After Pugh lays out plan, Baltimore event highlights complexity of homeless problem

A day after Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh laid out a plan to raise $350 million to fight homelessness, an event at the Convention Center revealed the fearsome complexity the job involves.

Officials, charity workers, medics and some 2,000 volunteer guides thronged a hall Thursday at the Convention Center for the United Way’s annual Project Homeless Connect event, which seeks to link homeless people with more than 150 forms of help.

Pugh’s plan calls for reducing the homeless population by spending millions to increase the amount of affordable housing, a dimension of the problem she said hasn’t received enough attention.

Franklyn Baker, the president of United Way of Central Maryland, said putting a price tag on the effort was a good idea.

“That’s one of the answers,” he said. “That’s something we fight for everyday.”

But the range of services on hand Thursday showed that finding a place to live doesn’t solve every problem for the homeless — some don’t have IDs, need help writing a resume or have an undiagnosed mental illness.

Pugh said Thursday her plan “absolutely” takes into account the complex reasons people become homeless. She said she plans to fund a wide variety of services to go along with quality housing.

“When I talk about the cost of homelessness, it includes the wrap-around services,” she said. “You can’t just house people and go away. You have to provide mental health services, drug addiction, job training and disability services.”

Scott Gottbreht, the United Way’s director of homeless services, said people often experience what he called the “social system runaround,” being shuttled from office to office in search of the right form to fill out or right person to talk to.

“People get overwhelmed,” Gottbreht said. “This event fixes that.”

The event puts all the services a homeless person might want in one place, allowing organizers to do as much to help them on the spot as possible.

If a person has 10 problems keeping them homeless, Gottbreht said, the convention might be able to solve five immediately and get people connected to a way to resolve the others within days.

Gottbreht said organizers urged government agencies and other groups taking part in the event to do as much as possible to get people help the same day. Birth certificates were being printed rather than mailed and lenses for prescription glasses were being prepared on the spot.

Michelle McVicker, 35, said she went to the Convention Center after struggling to get help elsewhere. She hoped to get leads on housing and some work. A pair of volunteers steered her from table to table inside the hall.

“Sometimes I feel like when I try, I don’t have any support,” McVicker said. “I want a normal, happy life.”

McVicker said she saw getting a more stable place to live as an important first step toward being reunited with her daughters.

“Right now I’ve got to work on me,” she said.

The convention’s organizers estimated that some 2,000 other people like McVicker would pass through the event by the end of the day, some seeking services that went beyond finding housing. McVicker, for example, was hoping to get her hair trimmed and some dental work done.

Students from the University of Maryland School of Dentistry worked in a huge makeshift clinic in a separate room. They were expected to see some 1,000 patients between Thursday and Friday, performing procedures that Dr. Louis DePaola, a professor at the school, said would cost a total of more than $500,000 at normal rates.

Medicaid doesn’t cover dental work for adults in Maryland, so DePaola said a large population is left poorly served.

“The choice is: ‘Do I eat tonight, or have a place to sleep, or get my teeth fixed?’ ” he said.

Jennifer Joyner from Jewish Vocational Services was helping one of her clients get dental and vision exams. She said having enough housing for people was important and so was supporting them once they are housed.

“The most key thing that we can do in life is love people with no judgment,” Joyner said.

Gottbreht said chronically homeless people — those living more or less full time on the street — are a small minority and need intensive help to turn their situations around.

On Wednesday, some homeless advocates questioned whether Pugh’s initiative showed enough urgency to help those people.

But most people who are homeless or at risk of becoming so are less visible.

They are, United Way officials say, poor people who have a job but few financial assets or prospects of making more money. For them, the loss of a job or an illness can mean not having a decent place to live.

Baker said the United Way has worked with more than 1,300 families since 2012 through its network of stability sites, helping them avoid eviction, boost their income and keep their children in the same schools.

While Pugh talked about large investments of new money to fight homelessness — suggesting public agencies and private groups could pitch in — the threat of significant cuts to the budget of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development continues to loom.

Housing advocates have warned that proposed cuts, which could bring changes to how federal housing vouchers work and the loss of grant money, could put thousands of people in Maryland at risk of losing their homes.

“It would do untold damage to lives,” Baker said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.

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