Cleanup crews waited in the distance Friday as outreach workers tried to persuade homeless men and women to leave a sprawling Baltimore encampment before city officials tore down their tents and filled a garbage truck with discarded belongings.
The encampment had grown over recent months under the Interstate 83 overpass along Guilford Avenue near Bath Street to the shuttered Hollywood Diner.
By order of Mayor Catherine Pugh, the squatters and their possessions were cleared over the course of about six hours, with as many as 25 people moving into a new $1.5 million temporary housing program, others deciding to stay in downtown emergency shelters and several walking away from the site with no plans for where they would spend the night.
A protest briefly erupted, blocking traffic on Guilford Avenue after the morning commute before 20 demonstrators marched to City Hall.
Kelvin Morris helped lead the demonstration, dragging tents, blankets, food and trash into the street. The 29-year-old artist said he moved to Baltimore from Jamaica to attend college about five years ago but ended up homeless. He refused to go to the new Volunteers of America Chesapeake housing program, which shares a building in the 4900 block of E. Monument Street with a federal re-entry program.
“This is all we got. Y’all taking it from us,” Morris said.
Linda Mull, 54, watched the protesters from a folding chair on the sidewalk, wearing a long dress coat with her hair styled under a winter hat. She was waiting for a shuttle to take her to the housing program after packing up her clothes, medicine and other belongings from the five tents she and her husband accumulated over six months at the encampment. She said she was not hopeful that the stay in the housing program would change her life, but she had toured the facility and was looking forward to three meals a day, a bed and access to the showers.
“It’s better than being out here, a lot better,” Mull said.
The Pugh administration announced two weeks ago that officials would clear the encampment over health and safety concerns, citing unclean conditions, dangerous behavior and the risk of deadly hypothermia in the frigid weather. The city periodically clears encampments, but Friday’s effort represents the largest such action under Pugh. In August, city officials bused 55 homeless people to a temporary shelter after they spent more than a week in 30 red tents outside the mayor’s office. About a year ago, a smaller encampment along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in West Baltimore was disbanded with a handful of people being offered accommodations.
An estimated 600 people sleep on Baltimore streets on a typical night, and thousands lack stable housing. On the coldest of winter days, more than 1,000 shelter beds are available. Outreach workers from the city and various nonprofits forge relationships with the homeless, talk to them about services they can receive and encourage them to sign up for possible housing.
Terry Hickey, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Human Services, said city outreach workers had spent weeks encouraging residents to accept shelter before Friday’s clearing. Crews discreetly helped those interested in moving pack their stuff into shuttle buses or cart it to nearby storage lockers. The program has room for up to 40 people for as long as a year.
“When things go the way you want, all you’ve really done is make people safe and get them off the street,” Hickey said. “The goal is permanent housing. The mayor answered the call for the folks in the encampment by providing help now, an alternative to the help that they felt was inadequate. None have to live on the street ever again.”
Antonia K. Fasanelli, director of the Homeless Persons Representation Project, and her legal team brought doughnuts and coffee for the encampment residents and stood by to ensure that no one’s rights were violated.
She said the city’s action “deeply concerned” many in the advocacy community, who believe it was inhumane and ineffective. Previous encampment clearings have resulted in some evictees becoming more distrustful of the systems working to help them and losing touch with outreach workers who spend weeks, months or years trying to connect them to help, she said. The action also violates the recommendations from a work group Pugh recently convened for advice, Fasanelli said.
“The city must create more affordable housing,” Fasanelli said, adding that she believes doing so would be less expensive than the current approach. “The reason why we have encampments of people who are homeless is because they do not have homes to go to.”
Candace Vanderwater, chief operating officer for Volunteers of America Chesapeake, said the nonprofit had been inviting those who wanted to live at the dormitory to help draft the rules for the program. The goal, she said, was to have as few rules as possible without jeopardizing safety.
“We’re working to get to know them, reduce some of the anxiety on their end and start our needs assessment,” Vanderwater said. “We know this population very well. We understand the anxiety and the fear of coming out of an encampment and being afraid to have too many rules and to not be treated with respect.”
Robert Knox, a 37-year-old who said he has been fighting pneumonia, said he moved from the encampment into the Volunteers of America facility about three days earlier.
He said the space was clean, but he wasn’t entirely comfortable.
“They’re taking us to an institution,” Knox said. “Am I an inmate? Did I do anything wrong? Why do you think people freeze to death out here? They don’t want to go where they’re just going to get kicked out again.”
Cleanup crews began to pick up at 1 p.m., stuffing mattresses, tents and a mix of other items into the garbage truck. It took the team about an hour to clear the discarded items before installing some fencing.
A 44-year-old woman who would identify herself only as Donna said she did not want to move to the Volunteers of America program. She waited until the crews began clearing the debris thrown onto Guilford Avenue to begin tearing down her tent. She said she had no idea where she would sleep.
“It’s overwhelming here, I ain’t gonna lie,” she said.
As city workers combed the land with rakes and shovels for the last of the items left behind, she pushed a metal shopping cart with her stuff bagged up and walked south toward the harbor.
By 9 p.m., three former occupants of the encampment paced the sidewalk and looked onto a lone remaining tent, whose occupant did not want to be disturbed.
By about 11 p.m., the tent was gone.
Baltimore Sun reporters Jessica Anderson, Meredith Cohn and Tim Prudente contributed to this article.