One year after Camp 83 evictions, Christina Flowers is back and looking for help
Delegate candidate Marvin Doc Cheatham, activist Rev. C.D. Witherspoon and others are gathered on a spit of curb at the I-83 entrance ramp from Madison Street, in front of a wood lectern with a hand drawn paper sign on it. Women in scarves have brought coffee and donuts. Larry the Celebrity Cab Driver brought his cab. “I’m Ms. Flowers’ partner,” he says. “See my cab? We moved all the people.”
“He’s my sidekick,” Christina Flowers says later, smiling.
Flowers is the president of Belvedere Assisted Living. She rents houses and subleases them to poor people, including the formerly homeless who used to live in “Camp 83.”
The operation happened a year ago tomorrow. City public works crews arrived with a truck to break down the small campsite on the spit of green between the highway and the city detention center, a half dozen makeshift tents and more than twice that many campers having occupied the space for months if not years.
Larry got their stuff moved safely, then came back for the people.
Flowers put them in houses she rents or owns. She says she houses 90 people right now, and so she called this press conference to let the city administration know she’s still at it.
“I went to see Ms. Adrienne Breidenstine [executive director of The Journey Home, the city’s long-term homeless prevention program] yesterday and I was like, ‘can I get some support?’ I mean, I’m using humblin’ words here,” Flowers tells a friend. “Like ‘can I clean your feet?’ ‘Can you be a mentor to me?’ I mean, let me be a pilot program.”
Without any direct support, Flowers operates the same way dozens—if not hundreds—of recovery house owners and slumlords operate in Baltimore. Rent is usually weekly in these houses, usually around $100. The rooms are often shared, and almost always shabby. It’s not unusual to see nine people in a three bedroom house that last sold for $32,000 or $45,000 cash.
But Flowers is different, the people here say. She’s charging $100 per month—not per week—to several men who, until the other day, were living at what they still call “Code Blue,” the city homeless services center across the street, where police shot a man a couple weeks back after an alleged armed robbery.
A woman calling herself Brandy says she’s been in recovery for five months and lives in a house where she pays $140 per week. The house has five residents—fewer than previous set-ups she paid the same rent for. But still, with a disability check of only $720, the $560 per month rent leaves her without much. “And they don’t give you like two weeks to come up with the money,” she says. “They put you out.”
Victor Williams says he was living outside, “in front of Health Care for the Homeless,” for over a month before “my friend, Larry the Celebrity Cab Driver” brought him to Flowers’ office.
Cecil Mitchell says he’s resided in the emergency shelter for more than three years. “I got a criminal record, a drug history,” the 64-year-old explains. “It seems to keep me out of housing. Each time I apply they deny me. I ain’t killed nobody.”
Mitchell says he applied at Belvedere two weeks ago and was denied. He carries a novel called “Criminal Enterprise” in hard cover. “I’ve been fortunate. I do have a roof over my head.”
He’s at the city’s emergency shelter, he says.
“She came to the rescue and championed the cause of giving shelter to those who need shelter,” Timothy Fitts said from the lectern, speaking of Flowers. “She acted with her heart.
“She’s been confronted with insurmountable difficulties getting funding.”
Flowers stepped into the breach when city officials closed the camp, but she complains that she never got the respect—or funding—of other organizations.
Baltimore City spends millions each year on homeless services, and the system is dependent on detailed forms and official monitoring. Yet that system is far from perfect, as evidenced by the decision by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development two weeks ago to demand the return of nearly $4 million of a $9 million federal grant. Neither the city nor its contractors could demonstrate to the federal auditor’s satisfaction that the money had been spent the way it was supposed to be. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake emphasized that no fraud was found.
Nearly $400,000 went to Prisoners Aid Association, a 100-year-old organization that imploded in 2012 amid allegations of mismanagement and fraud.
Flowers thinks she could hardly do worse. She hopes non-profits and churches, even corporations, will pony up.
“She is appealing to the moral conscience of the private sector,” Fitts says from the lectern.
Taft Jackson calls Flowers “a guardian angel sent from God.” He says he was on a waiting list for housing for five months “until the other day when Ms. Christina Flowers came here and got me housing in one day, and she don’t charge me nothing but $100 a month.”
Taft is waiting to be eligible for Supplemental Security Income or federal disability payments, after which he says he expects his monthly rent to increase. But that’s OK, he says. “It’s a beautiful apartment, your own shower,” he says. “It’s worth five, six, seven hundred a month.”