A homeless woman named Bernadette said her life took a turn for the worse after Baltimore’s new homeless shelter opened in July. With fewer beds available than at the former shelter and no overflow space offered for women, Bernadette found herself turned away from the shelter whenever she got to the building after 5 p.m.
The result: she says she’s slept in the shelter’s parking lot about 25 times – often in abject fear. “It’s horrible. I have been sexually assaulted. I’ve been gang raped. I’m a single woman and shit happens,” she said bluntly.
Her story was echoed by other homeless people interviewed by The Brew, who said that almost every night women are sleeping outdoors, usually in the parking lot, after being turned away from the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Resource Center at 620 Fallsway.
“I saw a pregnant girl lay right here on the concrete with her boyfriend,” said a middle-aged woman. Just a few days ago, a homeless man added, eight women turned away from the shelter were given blankets and huddled for the night under the Jones Fall Expressway. “It could be raining and you’re still sitting out there,” he said.
Calling this a dangerous situation – and noting that overflow beds are now provided for homeless men, but not for homeless women – the Maryland ACLU and homeless advocates have written to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake threatening to file a lawsuit if a settlement isn’t reached by the close of business on Friday.
“This is something the city has known about for a long time,” said Carolyn Johnson, managing attorney for the Homeless Persons Representation Project (HPRP). “They have not given us a good explanation for why it has to be like this.”
In their Oct. 24 letter, Johnson and Maryland ACLU legal director Deborah A. Jeon appealed not just to Rawlings-Blake’s sense of mercy (“remedy this unlawful practice before it yields tragic results”), but to her ability as a lawyer to recognize a constitutional claim when she sees one.
“This policy unlawfully discriminates against women in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the Maryland Constitution,” Johnson and Jeon wrote.
City Solicitor George A. Nilson said today that demand for overflow beds has not been documented to be great enough to warrant overflow accommodations for women but he said some beds will be added by Nov. 1.
He is meeting with advocates, possibly this afternoon, to discuss their letter. Whenever that meeting takes place, however, it will be only the latest exchange in what advocates say has been months of frustration as they tried to city agency heads to do something about the looming bed shortfall.
Brand New Building, But Fewer Beds
The problem arose, ironically, with the construction of the new $8 million shelter, ostensibly intended to improve temporary housing and other services for Baltimore’s homeless population. Moving the city’s 24-hour emergency shelter for single adults from the old “Code Blue” center at 210 Guilford Ave. to the new Weinberg center effectively reduced the number of shelter beds from 350 to 250.
When the smaller capacity of the new building became clear in the spring, “advocates got involved and started expressing concerns about the loss of beds,” Johnson said. “Where are people going to go? they wondered. There was a lot of panic and rumors among the population of people who use these shelters.”
The city reassured the advocates repeatedly – including at a meeting in May – that the problem would be solved before the shelter opened, Johnson said.
“We were told the transition would not take place unless a system was set up for overflow,” Johnson said. “We believed them.”
“For some unknown reason,” Johnson said, when the new building opened in July, they made 100 overflow beds available at the old shelter on Guilford – but only for men. She said officials couldn’t explain why the building on Guilford, which had previously housed men and women, could not do so again and be fully utilized.
Now, when the 75 beds for women at the new Center are full, “additional women are simply turned away to sleep in the streets,” Jeon and Johnson say in their letter.
Nilson said that nightly turn-downs for women are in the single digits, though he acknowledged they have been as high as 23. Nightly turndowns for men, meanwhile, have ranged from 100 to 120, of which 100 are bused to the old shelter on Guilford, Nilson said.
Advocates say the turndown numbers are not a fair gauge of need since women, hearing that the shelter is already filled, now don’t even bother trying to get in.
Asked why overflow space was not provided for women at the Guiford location, Nilson said that “for various reasons, that needed to be a single sex space and is not able to receive women.”
Reminded that the shelter on Guilford had previously accepted women, Nilson said, “It’s now run by a provider that doesn’t have experience providing services for female folks.”
Left Out in the Cold
A coalition of groups and individuals advocating for the homeless described the situation in an earlier Oct. 4 letter to Rawlings-Blake asking for an emergency meeting about the problem they said they have been attempting to solve with the Mayor’s Office of Human Services and the Homeless Services Programs director.
The Stop Homelessness and Reduce Poverty Coalition (SHARP) wrote that they had observed encampments of women on the streets and interviewed women with wrenching tales about their experiences being turned away from the shelter.
“Women are literally being left out in the cold,” said Sonia Kumar, staff attorney for the Maryland ACLU who is also working on the case.
Johnson said she typically sees five to 10 women sleeping outside every night. “We counted 11 of them recently and we just got involved and placed five of them, we just begged shelters to take them.”
Another charge the advocates and ACLU are making is that women who have complained about the problem have been threatened by shelter staff with being blackballed.
“We have been talking to women to document what has been going on,” Kumar said. “But we know of at least two incidents in which these women were told they would be banned for life at the shelters if they continue to talk to the lawyers.”
Finding Safety at the Occupy Baltimore Campsite
The women interviewed by The Brew said that unless they get to the shelter by around 3 p.m., they face the threat of being turned away. “People go to work, and if they get back too late, they’re stuck,” said one homeless woman.
Her boyfriend added, “You basically have to spend the whole day here” – pointing to the parking lot along Fallsway – “to get a bed.”
Today, a city crew was installing “NO LOITERING” signs along a chain-link fence on Fallsway, seeking to discourage the homeless from staying near the new shelter. A city police car patrolled the shelter’s parking lot.
For Bernadette, who said she became homeless when her house burned down, the new shelter was a step down from the old facility, not just because there are fewer beds, but because the old shelter had a more homey atmosphere. “There are so many rules [at the new shelter], you feel like an inmate.”
Recently, she has been going to the Occupy Baltimore campsite at McKeldin Square to sleep. “You get respect there and you get a good meal. And I’m much safer than being outside.”
Told that the city wants to restrict overnight campers at Occupy Baltimore to just two people, Bernadette said the news made her sad. “There are so many vacant houses in Baltimore and so many homeless people. This is what I don’t understand: why can’t we fix these houses for people that need them?”