By Yvonne Wenger
The city and state are putting up a $450,000 black steel fence around the downtown War Memorial to stop homeless men and women -- some of whom are veterans -- from sleeping on the steps under the Greek-inspired columns of the landmark building across from City Hall.
Activists who work with the homeless say the new fence, to be complete by mid-June, is a "disappointing" reminder of the ways government has failed to serve vulnerable people. But stewards of the historic structure say the barrier is needed to protect the War Memorial from trespassing and the occasional campfire.
Tony Simmons, a 53-year-old former Marine, has slept on the stairs.
"You're looking for someplace safe," he said. "What is safer than the War Memorial? You have a structure around you and you're away from the ground. You're away from those negative eyes staring at you and judging you."
The decision by several city and state agencies to build the fence is the latest effort in a longtime campaign to address vagrancy in the grassy War Memorial plaza. Over the years, workers also have razed tents and makeshift kitchens and removed splintered wooden chess tables.
The fence is going up as the city works to increase the use of the 90-year-old memorial with new exhibits, such as the recent "Sisters, Soldiers: Black Women and the Modern Military," and a new online reservation system to book meeting space. The memorial features a 1,000-seat auditorium, a museum with military artifacts and offices for several veterans services organizations.
Dana Hendrickson, director of outreach and advocacy for the Maryland Department of Veterans Affairs, one of several agencies that signed off on the fence, said it is intended to preserve the "integrity and dignity" of the memorial.
The Maryland Historical Trust, the city Department of General Services, the War Memorial Commission and the Baltimore Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation also approved the barrier.
The city and state share responsibility for the memorial. The state is paying for the fence.
"After careful consideration of all options, and to preserve the integrity of the building and security of the site, construction of the fence was the best preservation option," Hendrickson said in a statement. "The Maryland Department of Veterans Affairs will continue in its efforts to preserve our monuments as well as remain engaged in support of our veteran community."
Antonia K. Fasanelli, director of the nonprofit Homeless Persons Representation Project, said the money would be better spent on services for the homeless.
"$450,000 would pay for some really critical housing vouchers and supportive services for veterans," she said. She called the decision to spend the money on a fence "sad" and "disappointing."
Surveys indicate that the number of homeless veterans in Baltimore has remained stable in recent years. The Point-in-Time count, conducted on a single night every other January, found 293 homeless veterans in 2013, 313 in 2011 and 287 in 2009.
Fasanelli noted that the federal government has committed to ending homeless among former service members.
"There is a sad irony to committing on the one hand to ending veteran homelessness and on the other hand erecting a fence to prevent people who are homeless, including veterans, from being able to approach the memorial that is supposed to honor their service."
Simmons, who said he served in the Marine Corps from 1983 to 1991, said officials are running the homeless out of the city without helping them to get back on their feet. He said many who are homeless can't find affordable housing, and some don't want to stay in shelters.
"It looks like, to me, at City Hall, they don't want to look out their front door and see the problem of homelessness," he said.
Simmons said he splits his time sleeping at shelters, outdoors and on the couches of family members. He said he has slept on the memorial steps from time to time, but doesn't approve of the fires people light there to stay warm in cold weather.
The fence is to be painted black and coated with powder to look like cast iron. Officials plan to lock it when the memorial is closed.
A spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the city wants to ensure the memorial is treated with respect.
"This fence comes at the request of staff who have had to clean up behind persons toileting around the facility and desecrating a memorial to our veterans," spokesman Kevin R. Harris said. "We believe the city can do better than that to both help our homeless residents and respect the sacrifices made by our veterans."
Harris said the city provides $40 million each year in services to families experiencing homelessness.
More than 10,000 homeless residents received services last fiscal year, he said. Nearly half of the services went to children.
"There is still a lot more work to do and the mayor wants to continue being a partner in those efforts," Harris said.
Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership, said the city must continue to help homeless individuals, but also protect the rights of property owners. He pointed toward several service providers downtown, including a 24-hour shelter, the Catholic Charities service center Our Daily Bread and the nonprofit Health Care for the Homeless.
"Every day we're working to make improvements to transform downtown into this livable community for everyone, to create a quality of life that attracts more residents and more jobs," Fowler said.
Still, he added, "as a society, we're not providing enough resources to help the homeless."
The fence is to feature custom-made finials -- decorations to top the posts -- to match the ornamentation in the War Memorial's historic window grates.
Jackson Gilman-Forlini, the manager of the War Memorial, said updates to the museum, the booking reservation system and promotion on social media have helped increase attendance at the building by about 23 percent over the past year.
An estimated 30,000 people visited the memorial last year, he said. Admission is free.
Gilman-Forlini said talk of building the fence to combat trespassing and related problems goes back a decade.
"The fence is going to solve a lot of problems," he said. "We are excited about keeping the building safe and secure and keeping the building beautiful."
But Adam Schneider, chairman of the Maryland Alliance for the Poor, said more effort should be focused on the city's vulnerable.
Schneider said the government has the resources to provide more housing, but officials lack the political will to direct more to the cause.
"People shouldn't be sleeping on the steps of the War Memorial," Schneider said. "People shouldn't be sleeping on the steps of any building. People should be sleeping in their own homes.
"It's pretty shameful. We should all be pretty ashamed. That our veterans -- that any of our neighbors -- are sleeping on the steps of the War Memorial."
(c)2014 The Baltimore Sun