of the encampment would have violated Centers for Disease Control protocol for reducing the spread of coronavirus among the homeless population, and created even more challenges for those living there as COVID-19 cases rise and temperatures plummet.
Advocates and Democratic City Councilman Ryan Dorsey said they first heard about the signs telling individuals to clear the encampment by Wednesday after The Baltimore Brew first reported about the issue last week.
Kevin Lindamood, president and CEO at Healthcare for the Homeless, said he and other advocates were “caught off guard” by the signage because usually organizations like his would be notified to help make sure resources are lined up for the displaced individuals.
“All of this could have been avoided with more communication,” Lindamood said. “This is not an effective way to deal with homelessness. It is cruel and inhumane.”
James Bentley, a spokesman for Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, said the “goal was to never raze the encampments” but instead encourage people to use the hotel rooms that city officials are offering to help curb the spread of COVID-19.
He also said there were concerns about the safety of the encampment as it grew from 23 to about 30 tents over the past week.
“You have women and children in this encampment," he said. ”MOHS [the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services] has developed a partnership with the Franciscan Center to provide meals, water and other resources to our neighbors living in the encampment. There are no plans to disrupt any of the city’s encampment at this time."
The Baltimore City Department of Transportation has used the area beneath Interstate 83 to park winter vehicles from November thru the beginning of spring for more than 10 years, according to department spokesman German Vigil.
So, a few weeks ago DOT submitted a request to the city as it does every year, Vigil said, and it was told that MOHS had a plan to move encampment residents. That’s why the department posted the signs signaling that all property needed to be removed from the area.
But Bentley said that in hindsight MOHS may have been “overzealous” about residents moving and said nearly all of them didn’t want to relocate when city outreach workers asked. The city then consulted public health officials, who urged them to let the residents stay to adhere to the CDC guidelines.
Vigil said the agency has since found a new place to keep the winter vehicles and that the signs will be removed Tuesday.
CDC guidance, released in March, advises cities against clearing homeless encampments during the pandemic unless individual housing units are available.
“Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers,” the CDC guidance reads. “This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.”
The guidance also tells officials to encourage individuals living in encampments to set up their tents so that every person has a 12-foot-by-12-foot square, and to create hand-washing stations.
The signs indicate that people on the property could be charged with trespassing, and although Bentley said nobody is “at risk” of being arrested, Carolyn P. Johnson, a managing attorney at Homeless Persons Representation Project, said it’s the wrong approach to deal with homelessness.
“These people have been living here for many months and not breaking any laws,” Johnson said. “Sleeping outside is not a crime, but now signs are hung that say it’s trespassing, which is a crime.”
Dorsey, who represents District 3, said he raised concerns about the encampment closure during a City Council lunch Monday and urged the mayor’s office to take action.
“There is no reasonable circumstance that it should have been on the table in the first place because it’s contradictory to CDC guidelines,” Dorsey said. “They put the signs up while they were trying to make up their minds about what to do. It makes no sense and is completely heartless."
The councilman said the latest discrepancy is one of the reasons he sponsored a bill to replace MOHS with an Office to End Homelessness that would create a new agency no longer under the mayor’s tutelage. The bill passed unanimously Monday night.
Monday morning, numerous people marched near City Hall to push officials to do more to connect homeless individuals with permanent housing.
As the pandemic continues to drag on and coronavirus records continue to be shattered almost every day, Mark Ogle said if he were forced to leave the encampment, he’s not sure where he would go.
“You come and make friends and you don’t know where they’re gonna go,” the 36-year-old encampment resident said. “Everybody that’s right here is all a big family.”
About five months ago Ogle pitched his tent in the area and said he is looking for work as a brick mason or a roofer. But he has struggled to do so because he lost his identification.
“That’s why we’re rallying down there at City Hall: to tell them to give us housing, so we can be out of here,” Ogle said, as encampment residents nearby warmed their hands above a grill filled with hot embers.
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Baltimore Sun reporter Christine Condon contributed to this article.