Alliance to aid homeless City-church pact to aid homeless

Church, city to join in helping camp dwellers

May 19, 2008|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,Sun reporter

The tents in the sylvan space next to St. Vincent de Paul Roman Catholic Church are down, but that doesn't mean that the Baltimore congregation - famous for defying city officials who wanted to eliminate the grimy encampment of homeless men and women just blocks from the Inner Harbor - is backing down completely.

Homeless men and women will continue to sleep in the park at the foot of the Jones Falls Expressway, according to a memorandum of understanding between the city and the church, but they will not be allowed to set up tents - even in winter. Also, members of the church have invited city officials to regularly visit the park, which it owns, to try to help homeless men and women move into permanent housing and get drug treatment and medical care.

"What we are hoping is that [the park] can be a portal of entry into housing and the whole treatment system," said the Rev. Richard T. Lawrence, pastor of the church, who has long defended the rights of homeless men and women to congregate on its property.

City officials stress that homeless people who come to the park will not be guaranteed housing. Rather, they say they will work with those who inhabit the park, sometimes called "Bum Park" because of its reputation as a magnet for the homeless, to find shelter.

"It's the first time that we are working really well together," said Diane Glauber, head of city's Homeless Services division. "It's the start of a good relationship."

The agreement with the church, which is known for its social activism, didn't come easy. Lawrence and his flock have stood firm for years against city officials who complained that the camp of homeless people was an eyesore.

Church members believed that they should continue to offer shelter under the park's trees to those who needed it until the city had a viable answer to homelessness. The answer, as it turns out, is the city's Housing First initiative, which has been used in recent months to house homeless people from several camps, including a large one under the Jones Falls Expressway on Guilford Avenue.

"We will encourage [city officials] to come into the park and get the guys housing," Lawrence said. "That is what we are going to do. What they are going to do is they are agreeing not to pressure us to close the park."

That pressure, according to Lawrence, had come in various forms, including "threats," from city officials in years past. But the push to move the homeless had intensified in recent months, the pastor said, in part because police had made some arrests in the park. Drug dealers had taken over some of the tents and were distributing narcotics from them. Also, prostitution was taking place in some of the tarp shelters, he said.

"The tents were making things too convenient," Lawrence said. "And we didn't want [criminal acts] to happen anymore."

City officials said they are eager to make the most of their new pact with St. Vincent de Paul.

Outreach workers have been visiting with homeless men and women who live and congregate in the park for the past several weeks, and workers are planning to do medical and mental health assessments of park inhabitants this week. Those assessments will be used to determine housing options for park residents, as well as drug treatment needs.

"There's a certain trust," said Greg Sileo, who heads up the city's homeless outreach work, of the connection that has evolved between the homeless people at the park and some outreach workers. He said it also helps that the city has made ending homelessness a priority and has developed a plan to achieve it within 10 years.

The plan, announced by Mayor Sheila Dixon this year, calls for the leasing of 500 housing units to chronically homeless men, women and families; the passage of legislation to make it illegal to discriminate against renters who receive government subsidies such as food stamps and housing vouchers; and the creation of a housing trust that would encourage developers to build homes for the poor and disenfranchised.

The city has recently upset some neighborhoods by placing temporary shelters in residential areas, but there have also been some signs of progress.

Several homeless camps have been broken down recently, including the one on Guilford Avenue, and most of the people who lived in them were moved into permanent housing units, not shelters. More recently, city officials persuaded a handful of homeless people living outdoors in South Baltimore to enter drug treatment.

About 100 housing units have already been set aside by the city housing authority for use by homeless men, women and children, and at least 10 of those have been reserved for some of the people who live in the park next door to St. Vincent de Paul, Glauber said.

At least one park resident is eager to have a home with a roof and four walls.

Emily Dodd is a 72-year-old grandmother who has been living in the park for about a month, she said. Dodd said that after her husband died several years ago, she moved in with her children. But when they started to argue, she moved on.

"I just went from one place to the next, and then I ended up here," she said. "Oh, if I could have a little apartment, that would be so nice."

Another park resident, Anthony Graham, 52, said he prefers the outdoors to shelters. He demonstrated to a visitor how he sleeps in the rain, under a purple comforter and a brown tarp.

"This is how people sleep," Graham said, snuggling up in his comforter while tucking the tarp under his wooden bench. Still, he said that when it rains hard, there's no staying dry. "That's when it's really terrible," he said.

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