After 10 months in office during which she has repeatedly pledged to tackle homelessness, Mayor Catherine Pugh was poised today to tell citizens about her plan to deal with the issue.
Members of a workgroup that the mayor had convened in April were invited to City Hall for the release of their report – and Pugh was set to announce her strategy for dealing with a problem that has grown more visible across the city.
But both the report and announcement would be delayed for a week, reporters learned during her scheduled press availability.
“Too many from the workgroup wanted to attend,” her spokesman, Anthony McCarthy, said. And the report hasn’t been finished. “It is being written now, there have been changes made . . . edits made,” he said.
Pugh said the city is working to house homeless people “every day” and pointed to the city’s accomplishments, including support for the Helping Up Mission’s project to build 300 units of new housing near Fayette Street to address the problem.
“In the next year or so, we’re going to reduce homelessness by at least 10%,” the mayor said.
But she abruptly cut off the questioning when The Brew asked about the allegedly festering problems at a vacant school building where homeless protesters were sent to live in August.
“Are you aware of the Baltimore Bloc statement–”
“I have not, no,” Pugh responded. “Next.”
When The Brew pressed her about the group’s widely-circulated letter, which accuses the administration of violating the agreement it had signed with the Tent City homeless and organizers, she answered, “I don’t read them.”
“Next!” McCarthy snapped, calling on another reporter and ending the administration’s response to the letter from Baltimore Bloc, one of the Tent City organizers.
Homeless Report in Limbo
As troubling incidents continued to occur in Pugh’s young administration – a homeless man found dead outside City Hall, an encampment clearing that drew criticism and the Tent City protest on War Memorial Plaza – the mayor promised a comprehensive policy response.
Homelessness and lack of affordable housing dogged her predecessors for years. An estimated 3,000 people are homeless on any given night in Baltimore, many of them on the downtown sidewalks and median strips.
Others are camped under the Jones Falls Expressway, along Mt. Royal Avenue and Martin Luther King Boulevard, and in such out-of-the-way locations as Ferry Bar in Port Covington and the marshy area behind the Horseshoe Casino.
The workgroup Pugh convened in April to guide her on the issue completed its task in 60 days and presented Pugh the report.
In late July, Pugh mentioned to reporters that she was bringing the report home to read over the weekend. The Brew requested a copy of the report. There was no response from the administration.
Since then, questions have been piling up about the Tent City protesters who were relocated to the former Pinderhughes school in West Baltimore in August.
Drug Testing and Bullying
Complaints about the facility are coming from many quarters, including some of the residents themselves. Residents say the city provides no dinner or weekend meals and that food donations have slowed to a trickle.
Some said they have been bullied by the facility’s director and others residing there, and that drug testing was conducted on residents.
“They asked why they had to have the [drug] test and they weren’t told why,” said Lauren Barnes, a Tent City participant with a child who was moved to a hotel and ultimately public housing, but stayed in touch with her fellow participants after they went to the school.
Eppes and others said many people have left or been told to leave the facility.
“There’s only about 12 people left,” according to Tamicka Eppes, the only another Tent City participant whose status as a mother got her a place in public housing.
Eppes and Barnes said they were housed at area hotels, feeling stranded at times, lacking a case manager at times and that they were both at first tuned down for public housing.
“The process was really terrible,” Eppes said.
Letters of Concern
Drug testing, management problems and lack of transparency at Pinderhughes constitute violations of the agreement that Pugh reached with the protesters, according to the statement released by Baltimore Bloc and the main Tent City organizer, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
For instance, they note, the city promised that “the Pinderhughes building will be operated in a manner that follows ‘housing first’ principles and best practices (such as no drug testing, housing-focused solutions, consumer choice, individualized plans).”
Baltimore Bloc and SCLC also complain that the director at Pinderhughes – a Tent City participant who said she was hired for the job by Pugh – has prevented them and the residents from having a say in the management of the facility.
“All forms of communication have been between the Mayor’s office and the appointed site director,” their letter states.
The creation of the Pinderhughes shelter has drawn additional complaints from a coalition of service providers and advocates, who said in another letter that they “have been kept in the dark about this action and its potential consequences.”
“How much money is being spent on this project? Why isn’t this funding being used for housing vouchers or other ways that actually house people?” asked the letter from SHARP (Stop Homelessness and Reduce Poverty), a coalition that includes Health Care for the Homeless, the Homeless Person’s Representation Project and other organizations.
“It appears that moving these tent city residents to the old school, and previous destructions of tent cities, was designed primarily to move people experiencing homelessness out of public view,” said the letter from SHARP. “Out of sight, out of mind?”
A Safe, Dignified Place
Terry Hickey, director of the Mayor’s Office of Human Services, responded to some of The Brew’s questions about Pinderhughes by saying that the people moving there knew the process of relocation would take time.
“It all depends on available resources and each person’s individual circumstances and preferences,” he said, noting that two women with children recently had been placed in public housing.
“We will continue to work with residents until everyone is provided with a viable housing option,” he said. “The entire process is likely to take several months.”
He said Fresh Start, the company that conducted drug tests on residents, was not “engaged” by the city.
“The organization was familiar to some of the Pinderhughes residents and they chose to introduce the organization to their peers because they felt it offered a valuable service,” Hickey said. “The city has placed no pre-conditions, including drug testing, on residents being able to stay at Pinderhughes or for housing.”
As for the status of Samantha Smith, the person reportedly in charge of the facility, Hickey disputed her claim that she was “hired” by the mayor.
“Samantha Smith is serving in a volunteer capacity as manager of the program and is not a city employee,” Hickey said. “Nor does she receive any funding from the city.”