City officials are pushing once again to remove a homeless encampment outside a downtown Baltimore church, but the pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church says he'll go to jail if necessary to stop them.
The latest salvos in the long-running dispute come just weeks after the city and church announced they had come to an agreement that would allow social workers to enter the leafy park at the end of the Jones Falls Expressway to help connect the settlement's residents with government services and housing.
But city officials say the conditions in the camp are deplorable and need to be rectified. A recent survey of homeless people living there found that most - more than 80 percent - are likely to die within the next seven years from existing illnesses and poor living conditions.
The nonprofit that helped with the survey said the results were worse than any other homeless cluster it had surveyed, including camps in Los Angeles and New York City.
"My impression is that it is an especially vulnerable group of people who are attracted to that area," said Becky Kanis, who works for Common Ground, a New York-based nonprofit that helped city officials interview park residents last month.
Kanis said that 17 of the 21 people interviewed had at least one risk factor for increased mortality, including cirrhosis of the liver, end-stage renal disease and more than three emergency room visits in the past three months.
The St. Vincent parish has supported the homeless for years. Parish members refer to the park, which is church property, as a sanctuary. So far, the church isn't budging from that position, and its religious leader has said that even if the city declares the situation at the park a public health emergency - which would give officials the legal muscle to remove homeless people from the property - he will not go down without a fight.
"This is a church, and as pastor of this church I can't tell somebody that I am going to have them locked up if they sleep on my bench," said the Rev. Richard Lawrence.
"The first time someone is arrested for sleeping on a bench, I will be the second person arrested because I will go out and sleep on a bench myself."
City officials deny that they are preparing to use legal means to oust the homeless from the park. Even before the survey, they tried to convince the church that it would be a good idea to close the park.
Late last month, armed with the survey results, they asked again, stressing that if the park closed, its homeless residents might seek housing at shelters that offer medical services, job training and permanent housing.
Yesterday, officials said they are disappointed that church members - who have discussed the city's proposal at length and are expected to deliver their official position tomorrow - don't agree with their assessment.
"We have differences of opinion in this matter," said Diane Glauber, who heads the city's Homeless Services division.
Still, she stressed that all progress toward resolving the situation is not lost. The city and church are still working together under a memorandum of understanding negotiated several months ago, she said.
Under the agreement, St. Vincent de Paul members agreed to allow outreach workers into the park to try to convince homeless residents to seek housing in a shelter or a transitional housing apartment. The city also agreed at the time not to pressure the church to close down the park.
City officials changed their position about keeping the park open after they learned the results of the survey, which required park residents to answer questions about topics such as drug and alcohol use and mental illness. Park residents were also asked to mark where they sleep on a small map of the rectangular park.
The survey is similar to one created by a doctor who works with homeless populations in Boston. Common Ground recently used the same survey to interview people on Skid Row in Los Angeles, an industrial area that officials there are also trying to clear in an effort to attract new development.
Survey results from Skid Row showed that 42 percent of residents were vulnerable, a much smaller fraction than in Baltimore.
Baltimore's homeless population is spread throughout the city, but those at the park seem to be some of the neediest, Kanis said. Advocates say that's one of the reasons so many have made the park their permanent home - they feel safe there and receive regular food and clothing donations from passing motorists.
"If we give them the option, they won't go," Glauber said of the park residents, who live across the street from Police Department headquarters and a few blocks from City Hall. "They want to stay at the park."
Glauber said she is also worried that as current park residents move into apartments under the city's "housing first" program, others will arrive in hopes of finding similar accommodations. She said the number of apartments that the city has to offer at this time is limited.
"The park is not designed to accommodate many people," Glauber said. "I wish there were more [apartments available]. We are focusing our efforts on the most vulnerable right now."
Lawrence, the pastor at St. Vincent's, said he and his flock will work harder to organize food and clothing drop-offs at the park, which are so frequent that some food sits for days and attracts rats and insects. He also said that he has encouraged police to come into the park to arrest homeless people who are selling drugs or engaging in prostitution.
The pastor said church members don't want to be enablers, but as Christians they also can't turn their backs on those in need.
"I don't think living in the park causes cancer, but closing the park doesn't cure it either," he said.
"There is always a fine line edge between compassion and enabling, and you are always trying to walk that edge. Sometimes we lean one way and sometimes the other. The city has a bias; they want everything neat and pretty for the tourists and so they lean a different way. It doesn't mean we are evil people. We just have different temptations."