Rawlings-Blake administration says it will work within federal guidelines on homeless camps

On Wednesday, the Rawlings-Blake administration signaled that it would continue its recent change in course on encampments. At a meeting of the Journey Home Board, the mayor's advisory council on homeless issues, they said the city plans to work within new federal guidelines which discourage the wholesale destruction of encampments.

Board members were given a new set of guidelines on encampments published last week by the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, a federal group of six agencies including Housing and Urban Development, the single largest provider of funding for homeless services and low income housing in Baltimore.

The document said, in part, that "the forced dispersal of people from encampment settings is not an appropriate solution or strategy, accomplishes nothing toward the goal of linking people to permanent housing opportunities, and can make it more difficult to provide such lasting solutions to people who have been sleeping and living in the encampment."

Although the guidelines are not binding, HUD spokesman Brian Sullivan said Wednesday that actions such as razing homeless encampments "could adversely impact a community's application for funds."

Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano told the Journey Home Board on Wednesday that the administration would follow the USICH guidelines.

"It is the mayor's desire that we move forward in addressing encampments within this sort of framework," Graziano said.

Jacquelyn Duval-Harvey, head of the Office of Human Services, which oversees the city government's homeless programs, reinforced Graziano's point.

"Let me be clear. These guidelines are imposed by HUD, and our funding comes from HUD, so the expectation is that we will give them what they need," she said.

It was a substantial change of course for Duval-Harvey, who was a key architect of the MLK encampment closure, as well as the proposed closure of a similar camp on the Fallsway.

Earlier this week, after a City Council meeting on Monday, two councilmen instrumental in mobilizing plans for the destruction of homeless camps in their districts said this week that the opposition of the city's top homeless care providers to those camp clearances held little weight with them. 

Both District 11 Councilman Eric Costello and District 12 Councilman Carl Stokes successfully lobbied Rawliings-Blake to take action to close down encampments in their districts earlier this year.

"We both felt that it was the right decision," Costello said, asserting the camp under the Route 40 overpass presented a "different set of challenges" from others in the city.

"It had to be fenced up, that had to be done, because it was a very serious public safety hazard," Costello said. "There was drug use occurring in the encampment. There was human urination and defecation in the encampment area. It was no longer safe."

The camp on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard was destroyed on June 28th. But it aroused so much anger among homeless advocates that the destruction of a camp by the Fallsway in Stokes' district, initially scheduled for Aug. 8th, has now been put on indefinite hold.

The proposed Fallsway camp closure was lobbied for heavily by Stokes. Nearly concurrent with Costello's efforts on the west side, Stokes campaigned for the closure on behalf of two hotel owners in his inner east side district.

Stokes said he disagrees with the administration's approach, and the stated goal of the Journey Home Board to house all members of an encampment before taking any action to clean up a site.

"Frankly, not everyone can live independently in a home, so it's a little disingenuous, frankly, to state that the policy will be or that the goal is that everybody gets into a house or a home," Stokes said.

Long-time homeless activist Jeff Singer, former head of Healthcare for the Homeless, said on Wednesday that Stokes is in part correct, that supportive services are a necessary part of any housing plan. Those services, from subsidies for food and transportation to health care, are in fact part and parcel of advocates' proposals, Singer said.

Regardless of the course the administration ultimately chooses to take, Stokes said, its vacillation has made it difficult to progress on the issue of what he calls "a burgeoning tent city" on the Fallsway.

"I've sort of taken myself out of it in some ways because I was disappointed that we couldn't get a consistent approach to this that would lead to resolution for all parties, the homeless, the businesses, and the neighbors," Stokes said.

The hotel owners, Sanket Patel and Khaled Said, told Journey Home board members at Wednesday's meeting that they are being put out of business by the encampment, located just a few yards from their hotels' front doors.

According to Patel, neither he nor Said was ever looking to Stokes for a quick-fix, or a repeat of the MLK showdown, in the first place.

"You can't just uproot the people and just kick them out without having a plan," Patel said. "That may help business in the short-term, but for us, as long-term investors into the city and its success, we need a solution that will also be long-term."

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