Life in the Park, A Community of Common Struggle, from interviews with Tye, Walter, Moses, and Carolyn

Life in the Park, A Community of Common Struggle, from interviews with Tye, Walter, Moses, and Carolyn

St. Vincent De Paul Catholic Church stands a few blocks from Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, at the southern most point of interstate 83. Adjacent to the church is a small park, commonly referred to as Wino Park, Tent City, or Bum Park. The names are the result of a homeless population who have, over the years, claimed and reclaimed this space as a place of social activity and rest. As Baltimore’s Downtown tourism and convention boom crept closer to the Park, the city property was put up for sale, most likely in the hopes that some developer would purchase the land and build. At the time there was also increased pressure from the city in the form of police tactics, to rid the downtown area of vagrants. The enforcement of anti-encampment policies were making it more difficult than ever before for the homeless residents to find a safe place to rest. Father Lawrence, a resident at St. Vincent’s since 1973, responded by negotiating the sale of the city property to St. Vincent De Paul Catholic Church, a decision that was made according to Fr. Lawrence, out of fear of “waking up one day next to an 11 story building.” Once purchased, a decision had to be made about how to use the park, and the church saw no reason to change its function. While the decision seemed to be in the best interest of the park’s residents, it was certainly not in those of the Baltimore City Government. The mayors office continues to pressure the church to clear the park of all those residing there, and some have accused Father Lawrence of enabling vagrancy and drug use rather than aiding these individuals in their struggle. He says that he sees a safe place of rest as an important step toward treatment or recovery, and that the city has provided no comparable alternative property, for this type of use. The park is private property, located safely across the street from police headquarters, close to local shelters and food kitchens, not to mention its close proximity to the Inner Harbor—ideal for panhandling. The Indypendent Reader spoke with some of the park’s residents about their situations and about homelessness in Baltimore. What would you like to share about your own experiences with homelessness? How long have you been out here? Tye: Well, I’m 35 and I’m kind of embarrassed to say, but I’ve been homeless on and off, about ten years. My story may be a little different than everyone else’s. Mine is my own thing you know. I have a problem with self-discipline. The system never really failed me I guess or well—I followed the rules of society and everything, but I got a little drug problem and if you don’t pay your bills …nobody’s gonna let you stay for free. You patience your family, and they want to see you do well. So they show you tough love. I know what they were talking about. You know how your parents tell you, “Don’t do this or don’t do that, you’ll ruin your life.” It starts ringing in your head later in life. Now I see what they were talking about, but my parents are gone now. I regret a lot. I’m trying to get myself together, but I’m out here, and I can’t get help, because I guess I burnt those bridges. I never did anybody wrong or anything—it’s just the choices that I made when I was being hard-headed. But, being out here has opened my eyes up to a lot of things. You never take nothing for granted. Nothing. It’s just the simple things like turning on a light, you know, or going into the refrigerator. There might not be anything in there, but at least you’ve got a refrigerator to go to. Or man, walking on warm floors. You know it was sub-zero weather out here last night? I pissed on the ground, and about twenty minutes later, I saw it was frozen. And I’m out here sleeping in this mess. I feel bad about myself, and I know I did it to myself, but I’m trying to rectify it. Only nobody wants to give me a chance. I did this stuff when I was a youth, and people just think you’re the same person, but you’re not. People do grow, and they grow to understand things. Moses: You could say some of us are out here by choice, like me. I’m 47. I was in prison for 15 years, and I’m just coming home. Of course, now my family is gone. So I have no one to turn to, nowhere to go but here. Most of my family is dead, the rest are in North Carolina. My mother died while I was locked up—so I’m here. Here at this park, at least we’re protected. The pastor here, he protects us. People try to come and help us out with brand new coats and boots and stuff like that. We get some work, but you know we have to take what we can get, because most jobs don’t want us, especially if you have a criminal record. Nobody’s going to hire you if you have a record. So we have to understand that. So where does that leave us? Some people have to break the law just to stay alive. Have you seen the number of people on the streets change over time? Would you say that the number of homeless people on the streets today is increasing or decreasing? Tye: Oh man, it’s serious. Old and young, there’s kids out here! More and more people. I try to talk to the young people and send them back to their families. I tell ’em to go back to their mom and dad if they can. Even if they’re trying to show their kids tough love, you don’t want to show your kid tough love like this. It’s really terrible. You don’t know where your next meal is coming from, how you’re going to use a bathroom, … where you’re gonna wash your face. You get to be glad you’re this cold, so you don’t stink so bad around people. You know. Carolyn: There are a lot more people out here because they have nowhere else to go. Most places charge at least $400 a month, and that’s too much. People can’t afford that. I get SSI and right now, that’s $630 a month. So I finally found something I think I can afford. It’s still not much. Tye: $630 a month is poverty. Even if you get SSI , you can’t expect to live on that. Moses: Some people only get like $184 a month. Everyday we wake up to more people out here on the streets. Have you ever seen the Federal Building and all the people sleeping outside there? Or you can look down in Federal Hill, Highlandtown, South Baltimore, East, West—people are homeless everywhere. Baltimore’s got a lot of soup kitchens and a lot of missions. There’s some social services. It’s still not enough, though. The thing is, I’ve seen homelessness increase along with crime and murders. The city doesn’t pay enough attention to numbers of homeless people. They’re too busy counting the number of murders and the drugs. What do they expect? Don’t they see that there’s thousands and thousands more people homeless than there used to be. What do you think people do when they have no job, no place to live? It’s getting worse. I even know a couple of doctors and lawyers who are homeless. You can try to go to social services for help, but they’re over crowded. You can try to go to Our Daily Bread—they try to help, Health Care for the Homeless—they try to help, or Beans and Bread—it’s all the same story. There’s too many homeless, and there’s just more and more coming. Do you know any of the people who were recently evicted from underneath the Interstate 83 Bridge, and if so, how are people reacting to that? Tye: I know all of them. I’m glad for them, because they put them up in hotels and apparently they’re giving them housing . Moses: The reason they took those people out from under the bridge is because that belongs to the city—this park doesn’t. This park belongs to this pastor here at the church. So the city is not going to come by and give us housing like they did for those people under the bridge. They gave those people a motel room for 30 days, and after that they give them Section 8. But a lot of those people have already had Section 8 and probably won’t get it again. So then they’ll be right back out here again. Even if they get it, how are they going to pay the gas, electric, and the rent? Sheila Dixon says she’s got a 10-year plan to get all the homeless off the street. 10 years? She’s not going to be there in ten years. So how is she going to have a 10-year plan to get the homeless off the street? I don’t believe that any women and children should have to stay over in Code Blue. No women with young children or infants should be homeless in the first place. They should automatically get housing. How would you describe the community here at the park? Tye: Like Family. We are a very tight community. That’s what we have here is our own community. Nobody bothers us. It may be an eyesore, but we try to clean it up the best we can. We don’t have much to do that with—a rake or brooms—but we do try to keep it clean. We feed the animals—the birds the squirrels. We ain’t greedy. If people bring food out here, we save some for the others. We get people who come and just stay two nights, three nights. We make them as comfortable as possible. Those two benches right there , those are for guests who come through. We have blankets and tarps for them and food if they’re hungry. What, in your opinion, could be done to end homelessness? Where do you think the city, state, or federal government should start? Walter: If they want to do something about this, why are they tearing down these houses, all these buildings? It’s about money. Look at all these houses here with nobody in them. Carolyn: There’s enough places for these people, just give them a place to go. Use these big empty buildings and everybody could at least have a room. Moses: Take all these houses boarded up all over the city and turn them into low-income housing so that people can get in there today. How many empty houses does this city have? We don’t even have to talk about the ones Johns Hopkins is buying up and knocking down . But what about the rest of the city? Let’s say its 40,000 houses. Well, that’s a good start. East Side, West Side, North, South—we’ve got abandoned houses everywhere. There’s also big buildings like this church. You could house a lot of people in these places. Open those buildings up and divide them up into small rooms or something. They could let these people take that $184 they might be getting from the government and pay a little each month, gas and electric included. I mean there’s a way to do this. The government could turn this around. They could turn it around completely if they wanted to. Give people these houses and let them renovate and turn these places around. They’re all so busy worrying about drugs and the crime rate—you give these people something to do, somewhere to live, and we won’t have all that! They’re all worried about getting slot machines and fixing up the harbor and making downtown better. Forget downtown. Do you think people on these tours want to drive by and say, “Oh look, there’s the homeless people”? They don’t want to see that. That’s not gonna make them want to spend their money, but that’s all these politicians are worried about, just making downtown better. Why not make the whole city better? All these drugs and murders and robberies, that’s called survival. You give these people what they need to survive and the chance to live a good life, and that will all change.