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Baltimore City

Homeless encampment to make way for farmers market after talks between advocates, Baltimore City

Charlie Johnson, 53, is one of the occupants of a tent encampment set up last Wednesday under the JFX. Johnson recently completed a rehab recovery program and found work, but discovered that his job offer disqualified him for remaining in the shelter program. The encampment led to a clash on Sunday when some Baltimore Farmer’s Market vendors discovered their rented spaces were taken over by the unhoused in tents.

People living in a homeless encampment at the site of Baltimore’s Farmers Market agreed to make room for Sunday’s event after talks Friday morning between the city and advocates.

“[B]oth parties agreed that the individuals who started setting up tents at the site this past Sunday would leave the site by (Saturday) afternoon with the intention of allowing adequate time to prepare for Sunday’s Farmers Market,” said Monica M. Lewis, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office.

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About two dozen homeless individuals, who have been camped under Interstate 83 overpass at Saratoga and North Gay streets, will move across the street to a vacant, private parking lot, according to advocate Christina Flowers, founder of Belvedere Real Care Providers Network.

“That’s what we are willing to do to show the unity within the whole process, because basically, this is the safest place operating outside shelter,” Flowers said Friday morning.

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A group of activists and homeless people protested the city’s plans to remove their encampment on Thursday afternoon when they erected barricades on Saratoga Street at North Gay Street and blocked traffic. They placed lawn chairs in the road next to a red tent with a sign reading: “Housing!! Nothing ELSE!!!”

Homeless activists blocked off a portion of Saratoga Street at the intersection of North Gay Street under I-83 Thursday afternoon after receiving a notice that their belongings would be removed Friday.

The protest was sparked by a notice posted Thursday that said the area was set to be cleared Friday.

Flowers said she and people at the encampment were making breakfast when officials from Baltimore City Department of Public Works and a trash truck showed up about 7 a.m. Friday.

“They came with the expectations like our city always does, [which is] it’s a homeless encampment, [there’s] trash, it’s dirty, it’s junky,” she said. “No. There’s no trash over here. Everything over here is someone’s living space.”

Flowers and a handful of people at the encampment negotiated with the city, she said. By Friday afternoon, Flowers was still at the encampment serving Dunkin’ to everyone.

“I do this every day because of my support system,” she said. “People who reach out are going [into] their own pockets and make sure we got water, food.”

Flowers was one of the organizers of Thursday’s protest. Flowers also helped organize a similarly visible protest in August, when demonstrators placed red tents across the lawn outside City Hall. She said activists had a bail fund and were prepared for arrests Friday.

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Flowers said she believes the city is obligated to help these folks.

Activists and encampment residents said they want permanent housing.

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“I ain’t talking about shelter,” said Ashford Davis, 37, a community activist who lives under the overpass. “I’m talking about housing.”

The tent encampment overlapped last weekend with the popular farmers market. Some vendors arrived early Sunday morning to find tents in the spots they rent to sell produce, prepared food and other goods.

Pierson Geyer, the general manager for Agriberry, a Virginia-based berry farm, said that when he got to the market at 6:20 a.m. there was a roped-off area with tents where he normally sets up his stall.

The morning was cold and wet, so “at first I thought it was an emergency response for a hurricane,” Geyer said.

The market’s manager found another spot for Agriberry, and the berry stall ended up having a “pretty good sales day, all things considered,” Geyer said.

The market was less busy than usual because of the rain, and some merchants didn’t show up, leaving enough open spots to shuffle the affected vendors around.

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Geyer said he felt compassion for the market’s homeless neighbors, but he hoped city officials could find a solution that would not interfere with vendor stalls.

The Baltimore Farmers’ Market is “a big deal market” for Agriberry, he said. The farm spends Thursdays through Saturdays harvesting fruit for the market, hiring additional staff Saturdays just to have enough berries to sell in Baltimore, which is a 2 1/2- to three-hour drive from the Hanover, Virginia, farm.

Barbara Hauck, a spokesperson for the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts, which organizes the Sunday market, referred questions about the encampment to Mayor Brandon Scott’s office and the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services.

Lewis, the mayor’s spokesperson, said Thursday that his office was aware of the tent encampment and that the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services had spoken with the group.

“They were not in communication with us prior to their demonstration, nor did we give them permission to be there as BOPA has worked to issue licenses for vendors to sell their items there,” Lewis wrote in an email.

She said coordinators of the encampment agreed Thursday to relocate and that her office was working to make sure the space was ready for market vendors to set up operations Sunday.

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“As we normally do, representatives from MOHS are working to connect some of those experiencing homelessness with housing and support staff to help them find more permanent housing,” Lewis wrote. “Shelter and storage accommodations have been offered to those in need.”

Homeless activists blocked off a portion of Saratoga Street at the intersection of North Gay Street under I-83 Thursday afternoon after receiving a notice that their belongings would be removed Friday.

Alonzo Coley, 33, said that he set up his green tent under the overpass after recent cold weather made sleeping in his truck impossible. Although Coley has been offered housing, he wants a permanent housing option that will allow him to stay with his 3-year-old son, who lives with his mom in Silver Spring.

Some living under the overpass said the location is ideal because it’s close to service providers, has access to electricity and is sheltered from the elements. They say the city’s temporary housing options are inadequate or unsafe.

Ayla Reeves, 19, has been staying under I-83 for two weeks. Reeves said she tried in staying in Baltimore shelters but found them dirty and said staff didn’t treat residents with dignity.

“The shelters are crazy. They don’t clean them properly, and they watched us,” she said.

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Reeves also expressed concern about bedbugs and living with drug users in shelters.

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Not all homelessness advocates agree with the protesters’ tactics, said Anthony Williams, vice chair of the Baltimore City Care Continuum Board.

“We don’t want homeless people put in harm’s way and it’s very important that their voices are heard first,” Williams said.

He grew up in Baltimore’s foster care system and has been homeless at multiple times in his life. He said the city’s shelter system needs work, but that the mayor’s office is moving in the right direction. It takes time to spend the federal money Baltimore has set aside for housing, including funds for purchasing hotels for emergency shelter, he said.

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