Baltimore city officials met with advocates for the homeless, forestalling for now a planned lawsuit over alleged discrimination against homeless women, but leaving the advocates frustrated with what they say is still an “inadequate” response.
“We were really disappointed with the city’s response to the lack of beds,” said Sonia Kumar, of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland. “They just don’t get it.”
The city promised at the meeting yesterday to provide 20 additional “overflow” beds for women. That number is totally inadequate,” Kumar said.
On Monday, the ACLU, along with the Homeless Persons Representation Project, warned Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake of their intention to sue over the city’s policy of providing overflow beds to male but not female clients.
When the city’s new shelter opened in July with fewer beds than the previous shelter, the city responded by providing 100 overflow beds – but only for men.
The conflict between the two sides appears to be over how great the need is for women clients. “There is this misconception that women are less in need of homeless services than men,” Kumar said.
Speaking to The Brew earlier this week, city solicitor George A. Nilson said the number of women turned away from the new Harry and Jeannette Weinberg Resource Center is “in the single digits.”
But homeless people interviewed outside the shelter at 620 Fallsway said that women are sleeping outside the building almost every night because of lack of beds. The facility is operated by Jobs, Housing & Recovery Inc. (JHR) under a contract with the Mayor’s Homeless Services program.
Kumar and other advocates have said the number of women recorded as having been turned away is artificially low because, among other reasons, many have stopped bothering to come after hearing that it typically fills up by early afternoon.
“We’re really concerned that the city’s data are not reliable,” Kumar said today.
Kumar said the city officials were more reassuring in one area of concern to the advocates: reports that shelter staff are threatening to blackball women who talk to lawyers. “We were all in agreement that clients should not be threatened, and that allegations of retaliation will be taken very seriously,” she said.
On the main issue of providing more bed space for homeless women, “we are going to continue pushing to identify the quickest way to make sure they meet the needs of our clients,” said Kumar, adding that they still might file the suit if the city’s response is too slow.
She also noted that temperatures are expected to drop this weekend and that snow is in the forecast. “Those 20 beds are not going to be ready until next week,” she said. “What are those women who can’t find shelter going to do? How is the city going to help them?”
One way to add beds on busy nights, according to the homeless interviewed by The Brew, would be to use the “day room” on the first floor.
The large room is currently vacant and empty at night, while women turned away from the shelter can sometimes be found sleeping only a dozen yards away – outside, in the shelter’s parking lot.
– Mark Reutter also contributed to this story.