City set to clear homeless encampments along Fallsway, under I-83

Standing outside his tent pitched on the sidewalk by a defunct downtown diner, Jimmy Stewart III wondered aloud where he'll sleep after city officials force him to leave Friday morning.

The city is set to remove Stewart, 54, and a couple dozen other homeless people from their temporary homes on soggy mattresses along the Fallsway at makeshift campsites between parking spaces under the Jones Falls Expressway and inside tents huddled against the closed Hollywood Diner.

It will be the fifth time in four years the city has forced him to move, Stewart said. "If you had to do this one day in someone else's shoes, you would hate it," he said.

Friday's expected sweep marks the city's latest attempt to clear the encampments that periodically pop up downtown. City officials say they are unsafe and can be breeding grounds for drug activity and other social ills.

But the city has struggled to find a long-term solution for the estimated 2,500 to 4,000 homeless people in Baltimore.

More than halfway through Baltimore's 10-year plan to end homelessness, the city has connected 500 families to federal vouchers for permanent housing, opened a 24-hour shelter and deployed teams of outreach workers to link men, women and children to services.

To advocates for the homeless, clearing the encampments is counterproductive, scattering vulnerable people and disrupting the advocates' efforts to establish bonds of trust with the homeless, many of whom suffer from mental illness and struggle with substance abuse.

"Nobody wants to see encampments, but I think we forget that essentially no one sleeping in encampments wants to be there either," said Adam Schneider, chairman of the Maryland Alliance for the Poor.

"How do we not simply move the problem from place to place, but address the problem?"

Schneider said the first priority for the city is to do a better job connecting the homeless to affordable housing. He pointed to recent news that the city has 30 unused housing vouchers that could accommodate the approximate number of people currently sleeping under the JFX and along the Fallsway.

"We've all seen it happen: You close down one encampment and then people move to another corner. Then the folks adjacent to that corner get upset, and you close that and they move somewhere else," Schneider said.

Kevin Harris, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, said clearing encampments is not the city's focus. Instead, he said, officials are working to find solutions to help the chronically homeless get off the streets for good.

To that end, the administration will ask the Housing Authority of Baltimore City on Tuesday to approve the use of another 150 housing vouchers for the homeless.

But in the meantime, Harris said, the city cannot allow the homeless to stay in unsafe encampments.

"We can do better than that," he said.

The city posted signs last week warning that the encampments would be cleaned within 30 days, and that trash and personal belongings would be removed and taken to a facility in Cherry Hill, where the possessions can be reclaimed within 90 days.

On Thursday, red plastic cups, waterlogged sheets of cardboard, empty jugs of soda, lighters and piles of discarded clothing and blankets were strewn along a hill across from a couple of hotels on the Fallsway. One man's birth certificate was folded up and tucked under a damp blanket.

A team of outreach workers from the Northwest Baltimore nonprofit People Encouraging People surveyed the people living there, asking whether they needed services and leaving them with a map showing the location of shelters, health care providers, soup kitchens and resource centers.

Magnus Ezeani, a case manager with the nonprofit, said his team came at the request of the city to prepare the homeless there for Friday's clearing.

Relocating the individuals takes a long-term commitment, he said.