A year after Baltimore officials cleared “Camp 83,” a high-visibility homeless encampment beside a highway on-ramp, the woman who found shelter for its occupants was back in the same spot with her supporters to mark the anniversary.
“Christina Flowers came to the rescue and championed the cause of giving shelter to those without shelter,” attorney Timothy L. Fitts said yesterday. “She acted with her heart.”
Flowers, who heads the non-profit Belvedere Homes, mostly stood on the side and listened, as ministers and other allies spoke at the microphone before about 35 people, as traffic rumbled by.
She had organized the event, she said, to call attention to the continuing needs of the city’s homeless in the wake of the March 8, 2013 incident that created an embarrassment for the Rawlings-Blake administration.
The administration displaced more than a dozen people who had for months been sleeping in makeshift tents on the ground, on a sliver of land between the Fallsway and the Madison Street Interstate-83 on-ramp.
Sobbing “campers” stood by watching while city crews threw tents and blankets into a garbage truck.
City Homeless Services officials had said that the encampment needed to be cleared because it was a health and safety risk. They had tried for months, they said, to persuade its residents to go to the city shelter and sought to get them vouchers for other housing, but couldn’t.
Flowers, at the 11th hour, arranged for beds for almost all of them in the transitional group homes she operates in the city.
Homelessness in Baltimore Post-Camp 83
Since then, the city has regrouped with a new board for their “Journey Home” homelessness initiative and a new director, Adrienne Breidenstine. The city is “re-invigorated” six years into its 10-year plan to end homelessness in Baltimore, the mayor said in January.
But there have also been continuing troubles around the initiative, following disclosure that HUD’s Inspector General said the city improperly managed $9.7 million in federal stimulus grants for homeless services programs.
HUD has ordered the city to repay $3.7 million because they could not account for how it was spent. Several people spoke about the fund mismanagement yesterday.
“If this gentleman here stole a bag of potato chips, he’d be in jail,” said Pastor Steve Turner, of Destiny Changers Deliverance Center in Northwest Baltimore.
“There should be a federal indictment of those people involved with those grants.”
(Other supporters present included “Larry the Celebrity Cabdriver,” Marvin “Doc” Cheatham, running for a District 40 seat in the House of Delegates, and activist Cortly C.D. Witherspoon.)
Flowers, asked for her own look back over the year, said that eight of the displaced Camp 83 residents have since received housing vouchers. She said she has in the past year found housing for 96 people in need.
Churches, synagogues, mosques, foundations, for-profit groups and non-profit groups have been helpful as she continues to seek help for people who need shelter in Baltimore, but city officials, Flowers said, have not. Their rules are too harsh, she said.
“Sometimes they drink to get through their day. I might too if I’d been through what they’ve been through.”
“You’ve got to start by taking them off the street,” she added.
Flowers complained that she has not been able to get support from the city and blames “the mayor’s gatekeepers.”
“They told me that I humiliated the mayor by taking people in,” she said.
A Personal Connection
People have continued, even amid record-breaking cold weather, to sleep in tents and makeshift shelters nearby the site of yesterday’s news conference and all over downtown. They can be found in doorways and around the parking area underneath the elevated Jones Falls Expressway.
At the moment, there is a trash-strewn encampment on the exact site of Camp 83. Flowers said that a couple and their two cats live there.
Along with addressing a crowd composed mostly of advocates yesterday, Flowers also spoke with several people who approached the gathering saying they were living on the street and wondered if she could help.
“We’re still homeless. I have no place to go,” said Thomas Wilson, who struggled to get the words out, as the assembled group listened.
Fitts, the attorney, tried to tell him about Flowers’ work using the same language he had employed in his prepared remarks. But Wilson tried to quiet the attorney by holding a finger to his lips.
“Sir, it’s cold out here,” Wilson said, speaking slowly and almost in a whisper. “I’m an electrician by trade. I do sheet rock. I do painting.”
Flowers spoke up: “You have the ability to work!”
Wilson lit up with a smile. “Let me,” he said to Flowers, “help you!” The crowd applauded.
“She Got me Off the Street”
As slowly as Wilson spoke, 55-year-old Taft Jackson poured his words out rapidly.
“She’s an angel of god,” Jackson said, buttonholing a reporter.
Jackson, who uses a cane and said he has diabetes, was eager to talk about how Flowers had helped him, two days ago, get off the street and into an apartment.
Jackson said that for six months he has been sleeping in various places, including outside under the JFX , and that a case manager from Health Care for the Homeless had him on a list that whole time to receive housing, but hadn’t succeeded.
“She got me off the street,” he said, adding that Flowers charges him just $100 a month. “It’s an apartment. It’s real good. I share it with another individual. There’s a shower, a kitchen. A microwave.”
Why didn’t he go to the city shelter or emergency overflow building?
He said he doesn’t feel like he is safe there or that his belongings are secure. “They put you out from 6:30 in the morning to 6 at night.”
Meanwhile, though, he complained of a problem that Flowers said has worsened lately – city workers moving homeless people’s possessions from the spots where they stash them under the JFX.
“I had a bag under the bridge with everything in it – my medicine, my medical history, my birth certificate, all my paperwork,” Jackson said. “It’s black trash bag. It has has my pants and shirts. Pictures of my brother who got killed. My sister that died.
“I really hope Public Works can give it back to me.”