City clears homeless camp, residents in temporary housing

RentalsLocal GovernmentSocial IssuesTony Simmons

Tracy Jones pounded a pair of sneakers against the wall of an Interstate 83 ramp, shaking off months of caked-on dirt. She tossed aside a long-sleeve shirt that had been chewed by a rat and packed up her few belongings Friday as a team of city workers razed the homeless encampment where she had lived with more than a dozen others.

Jones and her husband, Charlie, finally were going home.

"There's no feeling in the world like it," he said.

The couple moved into a sparsely furnished rowhouse on Dumbarton Avenue, where they hope to rebuild their lives and be reunited with their four children, who were removed from their care. But while the Joneses — and many of the encampment residents — saw the eviction Friday as a positive start, advocates said the situation was evidence of the city's failure to create systemic solutions for the 4,000 homeless men, women and children in Baltimore.

"There you go: the city's answer to homelessness," said Tony Simmons, a homeless man who shouted into a megaphone to rally protesters as a bulldozer drove toward a cluster of tents and debris.

One man lay down in the bulldozer's path while another stood in its way, waving a black flag inscribed with the symbol for squatters' rights. Other protesters formed a semicircle around the site, chanting, "Fight, fight, fight. Housing is a human right" and "What do we want? Housing. When do we want it? Now."

The city pointed toward available beds at any of the more than 10 emergency shelters in Baltimore as an option. Outreach workers made more than 100 visits to the site at I-83 and the Fallsway over the past year and continue to secure permanent housing for those who lived at the encampment, which was used on and off for five years

Immediate housing for the "83 campers," as they came to be known, chiefly was provided by Belvedere Homes, a nonprofit group run by Christina Flowers, who coordinated open rooms through a network of providers and rented a three-bedroom home this week. All the men and women living at the encampment were in housing by Thursday night, except one who advocates said was in jail.

Rachel Kutler, an advocate with Housing Our Neighbors, said the city violated its own "housing first" policy outlined in a 10-year plan to end homelessness, the Journey Home. The policy calls for permanent housing for the homeless as a first step toward stabilizing their lives.

"We want to draw attention to the fact homelessness was not solved today," Kutler said. "What the city did was wash their hands of responsibility."

Olivia D. Farrow, director of the Mayor's Office of Human Services, said clearing the encampment does not violate the "housing first" policy.

"Allowing vulnerable individuals to live in unsanitary and dangerous encampments runs contrary to the Journey Home," Farrow said in an email. "We are moving individuals from a dangerous situation and set them up in temporary quarters while their permanent units are located."

But Tam Kelley, an advocate with Housing Our Neighbors, said she was disappointed in city leaders' decision not to pay for permanent housing for the encampment's residents, especially after the administration pumped $1 million into the city-owned Hilton Baltimore to help pay off its debt. That cash came from money generated by the hotel tax and is intended to drum up further economic development.

"It's incredibly disrespectful," Kelley said.

ywenger@baltsun.com

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