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Tent city pops up in front of city hall, activists demand COVID-19 relief money to help homeless

Homelessencampment.jpeg
Bethany Raja
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Advocates created a popup tent city in front of Baltimore's city hall.

More than a dozen tents appeared on the lush green lawn in front of Baltimore’s city hall on Wednesday morning. Community advocates joined homeless residents as they built a tent encampment to draw attention to the plight of people without homes. By mid-morning, there were 16 red tents around the city’s war memorial and more are expected in the coming days.

The stunt was the brainchild of a new advocacy group, Black Community Development Coalition.

Minister Christina Flowers, who is part of the coalition and director of Real Care Providers, said the group wants to hold lawmakers and city agencies accountable to the community.

“If we want to see something changed, as advocates and activists, we can’t be limited on how far we would go when it comes to making their situation a priority and homelessness is a priority,” Flowers said.

In 2017, advocates built a similar tent city to pressure former mayor Catherine Pugh.

The goal is to pressure the city to start spending federal coronavirus pandemic relief American Rescue Plan Act money, especially to help homeless individuals. Baltimore was allocated $641 million under the control of Mayor Brandon Scott.

“Whether it’s the $640 million, whether it’s the $3.4 million, whether it’s the $90 million, we’re talking a lot of millions,” Flowers said.

Scott already announced in February his office of homeless services had $75 million earmarked to help residents from the federal relief funds. An additional $15.4 million from the Department of Housing and Urban Development was allocated to help those with housing instability. In March, the city set aside another $100 million in federal funds to improve housing equity.

As of May, just 5% of the city’s federal relief money has been spent, according to the city’s online dashboard. City officials blame the regulatory requirements for spending federal money citing a rigorous process. In addition, all spending has to be approved by the city’s Board of Estimates.

The Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services declined an interview for this story.

But the first tranche of new funding for homelessness services was recently approved by the Board of Estimates for a project known as the Housing Navigation and Landlord Recruitment Support program.

Scott said in a statement this project will increase access to safe and affordable housing and reduce the length of time somebody experiences homelessness.

In February, the most recent count of the city’s homeless population, there were 1,597 homeless individuals. That included emergency shelters, transitional housing and tent encampments. That’s down from 2,193 people in 2020. But the city used a different system to count individuals this year, shortening the process from three days to one.

As of August, the city touted it helped hundreds of households find permanent housing, about 69% of the goal to help 1,000 households by the end of the year. Single adults, families, youth and veterans are the groups targeted by the city for help.

On Thursday morning, the advocates said they will be meeting with city leaders and issued a list of demands. Advocates are pushing for an audit of the city’s homeless services programs, cleaning existing encampments and job opportunities for homeless individuals.

Activists said the goal of the coalition is to improve the city’s support system for chronically homeless individuals.

“If you don’t have an ID, you can’t get housing, if you don’t have a birth certificate, if you’ve got something on your background record you can’t get housing,” Flowers said. “These [are] the barriers.”

Bethany Raja is WYPR's City Hall Reporter
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