Breaking up homeless encampments in “visible” parts of Baltimore was not a policy that was started by the current mayor, Catherine Pugh.
A retired Catholic pastor recalled yesterday how the former mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, threatened him when he sought to provide a refuge for the homeless on the grounds of St. Vincent de Paul Church.
Baltimore’s top official wanted the homeless “to disappear,” Father Richard Lawrence told a crowd of 200 worshipers yesterday.
He spoke at mass just before a sculpture, titled “Homeless Jesus,” was dedicated in his honor at the church’s park at Fayette and Front streets, three blocks from City Hall.
Father Lawrence said Rawlings-Blake told him that representatives of the hospitality industry believed that a homeless refuge so close to downtown tourist attractions would hurt business in the city.
“The city was very much against it. They said you can’t let anybody sleep there overnight. They wanted the homeless to disappear,” Lawrence recalled.
Lawrence said the mayor, whom he did not name during his homily but identified afterwards as Rawlings-Blake, then issued a warning:
“If you don’t close the park from dusk to dawn, we’ll just start arresting people.”
“I said, ‘Those are not park rules, those are city rules. This is not a city park. You sold us the land. You signed a use agreement.’”
He said he told the mayor that while he didn’t know who would be the first person to get arrested, “I can guarantee you who the second person will be. And I don’t know who will want to try that case.”
Church officials said no one has ever been arrested specifically for visiting the park. Rawlings-Blake could not be reached for comment.
Callous disregard for vulnerable people are found both in Baltimore’s treatment of the homeless and the Trump administration’s children-separation policies, Father Lawrence says.
The pastor’s remarks comes less than a week after a 58-year-old woman was found dead next to the city’s main homeless shelter on Fallsway. The woman left the shelter hours after she was released at 2 a.m. by the University of Maryland Medical Center Midtown wearing hospital scrubs and rubber socks.
Several requests to the University of Maryland Medical System to address the circumstances of the woman’s discharge have gone unanswered.
UPDATE: UMMS’s director of media relations released a statement late today saying that “while we are legally precluded from addressing questions regarding specifics of any patient or the accuracy of claims put forth by other parties, we challenge the unfounded speculation that UMMC contributed to [the homeless woman’s] death.”
During the Rawlings-Blake administration, there were many evictions of homeless living under the Jones Falls Expressway downtown. There were additional ejections of people living under the Route 40 overpass at Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.
During the same period, the city opened the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg homeless shelter on Fallsway and sponsored a charity fundraising ball called “An Evening of Unexpected Delights.”
In her 19 months in office, Mayor Pugh has ordered the tear-down of encampments on West Franklin Street and Guilford Avenue. She also persuaded Tent City demonstrators to move off of the War Memorial Plaza in front of City Hall.
In most cases, the homeless were offered temporary shelter through the Mayor’s Office of Human Services.
For example, the homeless in front of City Hall were transported to a former school building in West Baltimore, while those who had been living along Guilford Avenue were offered dormitory space at a Volunteers of America facility.
Permanent Housing too Costly
In addressing the issue of homelessness, Pugh has repeatedly pointed to the high cost of providing permanent housing and has called on the private sector for help.
In his homily yesterday, Father Lawrence compared the treatment of Baltimore’s homeless to the Trump administration’s separation of children from their parents at the U.S. border.
Both cases represent a callous disregard for humans in grave distress, he said.
The land at St. Vincent de Paul set aside for the homeless is a temporary sanctuary.
The church closes the park for two hours every day, from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m., for cleaning, according to Colleen McCahill, pastoral associate.
People in the park are asked to leave during those hours and take all of their belongings with them.
That way people can spend all night in the park if they want to, but they can’t build an encampment, McCahill said.