Longtime homeless refuge closed in downtown Baltimore ‘until further notice’

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Photo by Ed Gunts

One of the few sanctioned gathering spots for people experiencing homelessness in downtown Baltimore has been shut down “until further notice.”

On Sept. 21, St. Vincent de Paul Parish closed St. Vincent Park, the gated green space next to its church at 120 N. Front St., three blocks east of City Hall. The gates to the park have been padlocked and the steps to the church, just outside the park, have been cordoned off by yellow tape to prevent people from lingering there.

A message posted at the parish office entrance said the closing was prompted by a spike in disorderly conduct and illegal drug use, and that church leaders are taking steps to open it again soon.

“We are very sad to do this, but we believe it is necessary in order to restore peace to the Park,” the message said in part.

“There has been a lot of disorderly conduct and illegal drug use recently, which is never allowed on our property. Please know that we are doing this so we can restore the Park as a place for people to rest without disturbance.”

The sudden closure, first reported by The Catholic Review, represents a substantial change for the parish, which acquired the tree-shaded property from the city in 2000 and has made a point of welcoming people who have nowhere else to go. On a daily basis, dozens of people have taken advantage of the haven it provides in good weather and bad, and anywhere from two to 15 people sleep there overnight.

According to Pastor Ray Chase and pastoral associate Colleen McCahill, this is the first time since 2009 the park has been closed because of unruly behavior and other problems.

“We are really sad for the people who are normally here because the park is not available,” Chase said.

“It’s very painful for us,” added McCahill.

Both said the parish typically can address disorderly conduct and other problems at the park by interacting with the people there, but not everyone obeyed the rules this summer.

“We had an experience where our normal efforts to try to address specific problems were not being successful,” Chase said. “After prayer, after thoughtfulness, after speaking with our Parish Council, we made the decision that in order to restore the park to what we want it to be for those who come to us, we needed to close it for a period of time. We have been very clear that this is only for a short period of time, in order to address a very specific problem.”

Once the parish is satisfied the problems have been addressed, “we’ll open again and we’ll pick up where we were,” he said.

Photo by Ed Gunts

The park has drawn individuals experiencing homelessness even since its inception in the 1960s. A dedicated church group, the Friends of St. Vincent Park, works to oversee and maintain the area and coordinate charitable donations of food.

In recent years, city officials have threatened to shut the park in response to complaints from hoteliers and other business leaders, who have argued a large and highly visible concentration of homeless people is bad for tourism and the local economy. But church leaders have insisted providing a refuge is part of their mission.

In a poignant ceremony last year, the parish dedicated a bronze sculpture in the park entitled “Homeless Jesus” in honor of Father Richard Lawrence, the retired pastor who led the effort to create a refuge on church grounds.

In a homily before the dedication, Lawrence criticized former city officials who threatened to arrest anyone who stayed overnight in the park, saying they would have to arrest him, too.

Before Sept. 21, the park was open to the public 22 hours a day–it was closed daily from 7 to 9 a.m. for cleaning–seven days a week. Those who stayed overnight were required to remove belongings before the cleaning began, a rule that helped prevent them from building an encampment.

McCahill said the closing was largely a response to criminal activity by a group of people who didn’t previously visit the park and most likely weren’t experiencing homelessness, but were preying on those who were. The problems ranged from illegal drug use and sales to vandalism and unsanitary conditions, she said.

McCahill said the drug problems worsened in mid-August, when two or sometimes more people started selling the illegal street drug K2–a mix of herbs or shredded plant material sprayed with synthetic chemicals–from the church’s front steps. She said the dealers’ presence alarmed regular park visitors, including those who stayed overnight, and led to more people being high and exhibiting aggressive behavior.

“The culture changes and then you end up with truly vulnerable people being anxious to be here because there are a lot of people who are high,” she said. “There are a lot of homeless people who don’t use drugs, so they’re afraid.”

Parish representatives warned regular park visitors about the closure three days before it took effect, and have since sent letters to parishioners, service agencies and others.

In a message posted on church property, parish leaders encouraged park visitors “to seek out resources in other places” nearby, including Our Daily Bread, Beans and Bread, Healthcare for the Homeless and the Franciscan Center. They said St. Vincent’s other services, like its Friday Night Dinner, remain unchanged.

The parish council is expected to discuss the park’s future, including the possibility of reopening it, at its next monthly meeting on Oct. 8, McCahill said.

St. Vincent Park was closed for two months in 2009, and when it reopened, the parish implemented the new rule barring encampments by requiring visitors to leave in the morning and take their belongings with them. It also added the current fencing allowing leaders to close it off for two hours daily.

Chase and McCahill would not say what changes the parish is contemplating this time, but they stressed their goal is to make the park “a more peaceful place” that can once again provide refuge for anyone who needs it.

“We’re figuring it out,” she said. “It’s going to reopen. We haven’t kept it open for all these years for nothing.”

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