City workers and police cleared an encampment of homeless people from the west side of Baltimore on Friday morning, provoking a brief traffic-blocking protest and leaving some of the city’s homelessness services organizations chagrined at what they say was a surprise operation.
Residents of the camp under an overpass near the intersection of Martin Luther King Blvd. and West Franklin St. do not have a clear place to go after Friday’s action. Advocacy groups and Mayor Sarah Rawlings-Blake’s office provided conflicting accounts of what’s ahead for the former campers.
“Shelter space has been made available for everyone who has been staying at the encampment,” Rawlings-Blake spokesman Howard Libit said. “Our fundamental belief is that the encampments are not safe for the people staying there, and that particular location encourages panhandling in the middle of a busy intersection.”
Attitudes toward shelters among the homeless are famously mixed, with many people preferring to sleep rough because they do not feel safe in shelters. An advocate who was on the scene Friday morning told ThinkProgress that he heard two people from the camp say they planned to return to abandoned buildings where they have sheltered before — an option that can be dangerous.
There were 2,567 homeless people recorded in Baltimore City in the last published micro-census of the population, from early 2014. More than half of the total population was living in transitional housing, and almost a thousand were staying in emergency shelters. Just under 300 were unsheltered homeless.
This year’s “point-in-time count” of the homeless was conducted in February, but the numbers have not yet been released. An official from the office in charge of the count declined to comment on whether the numbers are up or down.
Baltimore has traditionally worked to make sure that non-shelter housing, such as motel rooms or permanent supportive housing units, are available for campers before removing them and their belongings from a site, according to Antonia Fasanelli from the Homeless Person’s Representation Project.
“We heard yesterday that the Housing Resource Center, the main city emergency shelter, was full,” Fasanelli said. “When they cleared a camp last November, the residents were put in hotels until they were able to secure housing. I do not understand why that was not offered.” She added that some of the displaced campers are already partway through the process of getting into permanent housing, waiting for other agencies to process their paperwork and match them with a living space.
By noon on Friday, city workers had erected a temporary fence around the area where the camp had been. Residents and advocates briefly blocked traffic nearby and were reluctant to leave, but ultimately decamped without any arrests, advocates on the ground said.
The human roadblock and brief tension between residents and police might have been avoided if the city coordinated its outreach to the campers in a more robust way. Fasanelli said this was the first time in her seven years with the organization that the city declined to give HPRP and other service groups a heads-up before clearing a camp.
“We had no notice from the city,” said Antonia Fasanelli, head of the legal aid group Homeless Person’s Representation Project. “Typically if there’s an encampment destruction we receive an email or a phone call from the city asking for a meeting or a conference call to discuss plans for providing services to residents,” she said. “The first time anybody from the city talked to me about it was this morning at the site.”
“It certainly feels like they cut us out,” Fasanelli said. “We know they had engaged one other organization to do outreach, but there were at least three others in addition to ours on site today, and their staff was reporting they were never told about this either.”
The city also did not notify Healthcare for the Homeless, according to the group’s CEO Kevin Lindamood, who worried that the experience damaged the relationship between homelessness advocates and the people they seek to serve. “The folks who did do that outreach now have no credibility on the west side,” Lindamood said.
Asked about the claim that only one of the city’s various homeless services organizations had been contacted in advance of the camp dismantling, the mayor’s spokesman demurred. “That’s a level of detail I don’t have,” Libit said. “But I believe fundamentally that the advocates who are unhappy with what happened today and the city want the same ultimate outcome, which is to make homelessness rare and brief in our city.”
Asked about cities like Seattle, WA and Las Cruces, NM that have established sanctioned, regulated homeless encampments to cater to people who distrust shelters but don’t yet have a permanent place to live, Libit said “that’s not something we’re gonna engage in.”