'I got hope today': Program moves former Baltimore homeless-camp residents into permanent housing

Kat Avery says her life — months of sobriety, a job offer and the promise of a home — is unrecognizable from her days living in a tent under the Jones Falls Expressway.

The 51-year-old woman moved in January to a special dormitory-style shelter in East Baltimore for chronically homeless men and women after city crews kicked her and a couple of dozen others out from a sprawling encampment along Guilford Avenue near Bath Street. She knows each day she’s guaranteed a shower and enough to eat. She is saving for a truck and getting help to confront a handful of legal problems that she said once made her too scared to change her lifestyle.

“I’ve been living a fairytale,” said Avery, who spent 15 years on the streets. “My life has totally changed. I never thought I would go back to work. I got hope today. I got confidence today. I can hold my head up high today.”

She is among 30 people in a $1.5 million housing program the city launched with the nonprofit Volunteers for America Chesapeake after Mayor Catherine E. Pugh ordered the tent city cleared over health and safety concerns, such as dangerous behavior and the risk of hypothermia in the extreme cold. The goal is to connect each of the participants to permanent housing by early 2019.

In the five months since the doors opened, nine people have moved into their own homes, as of this week. Eight have dropped out of the program. Other encampments have popped up across the city, including some near where the Guilford Avenue one was.

Terry Hickey, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Human Services, said the program has gone “exceedingly well,” especially considering the extreme challenges the participants are facing, including substance abuse and mental illness.

“These folks had been on the street for years,” Hickey said, adding that part of the ability to find permanent housing is keeping them in a stable environment long enough to gather birth certificates and other key documents, verify their employment or disability income and connect them to resources already available.

“The documentation process is pretty exhaustive. Imagine what it is like to refinance your house. Imagine that level of complexity when you’re living under an overpass or in a tent. Your stuff is getting stolen, or it’s getting wet.”

The program is designed to cater to homeless people who may have rejected other efforts to help them. Potential barriers are removed — participants can generally come and go as they please, and they do not need to pass sobriety screening, although drugs and alcohol are not allowed in the dormitory. Besides meals, the program provides case management, shuttle buses to work and appointments and money for initial rent payments and security deposits. Everyone gets a personal locker and a bed that is clustered in pods and separated by men and women.

Most of the participants are from the Guilford Avenue encampment, but officials could not provide an exact breakdown because residency in the tent city was fluid. As the site was being cleared in January, outreach workers made immediate accommodations for those who wanted to go to the housing program. To fill the remaining open slots, the city invited other homeless men and women into the program. Invitations were based on assessments that looked at the mental health, medical conditions and substance abuse issues they faced. The most vulnerable were selected. As space becomes available, more people are being admitted to the program.

Still, many of the city’s homeless advocates vehemently disagreed with the decision to destroy the encampment, saying such an action would only cause those living there to be more distrustful of the systems trying to help them. The solution, they maintain, is pouring money into more permanent affordable housing. Thousands of people lack stable housing in Baltimore, including an estimated 600 who are believed to be sleeping on the streets and in abandoned houses each night.

Antonia K. Fasanelli, director of the Homeless Persons Representation Project, said the new program is only going to confront the same limitation as all the others operating in the city: a lack of safe, supportive homes.

“What the city needs to do is take really serious steps forward in production and creation of affordable housing,” she said.

The Homeless Persons Representation Project is tracking some of the homeless men and women who were displaced when the encampment was torn down, said Karen Wabeke, one of the nonprofit’s staff attorneys. A husband and wife had arranged to go to the new program, but never went because they did not want to be separated, Wabeke said.

Wabeke said the attorneys are trying to force the city to prioritize housing for that couple under guidelines that give emergency preference to people displaced by a public action, such as eminent domain. An appeal has been filed in Baltimore Circuit Court to challenge an administrative decision to deny the couple.

Wabeke said the man and woman are less stable now than when they were living in tents. They have lost the community they had with the other homeless people at the encampment and have had no consistent place to stay, moving frequently since January. The disruption also could affect their standing with other programs that provide permanent housing, she said.

Gregory Isaac, 36, was living at the encampment for 10 months. When it was razed, he chose to move with his fiancee into the new program. At first, he called the place a “blessing,” as it provided food, showers and a laundry room. But a few months into the program, he said the transportation being provided was not reliable and he did not feel his belongings were secure.

He was still awaiting permanent housing and did not know how much longer he would be waiting. Program officials said this week Isaac and his fiancee are expected to move into an apartment next week.

“It’s got its ups and downs,” Isaac said.

Avery, who was living at the encampment with Isaac and others, said the day the encampment was being torn down, she went to a support group meeting. Five months sober at the time, she said she had to work hard to resist the urge to get high. She had been living at the encampment for eight months, afraid to seek shelter in any other programs because she had warrants out for her arrest. The new program promised help with her legal issues and to provide comfort from the cold weather. She said one of her friends froze to death in one of the tents; another overdosed and died.

“The mayor came in and scooped us off the street and brought us out here,” Avery said. “She put here and said, ‘Use the resources.’ She gave us some help. She gave us some hope — a little bit of hope. A lot of things we don’t want to do, but we got to.

“She gave me one more chance and I am taking it and I am running with it and I am not looking back.”

Raynel Hines, director of the Monument Street program, said housing navigators and case managers are looking for a spot for Avery in a permanent supportive housing program that has enough resources to help in her recovery from addiction. For others who don’t have specialized needs, Hines said, the program works with independent landlords to find homes they can afford based on individualized budgets, provides furniture and stocks the house with food. In both scenarios, he said, the program continues to provide case management after the participants are housed.

On a recent day, Rochelle Prevost sat in her new rental home near Druid Hill Park that she shares with roommates. A native of Louisiana, Prevost said life has been unstable since she lost her home and everything she owned in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. She has bounced around from coast to coast, and was living in a tent at the Guilford Avenue encampment when the city cleared it. She spent five months in the housing program before finding a permanent home — a goal she said that seemed impossibly far out of reach while she was living on the street.

“It takes the life out of you and the will to live out of you,” Prevost said.

From the loveseat in her living room, her sketchbook resting on the coffee table, she said she felt back among the living.

ywenger@baltsun.com

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