Baltimore Razes Downtown Homeless Camps

A new facility opened at the end of January with the mission of finding Baltimore’s homeless population rapid and permanent housing.

“We talk about this being a supportive process,” Candace Vanderwater, Chief Operating Officer of Volunteers of America (VOA) Chesapeake, told the AFRO by phone Jan. 30. Serving that end is about “making connections and getting folks housing-ready, removing barriers and ultimately seeing the success of them being able to obtain permanent housing,” she said.

VOA, which services the Maryland, Virginia and D.C. area, currently provides over 200 units of affordable housing at its Paca House, Pratt House and Irvington Woods locations. The homes provide housing for families as well as efficiencies for individual adults, Vanderwater said.

Located at 4900 E Monument St, the refurbished warehouse location was originally contracted between Baltimore City and VOA as a halfway house for city residents returning from prison. Seeming to address the primary year-in and year-out complaints about Baltimore’s shelters, 4900 E. Monument offers comparatively stable 24/7 accommodations of food, shelter and sanitation.

The opening of the new living space comes at the closure of a burgeoning encampment a mere two blocks from city hall. VOA began accepting residents Jan. 22 and the camp was razed Jan. 26.

In July, approximately 10 tents with 15 residents were set up beneath the Fallsway underpassess at Bath Street and Guilford Avenue. The population dropped in August as residents migrated to War Memorial Park as part of the tent city protest. The encampment dramatically expanded when tent city was razed and dispersed. Old residents returned and new residents settled in. Five months later, at the time of the razing, residents themselves estimated 40 to 50 people were living at the site across more than 30 tents.

The site was closed “due to rapidly escalating health and safety concerns,” said Terry Hickey, Director of the Mayor’s Office of Human Services, in a press release.

While VOA will work to make residents “housing-ready,” the city may not be prepared for their success. “The reality, however, is that there is not currently capacity to provide immediate permanent housing to all who require it,” Hickey said in the same release. “Accordingly, the city has entered into a partnership with a respected and experienced provider, Volunteers of America, to provide bridge housing for all current residents of the above-referenced encampments.”

But what is the definition of bridge housing, when there’s not housing available at the other?

“The bridge program on Monument St., is a bridge to permanent housing,” Vanderwater said. “It’s a way for folks to prepare and become housing-ready. It’s a supportive process for folks who have been homeless for a long period of time and who have possibly some complex support needs or barriers that have prevented them historically from being housed.”

The Mayor’s Office did not respond to the AFRO’s requests for clarification on the city’s working definition or conception of bridge housing.

Much like last August, Mayor Pugh visited the encampment to see conditions on the ground before the razing and the razing left the all-too-familiar square muddy footprints where tents had been. This time, the police presence was much more heavy. Guilford Ave was shut down from early morning until late evening between East Centre and East Pleasant Streets.

Last year, Nathaniel Fields, Manager, Homeless Outreach, Downtown Partnership read the accord between the city and protestors at the conclusion of the Tent City protests. Last week, Fields was personally helping residents dismantle their tents.

VOA has 23 residents in its new facility and program. It cannot confirm how many, if any, are former residents of the Guilford Ave. tent city.

Many residents refused to leave the encampment and declined the offer to relocate to VOA. Many were suspicious of the location in an area they thought was high in drugs, crime and as close to the Baltimore County line as possible without crossing it.

“I’m just coming home from out of prison,” said Tony Hall, who refers to himself as just a homeless man, outside. “I’m not trying to go back into another institution.”

Hall and another resident, Robert Knox, held signs as residents dragged collapsed tents and debris into the street to block traffic.

Knox rubbed black scars on his knuckles that he says are from frostbite.

“I just want to lay down and give up. It’s like I don’t even live, I just exist.”

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