Stephanie Lovelace fell behind on her rent during the pandemic, and, just when she was trying to get assistance, her building was taken over by new management.

Though she said she was approved for federal COVID-relief money to help with back rent, the new manager didn’t fill out their part of the paperwork and she started receiving eviction notices on her door. Then she suspected somebody was coming in her apartment, after noticing things had been moved around.

Rather than fight it, and with no other housing options, Lovelace said, she bought a tent and headed to Wyman Park Dell in North Baltimore with her partner, who’s battling cancer, and their cat Church, named after the cat in Stephen King’s “Pet Semetary.” She had passed the park before and had seen the small encampment of tents.

She joined several others who for the last several years have made a portion of Wyman Park Dell a rotating space for those experiencing homelessness.

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There is a rotating homeless encampment in Wyman Park Dell, most live in makeshift tents.
There is a rotating homeless encampment in Wyman Park Dell, where most live in tents. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

But now the dell is tentatively scheduled to be cleared this month as part of a city effort to find housing for people who live in encampments. Though the city says it is committed to offering shelter and housing before clearing encampment sites, people at Wyman Park are wondering what the closure means for them.

The clearing comes as some residents have complained to officials or shared their disdain about the collection of tents on social media. Other neighbors have tried helping the people living in the park by raising money, bringing people toiletries and reaching out to the city about housing options.

The city has a protocol for addressing homelessness with a primary approach that “focuses on connecting individuals with permanent housing, with shelter and essential resources offered if immediate housing is unavailable,” said Ernestina Simmons, director of the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services.

The Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services has seen an increase in the budget for permanent and temporary housing in the fiscal year that started in July. There’s also more money designated for outreach for people experiencing homelessness and staffing. The office’s overall budget for fiscal year 2024 is larger than that of the previous two fiscal years at $72 million.

For Wyman Park Dell specifically, outreach workers have been connecting with those at the site for over a year with even more engagement in the past 30 days, Simmons said.

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“Thus far, our outreach teams have successfully connected several clients with shelter and support, and our goal is to successfully engage each client prior to the resolution of any site,” she said.

But pulling someone out of homelessness and navigating aid can be difficult, especially since there are individual circumstances. And housing is not always readily available.

It’s a waiting game for Lovelace, who’s continuing to do all that she needs to do to get a housing voucher, including calling a housing navigator every two or three weeks for the status. She was using a government-issued phone, but the program ended and she got her own line after getting approved for disability assistance. She got a free laptop through the library.

She has stayed away from shelters after hearing “absolute horror stories” about conditions at them. Plus, going to one would mean being separated from her partner and cat. She also hears they’re full.

Stephanie Lovelace talks about what it's like living in a shelter and why she prefers to live in a tent instead on February 13, 2024
Stephanie Lovelace talks about what it's like living in a shelter and why she prefers to live in a tent instead, on Feb. 13, 2024. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

And even though she’s doing what she can, she often feels that that can be overlooked by others.

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“People are so ready to bash you and judge you before knowing the whole story,” said Lovelace, who studied broadcasting.

James O’Brien has lived in the park for over a year after moving to Baltimore from Bowie and living with friends who eventually got evicted. He works part-time making deliveries on his bike, but doesn’t make enough to get his own place.

“Up until recently it seemed like I could stay indefinitely, and frankly I am relatively comfortable there. I was waiting to see what the next step in my life would be,” O’Brien said about living in the dell.

O’Brien added that he’s been approached by the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services, who told him to call if he needed anything, but he hasn’t felt the need to. Along with Lovelace, O’Brien said he’s tried to keep the area clean, especially after hearing that people were complaining about syringes in the park.

And complaints didn’t stop there.

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Councilwoman Odette Ramos said her office has received calls asking to have people living in the park removed, but that it’s a move she doesn’t agree with until there is adequate housing lined up for them.

“There is a set of folks that just don’t like seeing the fact that we have homelessness and don’t want to be reminded. I don’t think that’s a reason to move them,” Ramos said.

Friends of Wyman Park Dell, a volunteer-run nonprofit, have also fielded questions from people who use the park about what’s going on with the tents. Martha Waldron, president of the board, said she’s explained that they are a small group that isn’t equipped to provide the services needed for those living in the park.

“If we can provide empathy and continue to work with the city and our councilperson to come up with a solution, I think that’s kind of the best-case scenario,” Waldron said.

A few months ago, a NextDoor user went on the app and asked other residents if they were concerned about the “tent world” in Wyman Park Dell. The thread attracted over 300 comments. Some users accused those in the park of waiting for handouts. One commenter said the presence of the tents “destroyed neighborhoods.” Another said tent cities bring drug use and those with mental health issues.

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“They look at homeless people like we are not part of anything. I am one of you. I’m not just a homeless person who gave up. I am fighting,” Lovelace said.

But other people, including Jeni Yamada, replied with empathy and were more concerned with what those in tents were going to do as the colder months settled in. Yamada’s part of a small group of ad hoc efforts to help Lovelace and others. There was enough money raised for Lovelace and her partner to stay in a room for several weeks. Yamada’s even given Lovelace rides to check in on her housing voucher.

“As a voice from the community, I feel that the messages, the information they have, doesn’t always match with the experience of the individuals trying to get help. If anyone could be helped, it is Stephanie,” Yamada said.

Yamada added that she’s “sure people just give up,” having to navigate available services and resources from the city. Though she is happy to chip in where she can, she wondered why it was up to residents to step up so much and help. “Why isn’t the city more proactive, making sure people aren’t outside like this?” she asked.

Part of the problem is finding available housing. It’s been three years since the mayor announced the intended purchase of hotels to house those experiencing homelessness, but a deal still hasn’t been reached. The one or more hotels would provide 275 new beds for those experiencing homelessness.

The city has set aside about $42 million in federal pandemic aid to acquire shelter space, including the hotels, as part of a $90 million pledge in American Rescue Plan Act and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funds for homeless services — the largest such investment in Baltimore’s history, according to the city. The clock is ticking on that money, though, as the city has until the end of 2026 to use its American Rescue Plan Act funding.

Lovelace said there are fewer tents in the park than a couple of weeks ago. She was told signs were supposed to go up telling them how long they had until they needed to vacate, but so far she hasn’t seen them. For now, she continues to wait on word about her housing voucher and research her options.

“We’re just up in the air every day. We don’t know. We’re just praying the signs don’t go up before I get my voucher,” she said.

Jasmine Vaughn-Hall is a neighborhood and community reporter at the Baltimore Banner, covering the people, challenges, and solutions within West Baltimore. Have a tip about something happening in your community? Taco recommendations? Call or text Jasmine at 443-608-8983.

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