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No journey home

The encampments that have sprouted periodically around the lower end of the Jones Falls Expressway have always represented a small portion of the Baltimore's homeless population, but they have gotten a lot of attention from city officials. A succession of mayors have repeatedly attempted to clear the encampments, but they have come back again and again, most recently with a highly visible and elaborate cluster of tents and furniture — including an area set up like a studio apartment — on the east side of Guilford Avenue a few blocks north of City Hall.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's office issued an announcement today that the city would be conducting twice-weekly "cleanups" of the encampment to "prevent hazards to health and safety." The clean-ups started this morning and were targeted at eliminating the buildup of human waste and trash and to "deter the illegal dumping of large items, such as furniture." But the plan, at least for now, is not to actually disband the camp. The city says it will be sending outreach workers along with the public works crews to try to engage the people living there and to provide them with housing services. Similar efforts, ongoing since June, have led to nine people getting housing, the mayor's office said.

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We don't dispute that the encampment is a concern or that it should be a priority to ensure that the people there are living in safe and sanitary conditions. But it's not at all clear that this new policy amounts to anything more than a cosmetic improvement in the problem of homelessness in Baltimore.

If the intention was to find something of a middle ground between disbanding the camp and doing nothing, that was not necessarily apparent to those on the ground, homeless advocates say. There was much confusion when the DPW workers — and, troublingly and unnecessarily, some police officers — arrived on the scene with residents unsure of what would be happening to their belongings and whether and when they would be able to return. The initial sign posted on the site on Oct. 31 forbid trespassing or storage of belongings in the area and said that any abandoned property remaining there would be discarded. "Unsoiled items appearing to be personal belongings that can safely be stored," it said, would be transported to a facility in Cherry Hill, about four miles away. A subsequent sign dropped the warning against trespassing, but neither made it clear that the encampment was not being disbanded.

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Moreover, it sounds good to say the city is going to clean up litter, but it's not always readily apparent whether a trash bag is refuse or the repository of hard to replace possessions like medicine or identification. The furniture on the site was not the product of "dumping," as the city put it, but represented an attempt by a group of marginalized people to create a home. Baltimore may not officially be disbanding this latest encampment, but it might as well be considering how thoroughly it is disrupting the lives of the people staying there.

Some clearings of encampments in the past have been successful when they have been directly connected with providing housing for those who live there. But what the city is doing now may serve only to foster distrust in an already distrustful, vulnerable and marginalized population. Whatever gains had been made by outreach workers in connecting them to services may now be erased.

The reality is that this encampment represents a tiny fraction of the city's homeless population. On any given night, Baltimore has about 3,000 people experiencing homelessness, and maybe significantly more given the difficulty of conducting an accurate census of those on the streets, much less those who may be sleeping on the couch of a friend or relative. Many others who are housing insecure — witness the frenzy that accompanied Baltimore's lottery for Section 8 vouchers. Some 74,000 people applied for one of 25,000 slots on a waiting list. Only about 6,000 to 9,000 of them are expected to get vouchers, and the list won't open again until 2020. The need for affordable housing and for services like eviction prevention is overwhelming, but resources are scarce. The city has set aside some vouchers to help house the homeless, but that merely robs from those who are slightly higher on the economic ladder and makes them more housing insecure. It is, as one advocate put it, like bailing out the bathtub without turning off the faucet.

Meanwhile, Baltimore expends money and time on things like twice-weekly cleanings of the area under the JFX or erecting a fence to keep the homeless away from the War Memorial building across from City Hall. Homeless residents and their advocates have every reason to question whether those efforts are primarily concerned with helping end homelessness or with eliminating eyesores for those who live and work downtown. The central principle of the city's 10-year plan to end homelessness was that it would prioritize finding housing first and services second for those living on the streets. Events like today's clean-up are a reminder of just how far we remain from realizing that promise.

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