During an impromptu emergency meeting convened Thursday night to discuss their response to the city's destruction of a homeless encampment on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard last week, 60 advocates representing more than 25 of Baltimore's service providers to the homeless learned the city plans to sweep away yet another improvised shelter in a few short weeks.
An hour into the discussion held at Healthcare for the Homeless' Fallsway headquarters downtown, Adam Schneider, HCH director of community relations and one of the meeting's organizers, rose to tell those in attendance he had just received an email from the mayor's Office of Human Services saying that on or around Aug. 8, the city would be displacing a string of tents on the west side of Fallsway in order to carry out "landscaping."
The message, from Vidia Dhanraj, the director of the city's Homeless Services Program within the OHS, drew frustrated shakes of the head from the meeting's attendees. Rumors had been circulating this week among both providers and their clients that more sweeps were to follow Friday's closing of the camp under the Route 40 overpass.
Meeting attendees said there was an utter lack of communication from the city in the run up to Friday's closure, which they said took them completely off guard. In light of this recent track record, Dhanraj's email might seem to be an improvement. But, providers said, the alert from City Hall is something closer to the bare minimum.
"Outreach workers and service providers are working all the time to find people housing they can afford and the support that people need to remain housed," said. Schneider. "But that doesn't happen in the course of a week or 30 days."
Outside Thursday's meeting, a nightly gathering had begun on HCH's awning-covered front steps, this day sheltering those gathered from summer rain and, forecasters warned, a possible tornado. Among them was Natasha (who asked that only her first name be used), a woman in her 20s with a ready laugh who said she, for one, had been informed more than a month ago about the impending Fallsway sweep by a worker for Baltimore's Bureau of Solid Waste.
"They come on Sunday for the farmers market," Natasha said, referring to the weekly pilgrimage of the hip, the health-conscious, and lovers of the homegrown to the area underneath I-83 that on every other day of the week is dominated by homeless folks. "He said they were about to fence it up because they're tired of all the trash and everything that's down there. The patrons, when they come to the farmers market, they don’t like to see trash."
If authorities were looking for an excuse to clear out the Fallsway camp, trash would seem to be the least of those available. In April, 23-year-old Jorvon Beatty was stabbed to death during a dispute over one of the encampment's tents. Since that time, Natasha says, even HCH staffers who can see the encampment from their second- and third-story offices have been reluctant to go there.
That Natasha was in the know more than a month before the city informed those inside the meeting of their plans is just one of many indicators of the dysfunction in the relationship between the Rawlings-Blake administration and those working with the homeless on the ground. Those workers are now scrambling not only to formulate a response in the wake of last week's events, but also to come up with a plan to head off the next crisis there on the Fallsway.
Even more unsettling perhaps is that Natasha by all indications received a more candid account of the motives behind the coming sweep from a garbage man. The notion that a landscaping project had coincidentally been scheduled on the grounds of another longstanding encampment within weeks of Friday's action did not appear to hold much water with the meeting's attendees.
"I didn't know that the city actually had resources to invest in landscaping," said Antonia Fasanelli, executive director of the Homeless Persons Representation Project, a legal aid group, and the driving force behind Thursday's meeting. "I thought we were this impoverished city that had barely any resources to help people who were homeless. But I guess they have money to buy trees."
During the Friday sweep, Fasanelli was captured by TV cameras heatedly confronting the administration's deputy director for the Homeless Services program, Chris Rafferty.
"I saw you on Wednesday, and you didn't tell me about this," said Fasanelli, finger pointed at Rafferty.
She was referring to a meeting two days prior of an affordable housing subcommittee of the Journey Home Board, a quasi-governmental group given the task of implementing the 10-year homelessness abatement plan adopted in 2008 by the Rawlings-Blake administration.
The board is composed primarily of members of the mayor's cabinet and executives from local service providers. Fasanelli says she found it astonishing that Rafferty would fail to announce his office's intentions when surrounded by a choice group of the city's most dedicated workers in the field of homelessness.
"I thought you knew," Fasanelli recalls him saying. It was the same response she received from the head of OHS, Jacquelyn Duval-Harvey.
"They had the same line, 'I thought you knew, somebody else was supposed to tell you.'" Who that "somebody" was remains a mystery to Fusanelli.
No more answers were forthcoming the day after the emergency provider meeting. Requests for comment sent by City Paper to the offices of Dhanraj, Harvey, and other city officials were not immediately answered.
"Jacquelyn Duval-Harvey's line was that they got rid of the encampment because some [neighborhood] women were afraid," Fusinelli says. "That's what she said to the media, and that was the first time I had ever heard that."
"Who was it who felt unsafe, and from what type of harm, from those tents pushed way back away from the street?" wonders Jacqueline Robarge, Director of Power Inside, an outreach organization working with traumatized women and girls. "What we're asking ourselves is, how do you work on the problem, rather than victimize people, when the concerns seem very vague."
According to Baltimore City Department of Public Works Chief of Communications and Community Affairs Jeff Raymond, Friday's rousting of the homestead sheltered under the infamous "highway to nowhere" was a multi-agency effort coordinated between the mayor's office, the Office of Human Services, the Health Department, the police, and his agency, which was assigned the task of carting off any possessions left behind by the camp's residents and erecting a barrier fence to keep those residents from returning to the site any time in the near future.
Contacted on Friday to find out more about how and when the plan for the landscaping announced on Thursday had come about, and whether DPW would again be called in August to lead an eviction effort if the Fallsway's residents don't leave voluntarily, Raymond only said "these questions will have to be addressed by the mayor's office, not DPW."
The relationship between the city and the providers it licenses and pays to provide services to the homeless has not always been this badly strained. Robarge says she has had good working relationships with the rank and file of the administration's Homeless Services office. But at the level of the administration's leadership, frontline outreach workers, even those who like herself have founded independent nonprofits have no access.
While Robarge is careful to point out that there are dedicated staffers in the OHS, Schneider is less forgiving of the organization as a whole.
"I'm offended by anybody who suggests that the best way to respond to people who are poor and who are desperate is to make their situation more desperate. I'm offended that the work of service providers and outreach workers is being undermined by people who ostensibly say, 'No, no, no, we're trying to help.'"
But when asked who, exactly, is at fault in the situation, he's unable to answer.
"I don't know who's calling the shots," he says.
That uncertainty extends all the way to the elite Journey Home board. While it is advertised as the tip of the spear in transforming the city's approach to homelessness, Fasanelli says she, as a board member, is not even certain of the board's relationship to the government under whose auspices it operates.
"Is it advice to the mayor? Is it advice to the housing commissioner? Is it setting policy? It's very unclear."
For Fasanelli, Schneider, Robarge, and those in attendance at Thursday's meeting, confusion and turf wars among the top echelon of the city's homelessness policy-makers are not the primary concern, however.
"We have to appreciate the magnitude of what we are doing," Robarge said. "It seems to have become so easy to uproot the lives of people in these encampments. While [last Friday] was a quiet event, make no mistake, it was a crisis for the people impacted on that morning. We can't do this again."
A repeat of Friday's events is precisely what the city has planned for the residents of the Fallsway.
In explaining the city's actions to local television news crews on Friday, Duval-Harvey, told one reporter, "This is not the way people should live."
Schneider said Thursday that he would welcome a time when no one had to take up residence in one of Baltimore's tent towns. But he and the other advocates City Paper spoke to all say that for many people who find themselves homeless, and for their service providers as well, these temporary residences offer many advantages over a shelter system that is bursting at the seams.
"There's not enough affordable housing for people in the city," Fasanelli says, "so there are people who are homeless. There's not enough shelter space for the people who are homeless. So where are the rest of the people going to go?"