People living next to a midtown entrance to the Jones Falls Expressway say they've forestalled a planned city eviction of their encampment but, backed by legal advisors and volunteers from Occupy Baltimore, are now demanding permanent housing.
"Put us in a hotel," a young man calling himself "Mellow" told City Paper on Feb. 20. "Lots of people here are trying to acquire stuff for the next step."
Mellow has been here with his girlfriend since last July. Last spring, he says, he was housed by the Prisoner's Aid Association as part of the Shelter Plus Care Program.
Then PAA stopped paying the rent and collapsed due to fraud and mismanagement ("The Death Spiral of Prisoners Aid Association," Feature, Dec. 26). He says he was evicted last May.
Mellow went to the city shelter, then was placed with Catholic Charities, which put him in Christopher Place, a "residential employment academy" whose rules, he says, did not suit him.
Mellow returned to the city shelter, "but the environment was terrible. There was a lot of theft." So he and his girlfriend came here.
About 16 people live at the camp, which has been active for years, according to residents and activists. A rumor spread in early February that the city was going to shut the camp down on Feb. 26, and Occupy Baltimore activists reached out to the residents.
"We realized that the mayor's office of community service was meeting on Thursday [Feb. 14] about the 10-year-plan [to end homelessness] revisions," says Rachel Kutler, one of the volunteer activists. "So the group came out to the meeting."
People from the camp-now dubbed "Camp 83," after the highway overpass-met with Olivia Farrow and Kate Briddell, the directors of Human and Homeless Services, respectively, during a "community meeting" at Our Daily Bread, the massive homeless services center a few hundred yards from the encampment, where the tent dwellers take showers. At first, the encampment's residents asked the city to push back the eviction until after the first of the month, when disability checks arrive. The city agreed to give them until March 8.
"Then the goals changed," says Kutler. "The goal now is permanent affordable housing options."
The group sent its list of demands to City Hall on Feb. 19 with five bullet points reminding Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake of international human rights laws and calling for "living wage legislation, unionized jobs," and other things Democrats like Rawlings-Blake generally champion. "Therefore, all members of the encampment, signed below, are prepared to move into permanent affordable housing units provided by the City on March 8," the list reads in part. "If the units are not available by March 8, we expect all residents to be housed in reasonable temporary accommodations until permanent housing is available."
On Monday, the city responded to the demands by reiterating that the camp is "illegal" and that city outreach workers would continue to "work with the people who are living there now as they transition to permanent housing, shelters, or other locations." The written response reiterated that closing the camp was for the occupants' safety.
"A couple years ago, at another encampment, they gave plenty of notice, posted signs," Mellow says on Feb. 20, dressed in several lawyers and gloves against the windblown cold. "This time we got no notice. If we're forced out by police, we got people gonna back us up."
The tent next to Mellow's is occupied by Nate, a North Carolina native Mellow calls "the mayor" of Camp 83. It takes Nate about three minutes to get out of the tent after Mellow summons him. "I got arthritis," he apologizes as Mellow helps him to his feet.
"I sit out here all day and read my Bible, read my novels," Nate says. He has purple glasses and a hand-rolled cigarette.
Nate says he's been here since April, having got his fill of the shelter where he says he had two bags stolen and saw a man with diabetes have to employ a younger, more spry fellow to dig his medication out of a dumpster where it was discarded by staff.
"So after eight days, I introduced myself here," Nate says.
Originally from Wilmington, N.C., Nate says three years ago a friend of 25 years invited him to Baltimore, to live rent free and take care of his diabetic mother.
He says he put himself on the list for free housing then. The friend put him out last spring, says Nate: "I'm an alcoholic. I drink beer every day. Not so I'm stumbling, but every day. After a couple of years, my friend gave me an ultimatum."
Nate says he is still in touch with his friend, who keeps his furniture and for a while at first looked after his dog, Sasha, a four-year old shih tzu terrier.
"She is a service dog," Nate says. "I am bipolar. Severely depressed. So I have someone to take care of."
Sasha, Nate says, recognizes when he's about to have a depressive episode. He says she lays on his lap and sighs. Soon after, Nate says, he zips the tent and doesn't emerge for days.
The dog is Nate's lifeline. "I've had rooms offered to me, six rooms," he says. "But I turned it down because they wouldn't take Sasha too. My family said, 'Now we know for sure you're crazy.'"
Just before this story went to press, Nate got a permanent housing placement-with Sasha-according to Bonnie Lane, a volunteer outreach worker and writer for Word on the Street, a homeless person's news website.