No Place Like Home
Homeless Bused Back and Forth After Downtown Shelter Shuttered
About 125 people are standing around under the Jones Falls Expressway downtown. Some are standing with suitcases next to them; others are sitting on folding chairs, sandwiches in hand. There are still some people standing in a small line behind a Salvation Army truck to get dinner. The area feels like an airport or train station. There's tension in the air, and it's obvious that everyone is waiting for something to happen.
These people are homeless, and they are waiting to be bused to the new temporary locations of the city's Code Blue shelter. A couple of weeks ago the shelter's residents were relocated when the city closed the downtown shelter on East Fayette Street down. In that shelter's place, the city opened two different shelters, one on the city's east side and one on the west. The city made an agreement with the communities of the new shelters to not to accept walk-ins, so it is not publicly disclosing the shelter locations. (On July 14, The Sun ran a story disclosing both shelter locations and revealing that the communities in which the shelters are located are not exactly pleased to be hosting them.) In order to get into the shelters, their residents must catch a shuttle bus, so every evening homeless men and women gather in this empty parking lot under the JFX to get dinner served by the Salvation Army and wait for a spot on a bus that will take them to one of the shelters for the night. In the morning, the homeless are bused back downtown and dropped off at Our Daily Bread soup kitchen, where they are served breakfast between 5 and 6 a.m.
Before the city closed it down, the Code Blue shelter was a 24-hour haven for the homeless located at 1001 E. Fayette St. The city contracted with Baltimore-based nonprofit organization Jobs, Housing, and Recovery to provide staffing for the shelter. Traditionally, the Code Blue shelter has always been a seasonal homeless shelter, located on Guilford Avenue and open from December through March, that provided a warm place to sleep on nights when the temperatures dropped below freezing. This year, rather than close the shelter in March, the city leased the Fayette Street location for 90 days and moved the residents of Code Blue there.
The two shelters that have absorbed Code Blue's residents are also temporary and will only be open during the summer; by November, the city says it will once again open a 24-hour homeless shelter at yet another location. And by the end of 2009, it says, construction will be completed on a building that will become a new, permanent 24-hour homeless shelter.
In the meantime, the city will be busing the homeless in and out of downtown every morning and evening. The effort is a collaboration between the city Department of Homeless Services, Office of Emergency Management (which mainly deals with Homeland Security and temporary emergencies), and Department of Housing. The city Commission on Aging and Retirement Education is also doing its part to provide assistance to elderly homeless people and to make the system run as smoothly as possible.
"We never had a shelter before," says Mayor Sheila Dixon, who recently stopped by the pickup site under the JFX to visit with the homeless men and women gathered there. Dressed casually in slacks, a white polo shirt, and a visor, she blends in with the vast and varied crowd of people, watching as the homeless are lined up and searched before getting on the bus. She listens to a few individuals talk to her about their thoughts and concerns about the city's shelter situation. Overall, Dixon, who in January released a 10-year plan to end homelessness in the city, is optimistic about the future for Baltimore's homeless citizens.
But that shelter is still a long way from being completed, so for now, the homeless must use the busing system. The new arrangement is not ideal--some complain that the city makes people leave the shelter too early in the morning. "It's not fair for us to get up [so early]," says Rosalind Stone, who trucks her belongings around with her from place to place in a rolling suitcase. Jay Sandler, another resident of the shelters, says he is troubled that homeless people often spend hot summer days out in the sun. There are cooling centers located around the city, where anyone can sit indoors in air conditioning and get cold water for free, but Sandler and a few others insist that few people are aware of these centers.
When asked about the early-morning schedule at the new shelters, Diane Glauber, director of the city Department of Homeless Services, is sympathetic. "We are so sorry that people have to get up early," she says. "That's the worst part of this." But both of the buildings occupied by the homeless at night are used by other groups in the day. One of the shelters is a children's camp by day, and parents drop off their kids starting at 7 a.m. Glauber says that there are several daytime programs the homeless can take advantage of during the day to stay out of the heat. In addition to six cooling centers, open when the city declares a Code Red situation on particularly hot days, she says that the Beans and Bread resource center in Fells Point, run by St. Vincent de Paul, offers daytime respite for more than 400 people.
Though the current situation is tiresome for some, most seem to find that conditions at the new temporary shelters are better than what they encountered at the facility on Fayette. Last month, residents told a City Paper reporter about problems, including unqualified staff, theft, and an inadequate number of toilets, at the Fayette Street shelter. Conrad Vernon, a homeless man who has stayed at both the old shelter and one of the new shelters, says the new situation is an improvement. He says the new shelters are not as crowded as the one on Fayette was, and that the staff is not as domineering. "They let you be yourself," he says.
Glauber says the Fayette Street location was never intended to be a shelter. "We used an office building, so we couldn't accommodate everything," she says, adding that the new shelter will have plenty of bathrooms and showers and a residents council that will give the homeless a voice in the planning and operation of the new shelter. She says the city wants to invite residents to get involved in the design process of the permanent shelter, but not until the homeless residents are moved to the next temporary location in November.
As the buses pull into the parking area under the JFX where the homeless have gathered, a huge line of people forms, ready to board. Each bus carries about 50 people and makes a couple trips back and forth from this staging area to the shelters. After the buses pick up their first two loads, there are only a few people left in the shade of the highway. Some people help clean up by picking up trash and putting away folding chairs. The last group of people waits patiently as everyone and all of their belongings are searched before they can board the bus. It seems like a bit of a hassle, but everyone is tolerant of the procedure. As Vernon says when asked how he feels about the inconvenience: "What can you say? You're off the street at night."
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