SRB delays razing Fallsway homeless camp, advocates still seeking long-term solutions

A temporary reprieve for the homeless encampment on the Fallsway, previously slated for destruction on Aug. 8, is only a first small step in correcting the city's dysfunctional approach to homeless issues, advocates say.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced yesterday she is delaying the razing of the homeless camp. The Baltimore Brew first reported the story.

"I see it as a first attempt at resolution," said Lin Romano, chief operating officer of Govans Ecumenical Development Corporation, a group that provides affordable housing. "It certainly doesn't go far enough, it doesn't call for a total ban on evicting people who are homeless, but it does give us some time to try to work toward better solutions."

A statement released Thursday evening announced that Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake had agreed to "delay the Fallsway encampment closure . . . given concerns raised by the Journey Home board." The statement was later sent to the board itself and other nongovernmental homeless services providers in the city by Deputy Mayor Dawn Kirstaetter, who supervises the city's Homeless Services program.

Despite being aimed at mollifying service providers who have effectively risen in revolt in the last three weeks, and attempting to begin to patch up the fractured relationship between the city and the organizations it funds to serve the homeless, the mayor's statement contains strong language describing all encampments as "unsafe and unhealthy situations, both for the people residing there and for the men, women and children who live and work nearby."

Kevin Lindemood, CEO of Healthcare for the Homeless (HCH), which sits just a few yards away from the Fallsway encampment, disagrees with that perspective.

"There's absolutely no evidence that an encampment is any more dangerous than living in a squalid basement, under a bridge, in an abandoned building, or couch surfing from place to place," Lindemood said.

The mayor's statement goes on to assert that "the City simply cannot allow the encampments to continue indefinitely," leaving activists wondering whether operations against encampments will resume if short-term efforts to house campers should fail to yield results in a time frame satisfactory to City Hall.

"We can house the people that are across the street from Healthcare for the Homeless, but there will be more people there if we do not address the broader structural issues," said Adam Schneider, HCH's director of community relations.

Those issues include some very broad social ills: mental illness, drug addiction, and, above all, poverty and a lack of affordable housing.

"To say that we can end homelessness without addressing the broader problem of poverty is a false statement. It’s like bailing out a bathtub without turning off the faucet," said Lindemood.

Schneider took specific aim at the city's business development policies as a policy failure that has exacerbated homelessness in recent years.

"If we continue as a city to support development projects for the affluent and leave the poor communities and the poor individuals out, then we can't end this, then we are not going to end homelessness, we are not going to end encampments," said Schneider.

But providers do also see hope for a better future in the mayor's announcement, particularly the elevation of Journey Home Chair Adrienne Breidenstine to a new position reporting directly to Deputy Mayor Kirstaetter. Breidenstine brings a track record of experience with homeless issues, having served for almost four years as the top policy advisor at the national Healthcare for the Homeless Council.

"Probably more than other people in the city government at that level, she has had feet on the ground, and knows what we are dealing with, understands it, and is tied to the Journey Home, not tied to the traditional framework of how this city operates," said Romano.

A broad show of solidarity among the city's homeless advocates came just hours before the mayor’s announcement at a meeting of the Continuum of Care, an umbrella group embracing the city’s various federally-funded service providers.

At that meeting, representatives of a coalition of providers, including two national organizations with links to the city, presented a statement in which they refused to comply with the city’s request that they assist in the closure of the Fallsway camp by providing emergency services to any who remained there when the area was cleared out.

"Until the City is able to provide appropriate housing and services to encampment residents," the statement read in part, "the undersigned service providers and advocates will not participate in any activities that further displace and disadvantage our homeless neighbors."

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