After Baltimore encampment clearing, homeless adjusting to dormitory housing

Gregory Isaac finished cleaning the bathrooms in an East Baltimore dormitory Thursday before returning to his bedroom to dig through his bags for his afternoon dose of blood thinner. He sat on the cot assigned to him after city crews last week cleared the downtown homeless encampment where he had lived for 10 months with his fiancee.

Isaac, 36, said he was nervous and not sure he could believe the promises outreach workers were making about the accommodations the city would provide — access to showers, a laundry room, and three meals a day. But so far, he said, the experience has been an answer to his prayers.

“It was a blessing for us,” said Isaac, who said he stopped sleeping in emergency shelters after he was stabbed and his fear grew for the safety of his fiancee, who is deaf. “It was hard out there in the cold, in a tent. People don’t know, they should be thankful for having a house, four walls and a roof, because anything is possible.”

The Volunteers of America Chesapeake is serving 24 people in collaboration with the city through a new $1.5 million temporary housing program in the 5000 block of E. Monument St. Personal lockers line the walls in the bedrooms, where occupants sleep in pods of four or six and separated by gender. They can watch television in a lounge, take a shuttle bus to work or appointments downtown, meet with case managers or attend workshops on financial management or life skills, said Candace Vanderwater, the nonprofit’s chief operating officer. Food is prepared on site by a chef and served in a cafeteria.

On the other side of a lobby, the sprawling facility runs a re-entry program for ex-offenders. Vanderwater said the programs are operated separately. The men and women in the housing program set their own rules, and have designated 11 p.m. as the curfew, ask everyone to pitch in on cleaning responsibilities and request certain hygiene standards. They are not subject to drug testing or strict operating hours.

They can stay for up to a year as the nonprofit workers try to connect them to permanent housing. The dormitory has room for about 15 more people.

Mayor Catherine E. Pugh toured the site Thursday, meeting with residents and learning more about the program. She ordered the encampment along Guilford Avenue cleared over health and safety concerns.

Pugh said she was pleased to learn about the steps the program is taking to build people’s trust and meet their various needs, including special dietary requests and providing one woman a humidifier to help her breathing.

“To be able to come out of the streets of the city and to be able to be accommodated in a way that will allow you to gather your thoughts, to gather yourself, to get your medication … this is just an excellent way, in my opinion, to help people,” Pugh said. “It’s not about staying here for the long haul. This is about, how do we get you to were you need to go.

“This is much better than tents lined up and down Guilford Avenue.”

Some advocates have condemned the city’s actions as inhumane and ineffective. Many note that some chronically homeless people have ended up scattered and more disenfranchised after previous encampment clearings.

The city installed fencing to block off the site of the old encampment. Several people are still sleeping nearby on Bath Street under the U.S. 40 overpass and more sleep in other pockets across the city.

About 600 people are estimated to sleep on Baltimore streets on a typical night, and thousands lack stable housing.

Robert Brashears, 57, has been in the program for eight days. He said he was still trying to decide whether the accommodations were better than the encampment where he stayed for more than three months. The program, which opened less than a month ago, still has kinks that need to be worked out, such as inconsistent sign-in procedures.

“It’s a little in shambles right now,” he said. “They are trying too quick, too fast.”

Michael Adams, 54, was in the lounge when Pugh was on her tour. He stood up to shake her hand and thanked her for supporting the program.

Adams said he moved into the facility about a week ago. He said he was living in his 2012 Kia Sorento until he was carjacked in November, losing his birth certificate, his winter coat and all his belongings. He stayed temporarily in hotels and slept in a friend’s van briefly before moving into the facility.

“This is a wonderful program,” Adams said to Pugh. “It will work if you work it. I’m going to take full advantage of it. I want to be one of your success stories.”

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