Plan affecting vagrants halted

City Council to kill bill to outlaw sleeping on downtown sidewalks

Panhandler fines get tentative OK

City services for homeless to move from purview of housing to health officials

April 20, 2004|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Members of the Baltimore City Council said yesterday they would kill a hotly contested proposal to make it illegal for homeless people or anyone else to sleep or lie on sidewalks downtown.

Meanwhile, officials announced they would move the city's Office of Homeless Services from the city's housing department to its health department as part of an effort to provide more drug treatment and mental health services for the indigent.

"The sidewalk law will have a respectable death in committee," said City Councilman Robert W. Curran, chairman of the Judiciary and Legislative Investigations Committee, which was considering the ordinance that had been advocated by downtown business owners.

The proposal, launched by the Downtown Partnership Inc. and introduced by City Council President Sheila Dixon, was strongly opposed by advocates for the homeless, who argued that it would criminalize poverty. The bill was also attacked by organizations in Mount Vernon, Little Italy and other neighborhoods surrounding downtown, whose members worried that it would drive homeless people into their communities without providing additional beds or services.

Dixon said yesterday that she agrees that the bill should die, in part because the city didn't know whether it could withstand a legal challenge.

But on another bill that would affect indigent people, the council cast a preliminary 11-4 vote last night in favor of an ordinance that would impose fines of up to $100 (but no criminal penalties) on people who panhandle between sunset and sunrise in the city. A final vote is set for Monday.

Jeff Singer, president of Health Care for the Homeless, said he was less concerned about the panhandling bill than the proposal to outlaw sleeping on the sidewalk, which he strongly opposed.

"This is terrific news," Singer said of the sidewalk bill's death. "This bill wouldn't have solved any of the underlying problems that cause homelessness."

Meanwhile, city Health Commissioner Dr. Peter L. Beilenson told the council yesterday that the city's Office of Homeless Services would move by July 1 from the housing department, at 417 E. Fayette St., to the health department, at 210 Guilford Ave.

Moving the office's 24 employees and $23 million annual budget under the health department will allow the city to more easily arrange drug and mental health treatment for homeless people, Beilenson said.

"It's very clear from surveys in Baltimore and elsewhere that a substantial group of homeless people have substance abuse and/or mental health problems, and this will allow us to better arrange help for them," he said.

The health commissioner said he will create a nonprofit organization called Homeless Service Inc. that would be controlled by the city, with the commissioner serving as chairman of its board.

Some of the employees of the city's Office of Homeless Services, who work under housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano, would remain city employees under Beilenson after July 1. New employees would work for the nonprofit agency.

"We thought it would make much more sense to look at homelessness as a health issue, rather than just a housing issue," said Graziano.

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