Advocates for the homeless are struggling with two pieces of bad news -- the seasonal shutdown of hundreds of shelter beds and low census numbers just released for Baltimore's homeless population.
Yesterday, in what has become an annual observance of the shelter closings, advocates and homeless people marched from the National Aquarium to City Hall in a noisy protest billed as an attempt to "Shout Down the Wall$ That Keep People Homeless."
And last night, 70 of the protesters slept outside City Hall.
As he stood in front of City Hall with a green wool blanket draping his body, Warren Foster, 28, said he was recently laid off and sleeps "anywhere possible."
"I wish there were no more homeless people," Foster said. "Nobody should be without a home."
"We symbolize the people who are on the streets," said Jeff Singer of City Advocates in Solidarity with the Homeless, which has organized protests at City Hall and Mayor Kurt Schmoke's home over the past year. "We don't have any place for people to sleep."
Peter Sabonis, an attorney and CASH member, said, "The fact of the matter is, for the city to spend $1 million annually for the stadium authority and spend about $600,000 on its homeless is a crime."
Under Baltimore's Winter Plan, the city provides funding for extra shelter beds from November through mid-April.
But several shelters shut down in warmer months because of budget shortfalls and agreements with various neighborhoods. Overall, about 300 of 2,000 beds will be lost.
The CASH protest came three days after the Census Bureau released tallies from last year's "S-Night," an attempt to take a snapshot of the nation's homeless population on March 20-21, 1990.
According to the census count, the city's shelters housed 1,144 people. An additional 387 were counted in public locations such as parks, steam grates and abandoned buildings. Statewide, the shelters had 2,507, with 523 on the streets.
Norma Pinette, director of Action for the Homeless Inc., said her group places the number of city homeless at 2,500 on any given night.
This figure does not reflect families who are "doubled-up," living with friends and relatives as the result of an eviction, she said.
Pinette says such discrepancies make it difficult for her to take the census figures seriously.
"Maybe it [the census] will be interesting
50 years from now, but it doesn't have much practical value now," said Pinette.
She noted that the Washington, D.C., street count was half of Baltimore's on S-Night, although Washington's homeless population is much larger.
Pinette and Singer had firsthand accounts of individuals missed by the count. Pinette said several shelters in Montgomery County were skipped. Singer waited with more than 100 people at Health Care for the Homeless, but the enumerators never showed up.
"Clearly, it was a faulty count," he said. "It now gives the impression the problem is not as large as it quite clearly is."
Census officials cautioned from the outset that the numbers would not be definitive, but advocates fear the count could determine federal funding guidelines. While previous counts included the homeless, S-Night was the first attempt to log people at shelters and public sites.
"S-Night was not intended to, and did not, produce a count of the 'homeless' population of the country," a Census Bureau spokesman said in a written statement released with the numbers.
"Even if that had been our objective, the absence of a generally agreed-upon definition of homelessness would have made that task impossible."