In Baltimore, renewal means moving the poor Demolition, relocation are seen as keys to city's prosperity

Policy sparks criticism

October 27, 1998|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

For years, Baltimore has served as the Statue of Liberty to the metropolitan region, the place where 70 percent of the jobless, homeless and poor cluster.

Thousands of Baltimore children are born each year to unwed mothers. Half of the state's welfare recipients live here. Whole neighborhoods are afflicted by drugs. And the city unemployment rate is almost double the national average.

The result is that Baltimore has twice as many people living below the federal poverty level as the five surrounding counties combined. But if city business and political leaders have their way, that will all soon change.

Over the next 10 years, Baltimore redevelopment plans include demolishing downtown's west side, pulling down the last high-rise housing projects and moving the homeless out of the center city.

City leaders have made no bones about their efforts to scatter the poor. During the recent announcement of federal funding to bring down the city's last high-rise housing project, housing officials noted that 30 percent of the tenants will not be readmitted, with many others having to pass a formal review before they are.

Of the business properties targeted by the west side plan, 63 percent are either vacant, or pawn shops or beauty salons, businesses that traditionally cater to the working class. The goal is to bring in more high-end stores.

Downtown business leaders also are offering to help pay to move Our Daily Bread, the city's largest soup kitchen, away from downtown, where city leaders vow to more stringently enforce nuisance laws to diminish panhandling.

Advocates for the poor, however, worry that in the end, the less fortunate will be chased out of the city and the poor will become unwelcomed in Baltimore's 21st century.

"Development is wonderful, and it's a sign of progress," said Sue Bradford, director for development at the Franciscan Center, 101 W. 23rd St. "But you just can't take an eraser and erase the poor. Hiding them is not the answer to addressing their needs."

Yet city leaders believe that in order to turn the city around, they will need to remove the droves of poor who wander downtown streets panhandling, giving parts of the city the look of a Third World nation.

Baltimore is following a national urban trend of cracking down on homelessness and nuisance crimes, efforts dubbed "zero tolerance" that have helped cities such as New York reclaim their streets. Baltimore business and political leaders hope that improving downtown and razing troubled projects will sprout prosperity.

"What's wrong with scattering the poor?" city Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III said. "We're at the point where Baltimore city should not be the only jurisdiction handling the poor."

Social services and health care spending by the city have risen by $115 million -- practically doubling -- over the past 10 years.In his book Unbound Baltimore, former Albuquerque Mayor David Rusk contends that the city will never be able to heal itself unless surrounding counties share the responsibility of supporting the urban poor.

"Such hyperconcentration of minority poor creates social dynamite -- high crime rates, drug addiction, family disintegration, welfare dependency and illegitimacy," Rusk said. "Caught between rising service needs and a relatively shrinking tax base, Baltimore city government is in a constant fiscal squeeze."

The city's push to distribute the poor has already begun. In 1995, the city settled a suit with the American Civil Liberties Union, which accused Baltimore of racially segregating blacks for six decades. As part of the settlement, 1,350 families were given the chance to move outside the city.

In addition, city housing officials have pushed for more federal Section 8 housing vouchers that will allow the poor to find their own homes rather than be forced to live in federally funded projects.

Advocates for the poor criticize this relocation policy, saying that families forced to live in the projects are now being forced to uproot their lives.

"It's bad because of the motivation behind it," said the Rev. Douglas I. Miles, leader of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, which represents more than 200 city churches. "The motivation is to get poor people out of the city."

City officials disagree. Moving the poor makes sense because it gives families an opportunity to raise children outside the mean city streets where guns, drugs and violence mar lives, they say.

"People have said to us that concentrating the poor in projects was a mistake," Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said. "We must not allow our cities to become quarantine zones for the poor."

Social service leaders worry that the disruption will result in an exodus that will leave the city poor farther away from services. The west side renovation plan includes leveling 18 square blocks downtown, including the Healthcare for the Homeless site at 111 Park Ave.

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