Homeless advocates and a city councilwoman sharply criticized Monday a Rawlings-Blake administration plan to remove an encampment of about a dozen homeless people this week from under the Interstate 83 overpass in central Baltimore.
But administration officials defended the move as a safety measure, designed to protect homeless men and women from a camp they say is overrun by drugs, alcohol and violence.
"I'm concerned about the safety of the individuals in the encampment," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said Monday. "That's why we've had workers out there connecting with each and every one of them. There are shelter beds available. ... There's also emergency housing. They know about these services. My hope is they'll move out of what is a dangerous situation into a public or private shelter bed or transitional housing."
Olivia D. Farrow, director of the Mayor's Office of Human Services, said the Friday deadline is an effort to push the homeless there to get their lives back on track.
"When it raises to the level of a serious safety hazard, that's when we feel the need to step in," she said of the camp. "The site has trash and debris, open fires. Clearly there is illicit sex going on. There's drug use going on. There's domestic violence going on."
But homeless advocates view the proposed dismantling of the encampment as an injustice. They said city officials should either provide them with permanent housing or let them stay.
Holding signs with such slogans as "Housing is a human right," about a dozen people rallied outside City Hall on Monday to ask the city to relent. Among them was Tony Simmons, a 51-year-old man who spends most nights at a city emergency shelter and has been homeless for more than a year.
Shelters are not a good fit for everyone, Simmons said. He said he has enough friends that he feels safe but that he knows of situations where individuals were assaulted or had their belongings stolen.
"You don't know who is next to you at night," Simmons said of the shelters.
Also on Monday, City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke introduced a resolution that would either extend the camp's eviction date by three months or place the inhabitants into temporary transitional housing.
The city has been working to get permanent housing vouchers for all the people who live at what she calls "Camp 83," Clarke said, but the process is incomplete and could be thrown off track if the city goes ahead with the planned eviction Friday and the residents are scattered.
"There are 11 people left, and they can't be left behind," Clarke said.
The mayor rejected suggestions that the city should pay for the homeless to temporarily live in hotels, as was done in 2007.
"In my mind, it's not a responsible use of taxpayer money," Rawlings-Blake said.
Farrow told council members at a lunch Monday that some of the homeless do not want to follow the rules of the shelters, which set restrictions on coming and going, and ban drugs and alcohol.
"Many of them are on drugs," Farrow said. "They can't bring their drugs in the shelter. They can't bring their booze in the shelter. ... We have emergency beds available."
Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector called the camp "toxic," a phrase that offended Clarke.
"I would hope we wouldn't stereotype," Clarke said.
At the protest, Lee Patterson, 57, said he attended the rally to show the mayor that people are paying attention.
Patterson said he was homeless for about a year after he could no longer work because of advanced kidney disease. He and his wife recently moved into an efficiency apartment in Dundalk that they can afford with Social Security disability benefits.
"You never know when it may happen to you," Patterson said. "It's a shame how some people are taken for granted. People like me have become dispensable."