It's Not Much, But It's Home

As Part Of Its Plan To End Homelessness In Baltimore, The City Plans To Close The Encampment Where Some Dozen Homeless Live Under The Jfx

December 29, 2009|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,brent.jones@baltsun.com

When the temperature drops below freezing and a makeshift fire pit is the sole heat source for about a dozen people living beneath the Jones Falls Expressway, Michael Supes pulls out his guitar, leads the group in a singalong and transports everyone to a different place.

"It's like being out in the country. You sit around the fire, eat, stay warm," said Supes, 20. "I play my guitar, and everyone listens. Just like camping."

But that will come to an end Wednesday, when city officials are set to close down the homeless encampment below an elevated part of Interstate 83, between Madison and Read streets.

For years, it has been the site of the city's downtrodden. About 10 pitched tents and three other makeshift forts - some with walls made of tan rugs - house the remaining few who plan to stay at the site they have come to call home until the end. City officials say the setup is dangerous, and they are seeking to find housing for the homeless through vouchers and other programs.

On a given night a few months ago, more than 40 people stayed beneath the highway; the number has dwindled to about a quarter of that. City officials say they have been successful locating places for many of them, but letting the others remain is not an option, especially during the winter.

"We've got people who slept out there in the snowstorm with absolutely freezing temperatures," said Greg Sileo, director of community outreach for Baltimore Homeless Services. "And the other thing that is extremely dangerous is that they're lighting fires under there to keep themselves warm. And they're surrounded by blankets and wood and all this stuff. If any of these things catch fire, all of these people would burn up. We can't have that on our hands."

Homeless for about a year, Darryl Parker has lived below the JFX for the past three months. He said the city's causes for concern are unwarranted.

Parker says he ended up on the street after his wife died and he sold the couple's belongings to give her a proper funeral. Unable to work full-time because of a medical disability, Parker, 52, said he didn't want to be a burden on his son or anyone else, so he decided instead to fend for himself by living on the street for the first time in his life.

During the recent blizzard, Parker said, he slept inside a tarp tacked down with spikes, underneath two comforters and a sleeping bag, rather than seeking shelter.

"I don't take [my son] or anybody my problems," he said.

Parker mostly avoids socializing with others underneath the highway but he admires how they all have become a community, like any neighborhood. The Salvation Army and even nearby residents oftentimes drop off food and drink, he said.

Parker's not sure where he'll go when the camp is shut down, and no one has approached him to help, he said.

"No one has talked to me. I want off the street," said Parker, who worked in construction before he was injured. "But this is about one of the safest spots. If you know what you're doing, you can make it."

Early last year, Mayor Sheila Dixon announced a 10-year plan to end homelessness in Baltimore. A June study showed Baltimore's homeless population had increased by 12 percent, to about 3,500 individuals.

The city has spent millions on year-round emergency shelters and is constructing a 275-bed, $8.2 million emergency facility. Baltimore received $31 million in federal funds for homeless services, including $9.5 million in emergency funds under the economic stimulus package.

City workers have been canvassing the area the past six months attempting to find permanent housing for the homeless by handing out federal low-income vouchers.

"Anybody who lives on the street, and of course that is a concentrated group of people, we've been working in finding housing for them and dealing with other issues that they face," Dixon said. "So there's a whole focus of interest not only in engaging them, but them realizing that there are people who want to help."

The city's efforts are admirable, says Jacqui Beard, but a significant portion of the homeless prefer to handle things on their own. Beard, 20, and her boyfriend, Jeremy Johnson, 27, have lived below the highway for two months, and if not for the order handed out last week by city officials, would have remained there through the winter.

Beard, Johnson and Supes, the guitar player, moved from a small town in Virginia to Baltimore the first week in November, where they hoped to build lives. Beard wanted to work at a Barnes and Noble, while Supes was hoping to enroll in art school.

The plans fell through. The trio's car was stolen and with none of them able to find permanent work, they found themselves on the street.

They tried the city's main shelter but felt like outsiders.

"Favoritism runs rampant," Beard said. "We'd rather be under the bridge than in that shelter. This is our shelter."

Life isn't easy. She said she can sense resentment from some in neighboring Mount Vernon who would rather not have a homeless encampment so close to six-figure condominiums, although the community association is backing the proposed city shelter.

Then, of course, there is the recent bone-chilling weather, which coffee and hot chocolate can only combat to a degree.

"It's hard, but we all get along," said Beard, who plans to work with the city's rental assistance program to find housing. "This thing has been going on for years. To shut us down like this, I just don't understand. I feel safer here than in a shelter. But it's coming to an end."

Baltimore Sun reporter Joe Burris contributed to this article.

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