City's homeless get frozen out

Shelter closings force people onto streets

December 06, 2007|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN REPORTER

Ruth Williams, 66, leads a visitor to the tarp shanty she calls home and says, "Mine is the third castle."

Cane in hand, Williams hobbles across a JFX off-ramp to reach her flimsy shelter. Cars zip by as she plops down in a wheelchair. Nearby, a man who also lives under a tarpaulin uses cast-off construction materials and a lighter to start a small blaze in a metal barrel.

Last night as the temperature dropped and a thin layer of snow lay on the ground, roughly 3,000 homeless people were on Baltimore's streets and in its shelters, according to city health officials. Winter's sting coincided with the recent closures of four large shelters that caused tarp cities - congregations of men, women and couples - to sprout up under freeways and bridges and behind office buildings.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's editions about the homeless misidentified a church that started a shelter in Northwest Baltimore. Brown's Memorial Baptist Church, at 3215 W. Belvedere Ave., ran the facility.

And as the city struggles to get its winter shelter up and running, advocates say they worry about those left out in the cold.

The most recent closing came Monday, when workers boarded up the Oasis Center, a downtown shelter that provided beds and showers to more than 100 men and women daily, according to the center's director. Last month, Brown's Community Outreach Inc., a shelter that housed nearly 60 adults and children each night, closed with little warning.

All told, the city faces a deficit of nearly 300 shelter beds, according to outreach workers, at a time of year when temperatures can be dangerously brisk. The city's winter shelter opened at its new location in the 1600 block of Guilford Ave. on Friday night, but crews were scurrying this week to make it fully functional, according to city officials.

"The winter shelter was housing about 320 people a night last year, and that was when all the other [four] shelters were operating," said Kevin Lindamood, vice president for external affairs at Health Care for the Homeless in Baltimore. "This year, it's as if the opening of the winter shelter is simply going to replace the beds we lost ... and that's not going to be sufficient."

Since the 1980s, the number of homeless people has grown, partly because of the dwindling stock of affordable housing and the closure of state mental hospitals, advocates for the homeless say.

Nationwide, from Los Angeles to Miami to Baltimore, 744,313 people were homeless in 2005, the most recent year for which data were available, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. About 44 percent did not stay in shelters and were labeled "chronically homeless," a definition that includes people suffering from mental illness, substance abuse and other disabilities.

It is the chronically homeless who are the hardest to work with, advocates say. Many refuse to stay in shelters and have behavior problems. Homelessness is not just a Baltimore problem; affluent jurisdictions such as Montgomery County wrestle with it.

The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness is working with many cities, including Baltimore, to create 10-year plans to end homelessness.

A key part of the strategy involves getting people into permanent housing and then providing them with counseling, health services and jobs.

During Mayor Sheila Dixon's inaugural address Tuesday, she vowed to do more for the homeless. The city's 10-year plan is near completion, and to show that she is serious about seeing results, Dixon said she is moving the Homeless Services Division from the Health Department to the mayor's office.

"We are really focused on the encampments," said Diane Glauber, the head of the city's Homeless Services Division. "It's not hygienic. No one should have to live in a park. We can't force anyone into a shelter, but we could come up with some other strategies. ... Our goal and our plan is to have more permanent housing options available."

The city is also looking at opening a permanent shelter, one that would provide visitors with more than a shower and a cot, including medical aid, counseling, education and job training. The winter shelter at Guilford Avenue will provide such services, said Linda Boyer, the executive director of Jobs Housing Recovery, which is managing the shelter for the city this year.

"Stability is really an issue, and that's what we are trying to offer," said Boyer as she guided a visitor around the winter shelter, which is in an old elementary school near the Station North Arts and Entertainment District. "When they come in the door, we want to say, `Welcome, we'll do whatever we can to help.'"

The current shelter deficit occurred with little warning and is not entirely economic.

In October, when the YWCA closed its shelter for women and children, officials said they wanted to change the focus of the organization from housing to job training and financial skills. Although the then-acting director said that a dip in grant money played a significant role, it was not the only reason for the shuttering of the residence at 128 W. Franklin St.

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