Advocates defend people's right to get help at a refurbished War Memorial Plaza.

Stepping up for city's homeless

April 12, 2005|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Even before the bulldozers move out and blankets of turf take root, advocates are defending the right of homeless people to convene and receive food at Baltimore's War Memorial Plaza, which is undergoing a $1.5 million renovation.

Volunteers and outreach workers who regularly serve food at the plaza, a longtime hub for the homeless that faces City Hall, say that city officials have been trying to push the homeless out of the park for years and that the reopening of the plaza may be the final shove.

Leading the effort on behalf of the homeless is the Center for Values and Service at Loyola College. Students come downtown twice weekly to distribute food. They used to set up on the steps of City Hall, but moved to the plaza about four years ago after someone complained to the mayor, said Katie League, 21, a Loyola senior who is a student coordinator with the center.

The start of construction at the plaza a few months ago pushed the group and the homeless even farther away, she said.

"When there wasn't any sidewalk left, we came to the conclusion that we needed to relocate," League said. She and other advocates say that a trailer for the volunteers set up by the city across the Fallsway from the Central Booking and Intake Center and Maryland Penitentiary is inconvenient.

"We are acknowledging a population that is already here," League said of the plaza site. "It's not a matter of us bringing them in."

Mayor Martin O'Malley has said that the renovated park - with flower beds, a fountain, and chairs and tables - will be accessible to all residents, a statement that was reiterated yesterday by Kimberly A. Flowers, the city's recreation and parks director.

Flowers said homeless people will be welcome, but she added that police will be enforcing park rules.

"We will have to program the space so that there are things going on as much as possible," Flowers said. "I think a public presence is going to be the key to minimizing or mitigating the problems that once existed."

At times, War Memorial Plaza has seemed overrun with homeless people, many of whom waited at the park to be first in line for food. Casual chess games were also a draw. Camps of homeless people and outreach facilities - including the Oasis Station at 220 N. Gay St. that offers free showers and toilets - have sprung up nearby. Several MTA bus routes make stops near the park.

Over the years, city officials have tried to coexist with the homeless. At one point, portable toilets were moved in to try to curb outdoor urination and defecation. More recently, the Downtown Partnership has assigned a team of Clean Sweep Ambassadors to remove litter and waste from the plaza, said Michael Evitts, a spokesman for the business group.

Many homeless people come to the plaza because they know they will get food there. At least a half-dozen groups visit the park weekly. By 5 p.m. yesterday, about a dozen men had gathered on the steps of the War Memorial Building to wait for whomever might show up. The War Memorial building - on the opposite side of the plaza from City Hall - has become a backup staging area because the plaza has been torn up and surrounded by chain-link fencing.

Most of those gathered yesterday said they would not be welcome at the new park.

"For folks like us, it is going to be, `Stay the hell out,' " said Vernon Pratt, 46.

Laura M. Gillis, president of Baltimore Homeless Services Inc., a nonprofit arm of city government, said the park should be open to the homeless. She said her staff plans to visit the area frequently to connect homeless people with medical aid and job training.

"I feel like when the park opens, it will be a very different space then it has been, and to me that is an opportunity," Gillis said.

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