A headline on Page 1A of yesterday's editions of The Sun said that homeless people were "booted" from a city street. While homeless persons interviewed by The Sun said they were forced to leave, the Downtown Partnership insisted in the article and again yesterday that its workers were merely clearing trash from the area. The headline should not have adopted one party's point of view.
Rowan Schuylar, who has lived on the streets of Baltimore for the past two months, awoke yesterday to a group of workers from the Downtown Partnership who demanded that she and other homeless people remove themselves and their belongings.
"They were yelling and screaming, 'Wake up!' Clapping and whistling," said Schuylar, 37, who is originally from Missouri and has joined others encamped along Guilford Avenue near downtown. "They said, 'Move your stuff or we'll throw it away.'"
By the time the encounter was over, workers from the Downtown Partnership had confiscated dozens of boxes that the homeless people used to sleep on, as well as empty food containers, from a grassy patch of land shaded by trees near the Jones Falls Expressway.
That sent advocates for the homeless and legal groups reeling, calling the action "troubling" and "inappropriate." And they demanded answers from the partnership, a nonprofit group supported by downtown property owners to clean and patrol a 106-square-block area of the city.
"I don't know under what authority the Downtown Partnership claims to be able to order people to move," said David Rocah, a staff attorney at the ACLU of Maryland. "The Downtown Partnership in the past has claimed to not be a government entity, so I'm interested under what authority they claim to be able to make people do anything.
"Someone needs to point out that we have a huge homeless problem in Baltimore," the attorney said, "and harassing them and throwing away their belongings is not the right way to deal with the problem."
The area along Guilford Avenue at Bath Street had become a new refuge for the homeless, who say they have been forced away from areas nearer City Hall, and it is close to the city's largest soup kitchen, Our Daily Bread, which recently relocated to Fallsway from Cathedral Street. But the area also is near several businesses and a city-owned parking lot under the JFX that is used by hundreds of workers.
Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership, defended his workers' actions, saying they were in response to downtown businesses and residents who complained about seeing homeless people relieving themselves and engaging in lewd behavior in public.
"It's been very public what we do to make sure the streets are clean and safe," Fowler said. "We don't take belongings away from anyone. We announce to people that we're about to come through and clean, and they should take their items with them.
"We go through downtown on a daily basis and ensure that people are not laying in public spaces," Fowler added. "We do ask people to sit up and we also talk to them about what services can work for them and try to get them into housing. ... We have a right if belongings are out in the street in a public environment, our obligation is to clean the street. I don't think you or I have a right to put our belongings out on the street in downtown."
He added, "We try to balance compassion for the homeless with our need to keep the streets clean and safe."
The number of homeless people in the downtown area has increased, city officials and advocates agree. Diane Glauber, president of Baltimore Homeless Services Inc., a unit within the Baltimore City Health Department, estimates that the city's homeless population is about 3,000.
Kevin Lindamood, a spokesman for Health Care for the Homeless Inc., noted recent closures of several city shelters, including the health department-mandated closure in December of the men's shelter I Can Inc. as a principal reason for the increase.
"When you couple those losses with the noted loss of affordable housing, the doubling of housing in the private market, the lack of federal housing resources for Baltimore, it is an equation for homelessness," Lindamood said. "It's not surprising to us. You're faced with the question then, if more people are on the street, what do you do with them? Sweeping people from one area to the next, it's just inappropriate and ineffective."
Lindamood said his group has worked closely with city officials to provide affordable housing for the homeless and is looking for space to operate a year-round shelter. Currently the city operates a shelter at a revolving site during the winter months.
One success story, Lindamood said, was the creation two years ago of a program called Housing First, which partnered Health Care for the Homeless with the city's homeless services to provide housing for 25 people who previously had slept outside the St. Vincent DePaul Church near City Hall. Lindamood said the program was recently awarded a federal grant that would allow it to serve an additional 100 homeless people.
Several homeless people said that yesterday's actions by the Downtown Partnership was nothing new. After hearing of the incident, Theo Sebekos-Williams, an outreach worker with Baltimore HealthCare Access Inc., visited the Guilford Avenue site.
He delivered four shirts to Sydney Knight, 51, who is homeless and worked recently on a bakery delivery truck in Ocean City and did manual labor at a school in Lutherville through a temporary agency.
Knight, who said he makes between $30 and $40 a day and uses the money to eat and buy cigarettes, said, "I'm scared to leave my stuff."
Knight said he had to dig his clothes and blankets out of a garbage bin more than a month ago after police ordered a group of homeless people to vacate a downtown park and workers from the partnership threw away items he had left there.
After yesterday's incident, Knight said he'll put his trash bag full of jackets and other clothes in the upper branches of a tree to avoid having them seized when he goes to work.
Linda Kennedy, a staff attorney at the Homeless Persons Representation Project, a nonprofit group in existence since 1987, said she was concerned that the rights of homeless people were being encroached upon.
"People have to sleep somewhere," Kennedy said. "If we're not going to deal with the housing crunch, we can't just round up people, especially a nongovernmental entity, and move them along. ... Now it appears that the Downtown Partnership is going to think they're their own police force."
Michael Evitts, a spokesman for the Downtown Partnership, said 23 of its workers who help tidy sidewalks and streets were once homeless and that all of its workers are trained in dealing with the homeless and referring them to programs and other services.
He said workers have tried to be sensitive to the homeless population, for example, skipping the midnight shift's power washing of areas where homeless people sleep.