Activists irked by plan for homeless Agency's president offers alternatives to city's crackdown

October 04, 1998|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Last spring, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke sought city legislation that would make camping on Baltimore streets illegal.

For city homeless advocates, the proposal signaled a troubling trend: The nationwide crackdown on homelessness and panhandling had reached Baltimore. Across the nation, 150 city or state laws prohibit various forms of homelessness, panhandling or loitering.

Concern over the Baltimore proposal spread so quickly that Schmoke's loyal legislative floor leader, Baltimore City Council Vice President Agnes B. Welch, refused to introduce a bill.

Although Schmoke abandoned the plan, he acknowledges that the city intends to use existing laws to more aggressively deter panhandling and lingering on city streets. Many cities have taken those steps.

Philadelphia's City Council passed an ordinance last summer prohibiting sleeping on the streets and panhandling within 20 feet of an automated teller machine. Seattle and Denver use anti-loitering laws to keep the homeless moving. And homeless advocates in Miami recently staged a successful court challenge to end that city's practice of arresting the homeless.

Social service directors and advocates for the poor see Baltimore's vow as a sign it has surrendered to one of the nation's most chronic and frustrating problems.

"They're trying to criminalize homelessness instead of providing a solution," said Rob Hess, president of the Center for Poverty Solutions, one of Baltimore's largest nonprofit advocacy agencies for the city's poor.

City officials see their efforts as an attempt to stop homelessness from spreading. A growing group of the poor has been setting up tents or cardboard box encampments near the city Holocaust Memorial and under the Jones Falls Expressway. Schmoke recently broke up an East Baltimore homeless camp created on a vacant lot where squatters set up tents and grills.

'Break the cycle'

"We're not trying to zone them out of here," Schmoke said. "The issue is to break the cycle of homelessness."

Hess recently completed tours of nine cities across the nation to study how they are addressing homelessness. Many face the same struggle as Baltimore, pouring resources into building single-room apartments for the homeless, only to find downtown streets filled with beggars during the day.

Baltimore stood out among the nine cities visited by Hess in one critical arena: financial commitment. The amounts of money other large cities pour into fighting homelessness each year range from $100 million in New York City to $4 million in Boston, Hess said.

Baltimore's annual allocation is $270,000.

'Something is not right'

"When you have millions of dollars for stadiums and $270,000 for homeless services, something is not right," said Frank Williams, who works in the Baltimore office of the state Department of Social Services.

Yet city officials, such as Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III, have been frustrated over the inability to reduce the number of beggars on downtown streets despite what city officials believe are noble housing efforts.

Henson recalled visiting Lexington Market in 1993 and meeting homeless men outside. They complained that they had no place to stay and needed job services.

Henson created Paca House across the street, with 70 single-room apartments. After opening the $8.6 million complex in 1996, Henson went back to find some of the same men lingering outside.

"We will never be able to deal with folks that want to live on the streets," Henson said. "Some folks don't want to come inside."

One of those folks is Thomasine Evans. The 34-year-old mother of five from North Carolina spends her days among two dozen homeless people standing in City Hall Plaza. That is her choice, she said.

"Some of these people choose to be here," said Evans, finishing a bottle of beer wrapped in a brown paper bag. "This is my home, and nobody tells me what to do."

A campus approach

A proposal from downtown Baltimore business leaders to create a central homeless resource center sparked Hess' trip. Many cities, such as Orlando, Jacksonville and Miami in Florida, have resorted to the campus concept as a way to pull the homeless from downtowns. Under that concept, the center would provide services including housing, medical services, job training and day care.

Several downtown business leaders approached Catholic Charities last summer asking that it move the Our Daily Bread soup kitchen. Business leaders complain that the up to 900 people who are served lunch every day at the Cathedral Street site have increased downtown crime and vandalism.

The Downtown Partnership and kitchen operator Associated Catholic Charities Inc. are negotiating over whether downtown businesses could help to pay to move the kitchen to another section of the city.

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