Frustrated and defiant, dozens of homeless men stood in a chilly drizzle in front of the National Aquarium yesterday carrying picket signs and chanting demands for an increase in shelter beds when a stranger strode into the crowd waving a newspaper.
"Get a job," the antagonist said, shoving the newspaper into the arms of one of the demonstrators. "Here, use it."
For a split second the chants stopped. But then the homeless men crowded around the intruder. The homeless man now holding the newspaper -- a 48-year-old man wearing a tweed hat and a tattered down jacket -- looked into the challenger's eyes and said: "I have a job. But you try to find a place to live on $150 a week. How about giving me your job?"
The heckler quickly left. And the demonstrators, more than two dozen of them, marched through rush-hour traffic from the aquarium to City Hall yesterday to protest the city's closing of 319 shelter beds. Money for those beds was provided only during the winter, when shelter for the homeless is most critical.
However, the protesters said people needed shelter all year. They wanted to show Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke whom he was "throwing into the streets" by cutting the funding to maintain extra "winter" beds. So they set up camp in front of City Hall and planned to sleep there through the night.
"We'd be on the street anyway, so City Hall is as good a place as any," said Marvin Peebles, 25, who had been sleeping at St. Ann's Place. More than 95 beds at that shelter were closed as the city halted its winter program.
In Baltimore, there are about 735 emergency shelter beds
available to the homeless throughout the year, as well as 500 beds for longer stays by those hoping to become self-sufficient. And under the mayor's winter plan, an additional 319 emergency beds were made available from Nov. 12 until April 14. An MTA bus was also used to pick up the homeless and take them to winter shelters, but that service also was canceled.
While city officials recognize the need for year-round shelter for the homeless, they say the mayor is forced to make tough spending choices -- especially since the city is facing tremendous fiscal troubles.
"Mayor Schmoke makes a very conscious decision to expand homeless services significantly during the winter season," said Joanne Selinske, head of the Mayor's Office for Homeless Services. "He could use that money to create 150 year-round beds, but he understands the need for more intense services during the winter."
Jeff Singer, a spokesman for City Advocates in Solidarity with the Homeless, said homeless advocates recognized the city's financial crisis -- particularly because of significant federal cuts for social programs.
However, he said the city should demonstrate more sensitivity in setting spending priorities. "The city spent $30 million in public funds to provide a nice warm home for fish," he said, referring to the aquarium. "But there are thousands of homeless people with no place to sleep."
Mr. Singer estimated that the number of Baltimore residents seeking shelter each night exceeded 2,400, the highest of any jurisdiction in the state. Yet, he says the city ranks fifth in Maryland in the amount of local dollars it spends for homeless services.Baltimore designates close to $700,000 in city funds for the homeless, while Montgomery County -- ranked first -- spends more than $3.3 million.
Yesterday, the mayor announced plans to open another year-round shelter -- capable of accommodating about 50 homeless people -- in a firehouse at West and Leadenhall streets in South Baltimore. The fire company currently housed in that station will be moved into a previously closed firehouse on Fort Avenue.
Ms. Selinske also said her office would open a complex at 1515 E. North Ave. within the next few months to provide permanent housing for almost a dozen homeless people.
But those new shelters won't be nearly enough to meet the needs of Baltimore's expanding homeless population.
"I don't want a handout, just a little help to get on my feet," said Nathaniel Noble, 40, who was evicted from his West Baltimore apartment two months ago after he lost his construction job.
"I go out every day looking for work," he added, opening a plastic grocery bag holding a folder with his resume and several job applications. "I don't want to get hooked on welfare, so I don't get any. Besides, $205 a month wouldn't help me get on my feet anyways."
Lee Thompson did turn to the city's housing department in hopes of getting into public housing.
"I went to them this morning, and they told me it would take two ZTC years to get a unit," said Mr. Thompson, pulling the housing application from the pocket of his dingy brown jacket. "Where do I go until then?"