Shelter plan upsets neighbors

Communities worry about effect of taking in the homeless

July 14, 2008|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN REPORTER

Mayor Sheila Dixon has promised to end homelessness. But that goal - which has been applauded by residents and advocates alike - is creating headaches for neighborhoods that have played host to homeless shelters in recent months.

When the city set up a 24-hour winter shelter in Baltimore's Greenmount West neighborhood last year, some residents worried that the presence of homeless men and women might dampen revitalization efforts. There were similar concerns when another shelter opened on East Fayette Street.

And when the Fayette Street shelter closed this month, there was more public consternation, this time from residents of Butchers Hill and Edmondson Heights, where two new shelters have opened to accommodate the city's homeless residents.

Both neighborhoods say they feel they are being forced to shelter the homeless. They have complained that city officials gave them little notice, and that they have real concerns about housing homeless adults near children. The Butchers Hill shelter is in a city recreation center near a school with summer classes; the Edmondson Heights shelter is in a high school to which some students will return for team practice in August.

"The shelter was forced upon us," said Barry Glassman, president of the Butchers Hill Association. "It was simply forced down our throats by an 800-pound gorilla, the City of Baltimore."

City officials say they wish they had had more time to give neighborhoods advance notice, but arranging for shelter sites takes time. They say that they have tried to reassure communities that the impact will be minimal and that police and private security guards will be on duty around the clock.

Officials say they are hopeful that city residents will be patient and work with them until a new, permanent shelter opens downtown in November 2009.

"These are the most vulnerable people you can imagine," said Diane Glauber, director of Baltimore Homeless Services, a city department that is working with the mayor on her goal to stamp out homelessness in the next decade. "There are many seniors and people in wheelchairs. They are the poorest, sickest people imaginable."

A spokesman for the mayor said that Dixon and her staff have tried to minimize the impact to communities. Still, he said some obstacles have been unexpected.

"I don't think anybody anticipated the specifics of [how difficult] finding a shelter location" would be, said Sterling Clifford, a spokesman for the mayor. "That has turned out to be pretty complicated. Still, nobody went into this with any illusion that it would be fast or easy."

Residents of the two neighborhoods say that it's not that they don't want to help homeless men, women and children. They are most upset about the way the city notified them - at the last minute.

Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham Sr., the president of the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP, said that community association presidents on Baltimore's west side were disappointed that city officials didn't tell them that the shelter was coming to their neighborhood until the day before it opened. When those presidents showed up at the shelter Tuesday, the night it was to open, city officials called police, Cheatham said.

"How can you tell people on one night that in less than 24 hours you are doing something significant to their school?" said Cheatham. "It was very arrogant."

Butchers Hill residents also said they felt blindsided. Glassman said that he got a telephone call from a city official in early June advising him that a shelter would be opening in the neighborhood, but that he didn't get any specifics about it until much later.

"You just don't come into a neighborhood with a situation like that with such short notice and without asking us what we see are potential consequences," Glassman said.

He said that he and his neighbors were making the most of a "bad situation" and that they would be watching closely to ensure that the city makes good on its promises of extra security and trash clean-up around the shelter.

City officials are busing homeless people to the shelters and will not accept anyone into the shelters who doesn't arrive on a bus. Buses leave from under the Jones Falls Expressway downtown at about 7 p.m. nightly. As the homeless gather, volunteers pass out sack dinners.

In the morning, shelter residents take buses back to the drop-off site, and many go to eat breakfast at Our Daily Bread, which is operated by Catholic Charities.

Several men who were waiting for breakfast early Thursday said that the city's shelter plan was working so far. However, they said that there were still some kinks to work out. One man said there weren't enough showers and sinks to wash in the morning. Still, he applauded the city's, and the mayor's, efforts.

"At least she is doing something," said Albert Johnson, 55, who stayed at one of the city shelters Wednesday night. Homelessness "is something that needed to be looked into. She made some promises that she is honoring."

Residents who live near the Edmondson Heights shelter drafted a letter to the mayor, and they said they'd been told to expect answers early next week. Residents say they are especially worried about teenage athletes who will return for practice at the school in August, as well as health risks. They don't want homeless people to sleep in the school cafeteria.

"If you house homeless people in a school, there are going to be some health risks and we want the city health commissioner to be heavily involved," Cheatham said. "We can't jeopardize our children because you want to house homeless people in our school."

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