Homeless, advocates rally in front of City Hall

In his 72 years, Ernest Hawkes has slept in a wide variety of places – military barracks in Vietnam, apartments in Baltimore and New York, homeless shelters.

On Saturday evening, Hawkes stretched out on a flattened cardboard box in front of Baltimore's City Hall, resting his head on a black duffel bag. He propped a handwritten sign against a tote bag: "Homeless but not helpless."

"I woke up one morning and I was totally homeless," said Hawkes, explaining that he was evicted from an apartment complex for seniors three years ago after he had a dispute with the management. Eloquent and courtly, Hawkes said he lives off of several pensions, but does not want to move into another apartment.

Hawkes was among about 100 homeless people, their advocates and students who gathered on the lawn in front of City Hall to call attention to the struggles of the homeless as part of National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week.

"This is not about charity," said City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who addressed the crowd. "It is justice we are here for tonight."

Clarke attributed the increase in homelessness over the past three decades to the decision by government officials, both in Maryland and other states, to close institutions for the physically and mentally disabled without providing group homes or apartments for them. The recent economic downturn, she said, exacerbated the problem.

City officials and volunteers counted 4,088 people sleeping in shelters or on the streets one day last January, a sharp increase from the city's previous homeless census. About 3,400 homeless people were counted in 2009.

The organizers of Saturday's rally handed out meals, blankets and winter coats to the homeless and hoped to remain with them through the evening in front of City Hall. This year marks the third annual "A Bench is not a Bed" rally, organized by students at the University of Maryland at Baltimore School of Social Work, in conjunction with other colleges and universities.

"Living and working in Baltimore, you can't ignore the major issues of social justice," said Rachel Kutler, a University of Maryland social work student.

Organizers hope to send a message to city officials to increase support for the homeless, she said.

Three Baltimore Police officers with the SWAT team arrived around 11 p.m. — when the group's park permit expired — and told organizers that people needed to leave within the next hour or face arrest, Kutler said. The group walked down Fayette Street to a park on University of Maryland's campus where they had permission to spend the night, Kutler said.

Mark Schumann, 55, was one of several formerly homeless people who helped out at the rally. Schumann said he had been homeless periodically since the age of 12, when he ran away from an abusive adoptive family.

Schumann, who suffers from bipolar disorder and walks with a cane due to knee and ankle problems, spent three years, beginning in 2006, sleeping on benches, under bridges and in shelters around the city.

"I would sleep anywhere that was safe — relatively safe," he said. "You have a big target on your back when you're homeless."

The nonprofit organization Healthcare for the Homeless helped Schumann stabilize his physical and mental health and find permanent housing in 2009. He now edits a fledgling newspaper primarily written by homeless people called "Word on the Street."

The rally is an uplifting event for the city's homeless residents, Schumann said.

"It's a way of showing solidarity and humanizing the homeless," he said.

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

twitter.com/juliemore

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