Homeless whisked away to shelters

City officials focus on JFX shantytown

December 14, 2007|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,Sun reporter

Fearful that homeless residents might freeze to death or be killed in an accidental blaze, Baltimore officials descended on a shantytown under the Jones Falls Expressway yesterday in an effort to move vulnerable individuals to shelters or other types of housing.

"No trespassing" and "no camping" signs were posted at the encampment, and city officials and homeless advocates tried to persuade homeless individuals, some of whom suffer from mental illnesses, to leave their tarp-and-pallet-board structures.

City officials told homeless residents they have until tomorrow morning to leave. At that time, officials will tear down the shanties. Officials said they will not arrest individuals for violating the no-trespassing order, but homeless people said they have been arrested before for sleeping on public property.

Although about a dozen homeless people agreed to be taken to the winter shelter, at least 10 shantytown residents remained last night. The weather forecast calls for frigid temperatures and possible snowfall over the next few days.

"Everyone understands the dangers of the encampment," said Sterling Clifford, a spokesman for Mayor Sheila Dixon. "We are trying to do this in a very positive manner."

The push to relocate the homeless comes less than a week after the city opened its winter shelter and a few days after an article and editorial in The Sun spotlighted life in the shantytown as well as the city's diminished stock of shelter beds. Four shelters have shut down in recent months, leaving Baltimore with about 300 fewer beds than last year at this time. The city has also been slow creating permanent housing solutions for the homeless.

On Tuesday, a fire official inspected the shantytown on Guilford Avenue between Bath and Pleasant streets. He noted more than 20 "improvised" shelters, many of which were constructed with old camping tents, pieces of wood, tarps and blankets. The fire official said several occupants of the shanties were smoking inside them.

"The makeshift encampment is a fire hazard," fire Capt. Raymond C. O'Brocki III said in a memo to city officials. "If a fire should occur, the combustible building construction in concert with the lack of fire stops ... would endanger the occupants of the tiny, overcrowded structures."

Residents of another shantytown at Fayette and President streets will not be affected by the relocation effort as their shelters are on private property. "Bum Park," as the encampment is called, has been in existence for several years and is monitored in part by members of St. Vincent de Paul Roman Catholic Church.

At the Guilford Avenue encampment yesterday, shuttle vans whisked away the homeless to the city's winter shelter on the 1600 block of Guilford Ave. Those who went to the shelter were reassured that if they didn't like it they could return to the encampment to await other housing options.

"We want to offer them the opportunity of moving to a shelter," said Lt. Robert Maloney of the city Office of Emergency Management, one of several agencies on hand yesterday to meet with homeless residents. "If they want to leave today, they can do that."

Advocates for the homeless were notified of the city's plan at an impromptu meeting Wednesday. Another meeting was held yesterday afternoon as city officials tried to figure out how to use public housing to shelter some homeless people. At one point during the day, there was talk of temporarily housing some people in hotels.

Overall, advocates said they were pleased with the city's efforts.

"The ultimate goal of this is to get permanent housing for everyone who lived at the encampment," said Jeff Singer, executive director of Health Care for the Homeless. "There are [public housing] vouchers that will be provided. I am somewhat stunned by all this because I can tell you from previous experience that it usually doesn't turn out this way."

As temperatures dropped and a frigid drizzle fell yesterday, outreach workers made their way around the encampment and spoke with homeless people. "Would you like to see the city shelter?," they asked the homeless people, some of whom were bundled up in blankets and sleeping bags in their tarp lean-tos. "You don't have to go if you don't want to," they said.

A homeless woman named Donna was the first to depart in one of several vans. She said she had been living under the JFX since July and that she was ready to get out of the cold. She also expressed concern that if she did not leave quickly she would be evicted.

"It looks like they are going to kick us out," said Donna, who declined to give her last name for fear of being stigmatized. "If we choose to live here, we should be allowed to make that choice."

Another resident of the shantytown, Lakeeshia Lewis, 42, started to cry when she learned that she would have to leave.

Several men said they would stay at the shantytown, in part because they don't trust city officials.

"There are too many personalities at the shelter," said James Hardy, 48, who works for a temp agency at night and has lived at the shantytown for six weeks. "I'd rather take my chances and stay here."

lynn.anderson@baltsun.com

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