City's record on homeless criticized

Report says Baltimore is among 12 `meanest' cities in the nation

March 05, 2002|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

A biting wind stung Towanda Brown's scarred face yesterday as she pondered the news: A recent survey ranked Baltimore among the 12 "meanest" American cities in the treatment of homeless people.

"I agree with that 100 percent," declared Brown, who at 26 has a crack cocaine problem. "They say they're trying to help us," she said at her current address, the Oasis Station shelter, "but I don't see it."

Brown's complaints tumbled out. She detests some shelter food and is bitter about her arrest last year for sleeping on a bench near Lexington Market.

Mayor Martin O'Malley disagreed with the survey, published jointly by the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. The city recently hired a new homeless services director, he noted, and is going to build a $15 million day center for the homeless at East Monument Street and the Fallsway. Improved coordination between police officers and social workers is also planned, he said.

"I know for a fact there is no general order to target homeless people or be mean or cruel to homeless people," O'Malley said.

Baltimore was lumped with other "meanest" cities, including New York, San Francisco, Atlanta and Chicago. The report used criteria such as the number of "anti-homeless" laws, incidents of violence against the homeless and a city's overall attitude. Fifty-nine cities were surveyed.

"Homelessness is currently criminalized in the city of Baltimore," the report said. "Homeless people are most often arrested for aggressive panhandling, public intoxication, disorderly conduct and loitering."

One goal of the report, its authors said, is to shame political leaders into action by putting their cities on the equivalent of a "most wanted" poster.

O'Malley said acts such as drinking in public are illegal "for people with homes as well."

The city's rating rang true to local homeless advocates, who argue the city should spend more on affordable housing and homeless services.

"The focus has not been on homelessness; it's been on criminal justice," said Alma Roberts, president of Baltimore's Center for Poverty Solutions. Roberts praised O'Malley's administration and the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore for exploring a greater emphasis on services, but she said she wants to see results.

Two years after a public-private task force on homelessness completed its work, she said, few of its recommendations - including opening six day-resource centers - are being followed.

Yesterday, Brown stood in a crowd, bundled in several layers. She talked about her hope to kick her habit, go back to school, get a better job (she said she delivers fliers for an advertising firm) and find a place to live. "Being out in this cold is not fun," she said.

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