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Homeless advocates protest as city clears tent encampment

Homeless encampment cleared out in West Baltimore.

They took down tents and packed up belongings, unsure where they would spend the next night, and they left behind matted patches of grass where their makeshift homes once stood.

A group of homeless residents who had created a small community of tents beneath the U.S. 40 overpass at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in West Baltimore decamped Friday morning when city crews came to clear what remained and erect a wooden fence. Nearby, homeless advocates protested and police officers stood watch.

At times, confrontations between protesters and police and city employees grew tense and loud. For a period, advocates blocked a section of southbound MLK Boulevard, leaving commuters stuck at the traffic light.

"They are homeless, not invisible," shouted Christina Flowers, president of Assisted Living Inc., as the group stood in the street.

Flowers said she planned to protest future encampment closures, saying the city needs to do more to support homeless residents. Many of the city's homeless shelters are full, she said.

"Where is the housing?" she said.

A spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the city's goal is to find better housing for people who have been staying in the encampment, including at shelters that provide assistance in finding more permanent solutions.

"We believe the encampments are not safe," Howard Libit said. "We will find shelter space for anyone who has been staying there."

In November, the city evacuated residents from a homeless encampment under the Jones Falls Expressway, citing unsanitary conditions, and announced regular cleanups at the city's camps.

The city has an estimated 2,500 to 4,000 homeless people. In 2008, city officials announced a 10-year plan to address homelessness, which included opening a new 24-hour emergency shelter and setting aside 500 housing vouchers to house homeless individuals.

But many of the advocates and homeless residents on Friday said more needs to be done.

Antonia K. Fasanelli, director of the Homeless Person Representation Project Inc., said clearing the encampment would only discourage the homeless from seeking city services. She said the camp appeared clean and did not cause problems.

"This is completely failed policy," she said. "Folks are saying, 'Where are we supposed to go?'"

Anthony James Worley Sr. was among the protesters who said the city was needlessly harassing people.

"They are just trying to make things difficult for homeless people," he said. "How can you evict someone who is homeless when they don't have anything? They're not bothering anyone."

One of the residents of the encampment, James Johnson, 53, packed his tent and waited by a red rolling cooler and black trunk, pondering where he would spend Friday night.

Johnson said he's lived in a tent for several months with his girlfriend. He said he had been living in a home on West Baltimore Street that was damaged in a fire and he's been unable to find housing he can afford on his monthly disability check. He's not interested in a shelter because he thinks they are less safe than sleeping on the street.

"I felt safer here. No one came here unless they lived here," he said. "We were like a little community."

He remained positive. "I thank God it's a pretty good day," he said, looking up at the blue sky. "Last night with the rain was bad."



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