Baltimore officials announce testing site at Druid Hill Park; protesters call for relocating more homeless

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Photo by Wally Gobetz, via Flickr

Protesters advocating for the city to relocate more homeless individuals to hotel rooms disrupted Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young’s press conference on Tuesday, during which officials announced the second community-based testing site in Baltimore City and expanded food distribution efforts.

A protester, who identified himself as homeless, said Young “needs to act now” to move homeless individuals from shelters and encampments to hotels and other permanent housing options.

“This might be my death sentence right here and this is my plea for right now,” the protester said. “I am in desperate need of help. I do not want to die this way.”

Young continued his prepared remarks amid the sound of nearby motorists honking their car horns in support of the protest.

When asked about his plan for preventing the spread of coronavirus among people experiencing homelessness, Young said the city’s website is being updated daily with ongoing efforts.

“We’re doing a whole lot to support homeless people,” he said.

Two weeks ago, the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services began moving homeless people age 62 and older from the city’s three emergency shelters to motels to protect them against COVID-19.

Sheryl Goldstein, the mayor’s deputy chief of staff, said the city has relocated about 160 homeless individuals age 62 and older to hotels.

The city also moved 155 homeless individuals out of existing shelters and into a larger facility, allowing for more social distancing, Goldstein said.

She added that the city converted a 100-room motel into a location where people can isolate if they have tested positive for COVID-19 or while they are awaiting test results. All 100 rooms in that motel are full.

The city today launched its second COVID-19 testing site, at the Rawlings Conservatory in Druid Hill Park, said Baltimore City Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa.

The new site comes after the city opened a testing site in the parking lot of Pimlico Race Course earlier this month.

The Pimlico testing site is in the 21215 ZIP code, covering Northwest Baltimore and part of Baltimore County. That ZIP code has the largest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in all of Maryland, with 273 confirmed cases as of 10 a.m. Tuesday morning, according to the Maryland Department of Health’s Maryland COVID-19 Case Map Dashboard.

The Druid Hill testing site is in the 21217 ZIP code in central Baltimore. That ZIP code, which is adjacent to 21215, had 62 confirmed cases as of Tuesday, according to the dashboard.

Dzirasa said the city will be opening a testing site in East Baltimore next week.

The Druid Hill testing site will offer a walk-up option for residents who do not have access to a vehicle. But like the Pimlico site, people will still need to be referred for testing by a doctor and set up an appointment prior to being tested, Dzirasa said.

After Gov. Larry Hogan announced on Monday that Maryland had secured 500,000 COVID-19 test kits from South Korea, Dzirasa said the city had not yet been notified how many tests they will be receiving “but we are hoping to get a fair share.”

The state has been providing Baltimore City with 100 tests per week to support its community-based testing sites, Dzirasa said.

She added that the city has purchased its own tests.

Hogan has said that one of the “building blocks” toward recovery from the COVID-19 crisis is building the state’s testing capacity, which includes increasing the number of tests themselves and laboratories and staff to process them.

Baltimore City is also expanding its COVID-19 emergency food response strategy by ramping up food distribution, meal delivery, and grants for farms, community gardens, and community organizations.

The city is expanding its food distribution operations with the goal of being able to distribute 2.5 million meals, 70,000 grocery boxes and up to 12,000 household grocery supplements, said Tisha Edwards, director of the Mayor’s Office of Children & Family Success.

By comparison, Edwards said that in the first month of the Baltimore’s response to COVID-19, the city distributed more than 700,000 meals and nearly 2,000 grocery boxes to youth and families through 95 meal sites throughout the city.

Before the pandemic, approximately 70 percent of youth participated in Baltimore City Public Schools’ lunch program, and 28 percent of city residents participated in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Edwards said.

The city projects that one in three families will need food assistance by June, Edwards said.

The city currently serves meals to 800 older adults each month. But in partnership with Meals on Wheel and the Salvation Army, Edwards said the city plans to scale up meal delivery for older adults to 6,400 meals in May and up to 9,000 meals in June.

Stephanie Archer Smith, executive director of Meals on Wheels, said demand for her organization’s services nearly doubled in less than three weeks. The organization now serves nearly 1,200 older adults throughout Baltimore City, with almost 500 seniors added to the program since mid-March.

“For 60 years, Meals on Wheels has delivered nutritious meals and support services to the homes of aging adults in Baltimore City and throughout central Maryland. But never before has this service been more important, and never before has our purpose been more clear: keep our seniors at home and out of the hospital,” Smith said.

In mid-march, Meals on Wheels shifted from delivering one hot meal every day to delivering a weekly meal pack with two ready-to-heat meals per day as well as other items like milk, bread and fruit, Smith said.

Between March 17 and April 17, the organization has distributed nearly 72,000 meals to homes and congregate living sites throughout Baltimore City, Smith said.

She added that because staff are unable to perform in-home services, Meals on Wheels developed a bi-weekly wellness check-in call program, staffed staffed by client support specialists, students and volunteers.

Beginning April 27, the Salvation Army of Central Maryland will begin delivering a cold lunch and microwaveable dinner to seniors, said Lt. Antonio Willis of the Salvation Army.

The Salvation Army has also set up a distribution hub in Lot C at the Baltimore Ravens’ M&T Bank Stadium.

The city also partnered with the Fund for Educational Excellence to use money donated by 11 local corporations to provide small grants to community organizations that support children and seniors in high-need neighborhoods, Edwards said.

Last week, Hogan authorized Baltimore to pilot an online SNAP program, allowing residents who use SNAP to have groceries delivered to their homes.

“Online SNAP is more important than ever before because it allows Baltimore residents to buy groceries from the safety of their homes, which will help us to stop the spread of coronavirus,” Young said.

Edwards said the city is also launching a grocery supplement program for residents who do not typically benefit from government programs like SNAP, including undocumented residents, youth who are neither working nor in school, citizens returning from incarceration and homeless individuals.

Edwards said the city estimates this “multi-prong” strategy will require an initial investment of $16 million in city, state, federal and private funds.

Marcus Dieterle


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