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Homelessness and Housing

by Fern Shen2:53 pmMar 7, 20240

Early razing of Wyman Park encampment denounced as cruel to homeless and “a slap in the face” to advocates

Meanwhile, the issue is about to blow up at the Baltimore Continuum of Care, whose recent board chair acknowledges he was briefed months ago on the new encampment policy

Above: Mark Council, of Housing Our Neighbors, surveys the scene at the Wyman Park Dell where the city this week razed an encampment of homeless people. (Fern Shen)

Mark Council, a longtime advocate on behalf of homeless people in Baltimore, showed up early at Wyman Park yesterday, the day when signs posted by the city said an encampment there would be cleared.

Council knew nothing was likely to happen.

On Monday, or two days before the deadline on those signs, city crews had plowed down the tents and hauled away clothing, tents and other possessions in trucks.

But an angry Council, who has experienced homelessness himself, came anyway.

He and other members of Housing Our Neighbors (HON) had met with Ernestina Simmons, director of the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services (MOHS), ahead of the encampment closure, urging her to delay it.

Instead, she had sped it up.

“She never said a word about how this was going to happen,” Council said, gesturing at the torn-up grass and the mud-embedded shoes, clothes and other items left behind at the encampment site.

“She could have told us, and we could have helped those people save their things,” he lamented. “This was just cruelty.”

Standing in protest at the place in Wyman Park where Baltimore officials razed an encampment of homeless people, (from left) Kyle Long, Carolyn Johnson, Mark Council, Amanda DeStefano and Belinda Rodriguez. (Fern Shen)

Standing in protest at the place where the city razed a homeless encampment ahead of schedule: Kyle Long, Carolyn Johnson, Mark Council, Amanda DeStefano and Belinda Rodriguez. (Fern Shen)

Described as a “clean-up”

The encampment clearing was one of the first under a new “Encampment Resolution Protocol” instituted by Simmons, who Mayor Brandon Scott appointed to head MOHS last fall.

Through a spokeswoman, Simmons has said that what happened on Monday was not a razing, but “a clean-up” of items “identified by encampment residents as items they wish to discard.”

Not so, according to people who had been living at the park.

They told The Brew they went to the encampment on Monday to retrieve some possessions and were horrified to see frontloaders carting off their things.

Council and others members of HON gathered at the site on Wednesday to “put MOHS on blast,” as one put it, and object to what took place.

Adding their words of protest in a letter to Simmons are two veteran homeless service providers, Lauren Siegel and Jeff Singer.

“No wonder so many people do not trust the city,” wrote Siegel, who teaches at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, and Singer, former president and CEO of Health Care for the Homeless.

“Trust is necessary to work effectively with folks, and now trust has been destroyed along with the possessions.”

Donation boxes with water, sandwiches and other food items at Wyman Park is gone after Baltimore officials raze a homeless person's encampment. (Fern Shen)

These donation boxes with water, sandwiches and other items at Wyman Park were nowhere to be seen after Baltimore officials razed the encampment. (Fern Shen)

Opaque Policy

Advocates have been critical of the city’s new push for encampment closures, saying they were never consulted about it and that many elements remain unknown or opaque – including the so-called “rubric” MOHS uses to determine what camps to close and an “Encampment Workgroup” whose members have not been announced.

No explanation given as Baltimore sets date for Wyman Park encampment clearing (2/21/24)

One person The Brew asked about the policy was Jeffrey Garrett, who acknowledged getting an early look at it.

Garrett said he was informed of the policy last December when he was chair of the board of the mayoral-appointed Continuum of Care (CoC) that has a role in promoting policies to reduce homelessness.

Although it was presented to him as a done deal, Garrett said he believed it was a good idea to have specific guidelines and procedures regarding camp closures.

“The first time I heard it, it made sense to me,” he said, describing how it requires engagement with the community as well as police, fire, public works and other agencies.

“They’re all supposed to get together to assess each encampment, get feedback from the community, and figure out which one is deemed worthy of being cleared,” he said.

Asked if the city has developed a priority list of encampments to be “resolved” (to use the policy’s terminology), he said they have: “they’re going to work through it one by one.”

Describing himself as a formerly homeless person who nevertheless recognizes “the gray areas” around homelessness issues, Garrett said he decided to support the MOHS plan under one condition:

“I told them, ‘If you’re going to make rules, you just need to follow them consistently.’”

“I told you you’d have my support if you followed the procedure”  – Jeffrey Garrett, former CoC chair.

He said he knew that Wyman Park Dell was designated as one of the first camps to be cleared, and believed it had “self-resolved,” meaning people had left voluntarily.

But when Garrett read that city crews had come in early and hauled away valued possessions, he said, he “was taken aback.”

“You had promised me,” he exclaimed, speaking of Simmons. ”I told you you’d have my support if you followed the procedure.”

“This is a slap in the face,” he continued, still a CoC board member, vowing to call Simmons to protest.

The issue is likely to generate controversy at the CoC, where some members have chafed at Garrett’s reluctance in recent weeks to put the new encampment clearing initiative on the agenda for discussion.

The Brew reached out to the interim co-chair of the CoC, Daniel McCarthy, to ask at what point he had been briefed on the policy and if the group would now take up the issue.

McCarthy, who is the executive director of the Episcopal Housing Corporation, has not yet responded.

Jeff Garrett, Mark Council ,Anthony Williams and Kyle Long, of Housing Our Neighbors (HON) prepare to deliver a letter to Mayor Brandon Scott. (Fern Shen)

Housing Our Neighbors members Jeff Garrett, Mark Council, Anthony Williams and Kyle Long outside of City Hall in 2022, delivering a letter to Mayor Scott about using ARPA funds to address homelessness. (Fern Shen)

Siegel, Singer and the HON members who gathered at Wyman Park yesterday were strongly critical of encampment clearing in general, and the city’s use of it in particular at Wyman Park and before that at an encampment at Guilford and Mt. Royal.

With another encampment clearing looming, a plea to Mayor Scott (2/8/24)

In their letter to MOHS, Siegel and Singer said the approach has been widely discredited and that the handling of the Wyman Park encampment belies “the flowery language” found in the Encampment Resolution Protocol.

More reflective of what actually happened, they wrote, was what was posted on the Wyman Park Dell lightposts: “signs announcing punishment for ‘trespassing.’”

Sign warning the Wyman Park Dell homeless encampment will be cleared by the city of Baltimore on March 6. (Fern Shen)

Sign erected at Wyman Park Dell warning that the homeless encampment would be cleared on March 6. (Fern Shen)

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