City to raze homeless encampment near JFX

Venus Wiles would rather sleep in a tent stuffed with blankets and all her worldly possessions on the side of the Jones Falls Expressway with her boyfriend, Michael Spence, than stay the night in an emergency shelter.

The encampment — a collection of tents on a sliver of land between the northbound roadway of the JFX and the Fallsway, where as many as 18 homeless men and women live with their cats and dogs — feels more like home.


Wiles and Spence say they don't know where they'll go Friday when the city plans to clear the site, which has been used by the homeless for the past five years. Signs posted along the muddy pathway into the encampment warn: "No sleeping, camping or storage of belongings is permitted in this area. Any property remaining in this area will be removed or discarded at 8:00 a.m. March 8, 2013."

It's the latest in a series of encampments the city has razed in recent years, including makeshift shelters at a park outside St. Vincent de Paul Church and under Interstate 83 between Madison and Read streets.


"I hear the mayor got embarrassed" by the encampment near one of the main arteries into the city, said Wiles, 42, a slim woman with strawberry blond hair under a black knit hat and "Lovely" tattooed below her right ear.

"You're going to have more people laying downtown on the sidewalk, or on the curbs or on the steps," she warned. "Hopefully, we can find affordable housing. It's really hard to find a job when you're homeless and really hard to find a home when you're jobless. I want what I used to have, a normal life."

The city has been carrying out a 10-year plan aimed at ending homelessness, a mantle taken up by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. City officials decided to clear the JFX encampment because of concerns the environment was unsafe with open fires, drug and alcohol use, and domestic violence between some couples, according to Olivia D. Farrow, director of the Mayor's Office of Human Services.

Farrow said outreach workers made more than 100 visits in the past year to the site. They've attempted to gain the trust of the revolving group of individuals who live there and connect them to long-term housing and resources.

"We really need to eliminate the safety hazards for the people living there," Farrow said. "We have alternative solutions for all of these folks."

Spence, who has lived at the encampment on and off for years, said he doesn't understand the city's timing or reasoning.

"We haven't caused any trouble," said Spence, 47. "There is nothing wrong with us being here. They're not using the land. They have housing and buildings that are empty that they could let us sit in. ... We don't have time to go find nothing. They're kicking us out too fast."

On Monday, Baltimore City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke plans to introduce a bill that would either extend the camp's eviction date by three months or place the inhabitants into temporary transitional housing. The city has been working to get permanent housing vouchers for all the people who live at the camp, Clarke said, but the process is incomplete and could be thrown off track if the city goes ahead with the planned eviction Friday and the residents are scattered.


"We can't let an artificial deadline stop what has been a successful transition for some for the most desperately homeless people in the city," Clarke said.

An advocacy group called Housing Our Neighbors has planned a rally in support of Clarke's resolution in front of city hall on Monday afternoon.

The city has moved the eviction date back once to accommodate the request of those at the camp. The eviction was scheduled for late February but pushed until Friday so the encampment residents could collect any income they were set to receive on the first of the month, primarily disability benefits.

Farrow said the city's plan is measured and thought out. In addition to putting the homeless men and women on a path for a housing voucher, the outreach workers connect them to immediate housing at one of about a dozen emergency shelters in the city, seven health care centers and clinics, six soup kitchens and 14 resource centers.

While emergency housing in the city's shelters is available to all of the men and women, advocates such as Antonia K. Fasanelli, director of the Homeless Persons Representation Project in Baltimore, say the city should be prepared to put every displaced homeless person in a house or hotel room when the encampment is cleared.

"Whenever a government agency attempts to destroy a living environment for someone who is homeless, it raises a number of concerns, but not the least of which is that even though someone might be sleeping outside and might be in the most minimal living structures, they have as many constitutional rights as the rest of us," Fasanelli said.


"It is critically important that the government recognize that."

Fasanelli said the city has made vague commitments about its intent to transition the homeless living in the encampment to permanent housing, but that's not good enough. Her organization also provides outreach to the individuals at the encampment as well as legal services.

"Our fear is that the city will move them into congregate emergency shelters, which is absurd at many levels," Fasanelli said. "Many of the homeless in the city left the congregate shelter to sleep outside. … Taking away what little housing structure someone has in favor of less housing like an emergency shelter is an abomination."

Wiles said she refuses to sleep in an emergency shelter because she was "sexually harassed" at such places in the past and opposite-sex couples are separated, so she couldn't stay with her boyfriend. Others find the shelters noisy or the group environment unsettling, or don't want to conform to the rules.

Fasanelli said the city should follow the "housing first" strategy adopted in its 10-year plan to end homelessness, the Journey Home, now at the halfway mark. The plan: Put a roof over a person's head and then work to stabilize their lives.

Providing hotel rooms in the past didn't work as intended, said Gabby Knighton, outreach coordinator for the city's homeless services program. The individuals living in the encampment bring to the hotel whatever trouble they're experiencing, including violence, she said.


In addition, she said, money spent on hotel stays takes away from cash the city has to transition people to individual housing. And providing the rooms to those in the encampments isn't fair to the other 4,000 men, women and children who are homeless in Baltimore every night, Knighton said.

Police trained to work with such populations will be on site when the encampment is cleared to de-escalate any tensions that might arise. If the residents of the encampment don't remove their personal belongings, they will be able to contact their case managers to retrieve the items.

On a recent day at the encampment, Kevin Gipson, 43, swiped a few pieces of fruit from a bag outside the tent that Gipson loaned a friend when he found a room in an assisted living facility.

Out of the tent poured a pit bull, two men and a woman who clasped hands with Gipson to say hello. Gipson said he missed the camaraderie at the encampment.

"You might live in the dirt … but at least you have peace," Gipson said.

He shook his head at the city's decision to tear it down.


"That's a raw deal," Gipson said. "I don't understand that. We ain't never had no trouble."

Baltimore Sun reporter Carrie Wells contributed to this article.