At a City Council hearing on homelessness in Baltimore, many of the presentations were upbeat and forward-looking.
Officials testified about millions of federal dollars becoming available for affordable housing and homelessness assistance, the issuance of 278 new federal housing vouchers by the Housing Authority and the fact that the city’s contracts to house about 500 people in hotels will now run through September.
While homeless advocate Mark Council had praise for the Scott administration (“they did a tremendous job extending the hotel contracts”), he and other activists chided it for failing to correct long-standing issues.
“The city must implement common sense harm reduction techniques to reduce overdose deaths,” said Council, lead organizer at Housing Our Neighbors (HON).
Council and others described safety issues at the city’s Greenspring homeless shelter, in a former public school in northwest Baltimore, including a staff they said is not properly trained to handle drug overdoses.
People are put out of the shelters “for little things” and end up in neighborhoods where they don’t feel safe, said Council, who has been homeless himself for more than seven years.
Carolyn Johnson, an attorney at the Homeless Persons Representation Project, likewise complimented the city for its plan to purchase a hotel or motel to provide housing. But she challenged officials to do more with the flood of federal dollars coming to the city.
“We should be using this as an opportunity to completely re-imagine our shelter system,” Johnson said. “And to provide all shelter units as non-congregate to allow individuals to be in a space that allows them to retain their dignity and autonomy and sense of privacy.”
The city still maintains congregate shelters, where people are housed in close quarters, but has embraced the goal of moving towards providing other kinds of more permanent housing.
Edwards: Safety a Priority
Irene Agustin, the new director of the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services (MOHS), did not participate in the meeting but was said to be listening from home.
If Agustin was watching, she got a crash course in the policy issues and key players she will encounter in her new position.
Tisha Edwards, who has been acting MOHS director since last July, gave the presentation yesterday to the Council’s Economic and Community Development Committee.
Asked afterwards about the issues raised at the Greenspring shelter, Edwards told The Brew that “the safety and well-being of our clients and staff is top priority.”
She said MOHS “is committed to maintaining safe conditions at our shelters,” but that “when maintenance issues arise, we move swiftly to address them with the Department of General Services.”
On-site staff are required to complete a training program within the first 30 days of employment, she said, and staff evaluations are conducted annually to ensure training is up-to-date.
Edwards went on to review her agency’s response to Covid, including working with partners to vaccinate 550 hotel clients and service staff.
What’s more, 579 individuals and families have been moved into housing between March 2020 and April 2021, and, in partnership with the Franciscan Center, food has been distributed to 14 active encampments.
FEMA Funds “in Progress”
Advocates have also raised concerns about the city’s use of the federal funds, specifically its failure to apply for $35 million in FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) funds available to pay for the hotel stays.
In response, Edwards announced that the hotel contacts would be extended through September 30 rather than have them expire at the end of June.
Information presented yesterday indicates the city’s application for FEMA funds to cover five hotels is still “in progress.” Funds to cover the cost of using the Lord Baltimore Hotel were received.
Where to Spend
Addressing the committee, Johnson reviewed other incoming federal funds that could be used for persons experiencing homelessness, including $15.4 million through the HOME investment Partnerships Program for individuals experiencing homelessness or at risk of homelessness.
The funds could be applied toward rental assistance, building affordable housing and related services, and the purchase of non-congregate shelter units.
An even larger influx of aid is coming to the city in the form of $670 million in coronavirus recovery funds under the American Resource Plan Act.
“We understand that there are a lot of competing needs for this pot of money, but we hope that affordable housing will be given some priority,” she said.
How the federal funds might be allocated will be discussed at future budget hearings, committee chair Sharon Green Middleton said.
Attorney Peter Sabonis, who has been researching housing issues for HON, suggested a number of ways to expand affordable housing. In addition to acquiring hotels, the city could converting surplus office or government properties, such as the vacant Social Security building on Baltimore’s west side.
The Scott administration should also seriously consider the long-discussed idea of rehabbing the city’s stock of vacant houses for the homeless.
“Their co-existence in the same city is an absurdity,” Sabonis stated, “and an indictment of the housing market and public policy.”