Homelessness and Housing
She helped other homeless people stay warm, then died in the cold herself
Lisa Holmes was one of two women who died in the encampment that Baltimore tried to shut down, as the Scott administration inherits a problem his predecessors never solved
Above: William Dorsey, at the Guilford Avenue encampment, said he is legally blind and would like help finding permanent housing. Behind him, the red tent where Lisa Holmes was found unresponsive. (Louis Krauss)
Lisa Holmes and Sherry Woods were well known among those living in the tent community that was nearly razed by Baltimore officials last month until public outcry halted their plan.
Holmes was described as an especially welcoming figure who helped clean the area under the Jones Falls Expressway and called people to come out of their tents for meals.
“The first thing, when me and another guy got here, was she came out of her tent with a bunch of blankets and covered us up because we were cold,” said Roy, who declined to give his last name.
“I had a special fondness for her because of that,” said Roy, who explained that he has been living for the past three weeks at the Guilford Avenue site, near the Centre Street intersection.
The two women died amid the snow, ice and sub-freezing temperatures of Baltimore’s first cold snap.
Woods was found unresponsive on Thursday. Holmes died on Friday.
So far, city officials have not identified the women or released an official cause of death, but encampment dwellers feel sure they know the major factor: brutally cold weather.
“Lisa froze to death and had a heart attack,” said Edward Troha, her husband, who found her motionless inside their tent Friday afternoon.
Usually busy helping around the camp, the 55-year-old Holmes had stayed inside her tent last week due to illness, other encampment residents said, discussing the deaths as they warmed themselves at a wood fire yesterday.
“That’s how she was. Some days she was feeling good, other days not so much,” said Troha, overcome with emotion. “She was an angel.”
The group remembered Woods, 68, as someone who refused to complain about the cold – a hardy character who had to be convinced to accept the offer of a tent.
City’s Response Criticized
“I am deeply saddened by their deaths and extend my condolences to their friends and families,” Mayor Brandon Scott said in a Friday night statement.
Scott said he is “committed to leveraging government resources and the collective capacity of our many committed partners to make homelessness in our city rare and brief.”
The deaths come as the newly sworn-in mayor inherits an Office of Homeless Services that has lacked a permanent director for months amid the continuing challenge of Covid-19. (As The Brew first reported, Jerrianne Anthony was removed last May and not been replaced.)
The Guilford Avenue encampment issue had come to a boil in November, just weeks before Scott was sworn in.
Then-Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young planned to clear the encampment, but backed down after critics said that displacing vulnerable people during a pandemic would either expose them to the elements or force them into congregate shelters with a high risk of coronavirus infection.
In recent weeks, the Guilford Avenue encampment has gained a look of permanence with a shed, portable toilet and a tall, green Christmas tree, among other amenities.
Residents have come to the spot from near and far. Roy said he came to Baltimore from Tennessee, walking much of the way, he said.
He said he became homeless after losing his job as a technician at an auto clutch manufacturer that was hit by the pandemic.
Under Homeless Services’ acting director, Tisha S. Edwards, the city has made regular visits to the site, where about 22 people currently live, offering them blankets, shelter and other services.
Major Shelters Closed
Edwards has said that millions of dollars in federal funds to provide more permanent forms of housing are on the way. For the moment, she says, there is enough shelter space to house the individuals at the Guilford Avenue encampment if they wish to leave.
But others say the available spots are currently sharply limited. After a Covid-19 outbreak last spring, the city closed its main shelter, the Weinberg Housing and Resource Center, a block away from the encampment. The Pinderhughes Women’s Shelter in West Baltimore has been shut as well.
The two facilities, which together have 445 beds in congregate settings, are now under renovations to comply with CDC guidelines.
Christina Flowers, a homeless services provider who has been championing the encampment dwellers, says the city needs to make those buildings safe and get them online soon.
“The Code Blue shelter is right over there and all closed up,” she said, using a nickname for the now-boarded-up Weinberg Center.
“There are teenagers in the shelters and they’re bullying people,” says homeless advocate Christina Flowers.
She said the spaces provided by the city at the former Greenspring Avenue facility and other still-functioning shelters is limited and regarded by many as dangerous.
“There are teenagers in the shelters and they’re bullying people,” Flowers said. “A man came back here from one and said a boy pointed a gun at him.”
Out in the Cold
Woods was reportedly alone in her tent when she died. Flowers said she was found leaning against a crate.
“I went in and tried to rub her because she was feeling so clammy, like something’s wrong. I started rubbing her heart, trying to get her back circulating, and then the ambulances got there.”
Unlike the other campers who mostly tuck their belongings into a tent, Woods would often sleep outside in an armchair, her possessions beside her. She dealt with a number of health challenges, including two amputated feet.
“We were always telling her she should get some good running shoes, that’s why we put the flowers in there as a memorial,” Flowers said, pointing to the traffic cone and a pair of Woods’ shoes decorated with flowers.
“A difficult population”
Flowers acknowledged that such people pose a challenge to those who want to help them.
“They’re the chronic homeless. They’re a difficult population, hard to place,” she said. “The city needs to get creative.”
As Flowers sees it, the city’s assistance so far has been minimal, just a daily delivery of cold sandwiches provided through an arrangement with the Franciscan Center.
Strangers stop by and drop off hot meals, clothing, a propane grill and toiletries.
What’s made the encampment a place of hope for the homeless has been the goodwill of others, including strangers who have stopped by and dropped off hot meals, clothing, a propane grill and toiletries.
People have offered encouragement, joined in a Sunday morning prayer circle and dropped off firewood, clothing, groceries and hot meals.
Holmes “would shoot out each day, wiping the tables, telling people to come on out here and eat,” Flowers said, explaining how the public’s generosity has lifted the group’s spirits.
“Everything is community donated, even the Christmas tree and the porta potty,” Flowers said. “Thank god for the community.”
– Fern Shen contributed to this story.