City officials yesterday denied allegations of gender discrimination at Baltimore’s homeless shelter and offered an answer to a question that’s at the core of the controversy: Why did the city build a new $8 million facility with fewer beds than the old shelter?
The reason, they said at a city council hearing, was that they had anticipated under a 2008 strategic plan that a large number of homeless clients would have moved into permanent housing by now.
Instead, federal housing vouchers for the homeless never materialized, just as the national recession bushwhacked the city and caused the homeless population to swell by at least 20 percent.
Result: the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Housing and Resource Center opened last July with game tables, TVs, computers and a rooftop garden, but only 250 emergency beds – 100 fewer than the old shelter and far less than the estimated 4,000 people who don’t have shelter on any given night in Baltimore. (The decision to build the facility on the footprint of an old trolley garage also limited space.)
To deal with the shortfall of beds between the old and new facilities, the city provided 100 overflow beds at another site. But these beds were for men only. Last month, a homeless woman told The Brew that, after she was told that the new homeless shelter was full, she slept in the parking lot in abject fear.
Yesterday, Sonita Wong told the panel that she, too, was repeatedly turned away by the shelter and spent nights on benches and under bridges before she discovered the Occupy Baltimore encampment at McKeldin Square.
“Occupy has done more for the homeless, in some ways, than the city,” she said.
More Committed Than Ever to End Homelessness
Thomasina “Tomi” Hiers, deputy chief of staff for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, said the city “emphatically denies any discrimination” against homeless women.
“We’re committed more than ever” to addressing homelessness under its 2008 “Journey Home Plan – Making Homelessness Rare and Brief in Baltimore City,” Hiers said, noting that the mayor has kept the homeless services budget intact over the last two years.
She and Kate Briddell, director of homeless services for the city, said the shelter has not turned away any women requesting a bed since Nov. 1, when the city began providing 20 “overflow” beds to women.
The city’s response has not satisfied the ACLU and other homeless advocates, whose threatened lawsuit against the Mayor and City Council on grounds of gender discrimination led to the increase in beds for females.
While the current supply of beds may be satisfactory, the city is unprepared when the “Code Blue” season begins next month and demand for shelter increases sharply, advocates told Council members Mary Pat Clarke and Robert W. Curran.
“We are looking for additional beds for January and February, allocated in a nondiscriminatory way,” said Carolyn Johnson, managing attorney for the Homeless Persons Representation Project. “We don’t have sufficient beds now,” she charged, saying the city used to allocate 150 overflow beds after Dec. 15 to handle demand.
“If the city’s position is that there is no disparity [between men and women], that’s a problem,” said Sonia Kumar of the ACLU, asking whether women will have to sleep in the streets this winter before the city takes action.
Men-Only Convalescent Care
The advocates also found fault with the shelter’s 25-bed convalescent care unit. When it opened, city officials touted the unit’s examination room, nursing office, day room and a wide balcony.
“This is a space where people can recuperate and relax,” homeless services director Briddell said last June. “They can even look out on a rooftop garden.”
But, so far, it’s available only to men.
Kevin Lindamood, president of Health Care for the Homeless, which provides staff for the unit, said the room needs a divider before women can use the facility.
“It’s been a comedy of errors” trying to secure the divider through the city’s procurement system, he said, adding that he hopes to have the divider installed in the next two weeks.
“Can you do something? Now?” demanded Clarke.
Clarke also addressed Hiers and Briddell, saying their office needs to “retool the  plan to end homelessness conceived before the recession.”
Were Women Threatened?
Johnson also charged that shelter staff had threatened women if they complained about conditions to homeless advocates. (The Brew was told the same thing by more than 10 homeless people last month.)
Linda Trotter, acting executive director of JHR, Inc., which operates the shelter, denied the allegation. She said an internal investigation found that staff had simply informed several women that if they left the line where beds are distributed on a first-come, first-serve basis, they could lose their bed for the night.
“It is our view that a press release issued by the ACLU is not factual,” she said.
In response to a question by Councilman Clarke, Trotter said that women wait no more than 30 minutes before getting a bed. There have been empty beds every night in November, she added.
Bonnie Lang, an advocate for the grassroots organization, B-More Housing For All, challenged Trotter’s statements, saying her interviews with homeless women reveal a high level of dissatisfaction with the new shelter and JHR.
“The things I’m hearing are not right. They [women] are waiting in line, and there are all these places for men to go.” But, she added, “The women are not comfortable about testifying in front of JHR.”
Sonita Wong agreed that the staff “doesn’t have a good reputation,” and many homeless men and women “prefer to sleep in insecure places” rather than seek a bed at the facility.
In an interview after the hearing, Wong contrasted her experience at the Weinberg Center with Occupy Baltimore, where she said she and other members of the homeless community have felt welcomed.
“The city has spent millions and made a mess. Occupy has lifted their spirits through altruism and brotherly love,” Wong said. “They really participate. They volunteer for chores. They’re not sitting in a shelter, slowly dying.”