Soon after he began living on the streets, Bob Ransome got a tip from another homeless man about a good place to sleep -- safe and warm, but with few rules or regulations.
For more than three years, the parking garage under the George H. Fallon federal office building was one of the most popular refuges for the homeless, rivaling official shelters in size on the winter's coldest nights. But just after he found his favorite bedtime spot, Mr. Ransome lost his haven. The heavy gate to the garage entrance slammed shut.
With almost no warning to the homeless, the federal government closed the garage to the crowd of 50 regulars who sought shelter there every night from midnight to 6 a.m.
Just a few feet from Lombard Street, between Charles Street and Hopkins Place, the garage seems to lie beyond the city's collective peripheral vision. But for those who are homeless, it was almost legendary, an oasis of warmth in a cold city.
At midnight, when the Fallon building closed and the traffic outside stopped, security guards would open the doors. Homeless advocates and volunteers carried in hot meals, coffee, coats and blankets. The regulars camped out on bedrolls made from cardboard boxes, sleeping bags and old clothes under the watchful eye of the guards.
"It was safe. It was a place where you could go to get warm and comfortable," said Mr. Ransome, 46, who wound up homeless in Baltimore in September after running out of money on a visit from his hometown in Virginia. He sells newspapers now, but makes only enough to pay for food, not an apartment.
The federal government has a simple explanation for ending the nightly pilgrimages of the homeless to the Fallon garage Oct. 1. It turned out that the front gate was broken.
Finally, after more than three years, the U.S. General Services Administration was able to fix it.
The entrance door was stuck open because the motor kept overheating, said John Thompson, spokesman for the mid-Atlantic regional office of the General Services Administration. "Over the summer, we corrected the technical problem, and the doors are coming down to provide proper security to that garage," he said.
The management of the Fallon building appeared to have condoned the de facto shelter. Security guards were given instructions on the protocol -- opening the doors after the building closed and awakening the slumbering homeless before 6 a.m. when workers for the Internal Revenue Service, the Veterans Administration and other federal agencies returned to their jobs.
But Mr. Thompson denied that the federal government ever gave even tacit approval of the garage's use as a homeless shelter.
"They were using it without our consent," he said. "It's out of the question. Our responsibility is to protect the integrity of that building that we manage for the taxpayers."
The explanation surprised some homeless advocates, who had been told by the building manager that the government wanted to "tighten security" and end the litter and stench from people sleeping both in and on top of the garage.
Joanne Selinske, director of the Mayor's Office of Homeless Services, recalled being informed that the door to the front entrance was broken, but she said she received conflicting accounts of the closing.
Nevertheless, she said, the displaced homeless could find beds through the city's "winter plan" to provide additional shelter to the 2,000 to 2,400 people who are homeless on any given night.
Yet critics say the very fact that the Fallon building's parking garage turned into a well-known de facto shelter points to inadequate services for the homeless.
City officials counter that some people simply refuse to stay in shelters.
The city desperately needs a "wet shelter" for alcoholics and drug addicts who are turned away from many of the missions and church-run shelters, said Lauren Siegel, a social worker with Health Care for the Homeless. Other advocates for the homeless point out that many shelters fill up rapidly, and that they are often too far away from welfare, health care and employment agencies.
"The federal building in itself was unacceptable, yet it provided a chance to get out of the extreme cold, a chance to escape the wind," said Kevin Lindamood, an out reach worker with the nonprofit health care organization. "It's dangerous to be out there in the wintertime."
Another refuge lost was a tunnel under the federal courthouse between Lombard and Pratt streets. Iron gates with locks were installed over the past few months.
As a result, more homeless have been forced onto steam grates, the plaza in front of City Hall and into the entryways of office buildings.
For Calvin Gregory, a 37-year-old who has been homeless for three years, the closing of the Fallon garage has made his night-time routine more difficult and more dangerous.
Mr. Gregory took to camping out on a small outdoor parking area on top of the garage, where only the hardiest of men sleep. But last week, he was attacked by two men at Hopkins Plaza. His fingers were badly scraped, and two of his teeth were broken in the scuffle.
"We are creating an underclass in this city, and no one wants to recognize it," said Curtis Matthews, who is active with the Baltimore Homeless Union. He called the closing "another hole in the safety net."
"After all these years, everyone knew you were dealing with people who do not have a place to go, who are totally desperate. Where are they supposed to go now?"