Study faults city's treatment of homeless

Advocacy group charges Baltimore could do more

January 06, 1999|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

As Baltimore awaits the reorganization of a downtown soup kitchen, a national homeless advocacy group criticized the city yesterday for becoming more hostile to the poor.

In its annual report on homelessness, the National Law Center for Homelessness and Poverty cited three examples of Baltimore getting tougher on the homeless:

Plans to move Our Daily Bread. Downtown business leaders want the Cathedral Street soup kitchen that feeds up to 900 people a day moved. In return, business leaders offered to help build and pay for a more comprehensive services center in another section of the city. Associated Catholic Charities, which operates the site, is expected to release a report on the matter within two weeks.

Downtown redevelopment. A plan to renovate 18 square blocks of downtown involves condemning 127 downtown properties, including Health Care for the Homeless at 111-117 Park Ave.

Creation of community courts. The state courts are being set up to handle nuisance crimes, which homeless advocates fear will include a crackdown on activities associated with homelessness, such as panhandling, loitering and public drunkenness.

City policy defended

Baltimore spends about $15 million a year from the federal government to pay for homeless services. Leslie Leitch, director of the city's homeless services department, disagreed with the report's conclusion yesterday, saying that actions being taken in the city should not be construed as attacks on the homeless.

"It's not targeting homeless people," Leitch said. "It's targeting quality of life issues."

The national law center began its annual homeless report on America's 50 largest cities eight years ago in response to what it perceived to be a nationwide crackdown on the homeless. Last year, the center published a report, "Mean Streets," listing cities where the homeless are ticketed, arrested or swept from public places.

In yesterday's report, "Out of Sight, Out of Mind," the center listed Atlanta, Chicago, New York, Tucson and San Francisco as having the toughest laws affecting the homeless. Although Baltimore is not ranked as one of the harshest cities, center leaders said the city's attitude toward the poor could be improved.

"They're not the meanest," said Laurel Weir, a spokeswoman for the center. "But they're certainly not one of the best."

Innovative programs

The report commended Portland and Seattle for developing innovative homeless programs. In Portland, the Police Department works with social groups to find and place the homeless, while Seattle created a special tax to help pay for homeless services.

The center estimated that the Baltimore homeless population ranges from 1,900 to 2,800 with about 1,200 emergency shelter beds and 633 transitional housing slots. Although Leitch acknowledged the need for more services, such as job training, to keep people from becoming homeless in Baltimore, the homeless are being cared for.

"Our shelters have not been full," Leitch said. "And those shelters that are full are not turning people away."

Pub Date: 1/06/99

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