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Advocates say Baltimore's plan to end homelessness is in disarray

Journey Home strategy is updated but criticized as homelessness continues to be an 'epidemic'

By Yvonne Wenger, The Baltimore Sun

9:10 PM EDT, March 17, 2013

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Halfway through Baltimore's long-term plan to end homelessness, advocates complain that the strategy is in disarray and worry that the number of men, women and children without permanent homes has grown — despite millions of dollars being pumped into local services.

The 10-year Journey Home strategy, the advocates say, has fallen short of its objective, floundering without a direct line of leadership or accountability and frustrating the social services community that is pushing for solutions to a primary cause of homelessness: the lack of affordable housing.

The plan was a "game changer" when it was created in 2008, said Antonia K. Fasanelli, director of the Homeless Persons Representation Project in Baltimore. And while certain components have been successful, such as the availability of 500 housing vouchers and the opening of a 24-hour emergency shelter, Fasanelli said the city needs to do more.

"Homelessness has increased dramatically every single one of those five years," Fasanelli said. "That should tell us that we need a very clear plan for our common goal of ending homelessness."

Olivia D. Farrow, director of the Mayor's Office of Human Services, said the city's investment, as well as the commitment from the social services community, has made a significant impact on homelessness in Baltimore — but so has the recession. Job loss, foreclosures and the economic downturn have contributed to local homelessness, she said.

The most extensive count of the homeless found more than 4,000 individuals living on the street or sleeping in shelters on a single night in 2011, up from 2,600 in 2007. Surveyors counted about 3,400 in 2009. The most recent count was conducted in January, but the final tally won't be released until April.

The city had more than 500 chronically homeless men and women at last count, down from more than 850 in 2009. Each chronically homeless person costs taxpayers roughly $40,000 a year, through their use of police, emergency rooms and other services.

The survey, conducted in odd-numbered years, is imperfect. Enumerators visit increasingly larger swathes of the city each year, but they don't wander into vacant properties or search street by street. They also do not include the number of homeless people — especially children and teens — sleeping in the homes of friends and family.

Councilwoman Helen Holton said she's disappointed with the city's lack of progress.

"The need is great, but I don't get the sense of urgency as a city," Holton said during a hearing before the Housing and Community Development Committee last week. "I've been hearing about the 10-year plan for the last 10 years."

A consultant from Canada was hired for $28,000 to update the Journey Home plan, but the 71-page report presented last month was panned by homeless advocates. The draft is being scrutinized by the plan's oversight panel, the Leadership Advisory Group, and eventually will be presented to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake as advice in the coming weeks.

The report says, "Homelessness continues to be an epidemic in the City of Baltimore."

Sister Helen Amos, chairwoman of the Journey Home's Leadership Advisory Group, said the oversight panel commissioned the draft report to refocus the community's efforts.

The plan is built around four core issues — housing, health care, prevention and emergency services — and an underlying principle of "housing first." The idea is that permanent housing is the first step in stabilizing a person's life.

"We've been chipping away at the chronically homeless population through the 'housing first' concept, but all of that hasn't gone as robustly as was originally envisioned," said Amos, who added that "sadly," homelessness in Baltimore isn't better today than it was five years ago.

Still, Amos said advisory group members have faith in the city's ability to conquer homelessness.

While others agree that the "housing first" strategy at the core of the plan is a success, they say the city's failure to hire an executive director to shepherd the Journey Home has been detrimental.

The city conducted interviews in the last year for an executive director, but two finalists backed out. One questioned how the plan was to be implemented and who was in charge of its success or failure, and the other withdrew for personal reasons, said Kate Briddell, director of homeless programs for the mayor. The search continues.

The city, meanwhile, has allocated nearly $4.8 million for homeless services in the current budget, up from about $759,000 in 2008.

The public money is supplemented by donations to Journey Home, which stand at about $2 million. Private funds, which paid for the consultant's update, will also cover the salary and benefits for the Journey Home's future executive director.

Overall, $37.7 million was available this year in Baltimore for homeless services, compared with $29.3 million in 2008, according to the mayor's office. The lion's share of the money comes from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Farrow said the "housing first" component has been one of the most successful aspects in battling homelessness. More than 625 individuals and families have received permanent housing subsidized by vouchers from multiple sources, including HUD and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Among the city's other recent successes was the 2011 opening of the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Housing Resource Center at 620 Fallsway. There, meals, showers, shelter for 275 men and women, and health and employment services are provided. The center also has 25 convalescent care beds.

It is one of about a dozen shelters, run by the city and nonprofit organizations, that provide more than 900 beds in Baltimore. Altogether about 4,500 beds are provided in Baltimore when transitional and permanent supportive housing is factored in. Still, advocates said, people are turned away every night.

Robert Brashears, a 55-year-old Baltimore man who has been homeless for about a year, doesn't believe the city can solve the problems that cause homelessness by 2018.

Brashears, who splits the weeks between sleeping at a city shelter and a friend's house, said that finding a job that pays enough to afford rental prices in Baltimore is difficult. "I think everybody deserves to have affordable housing."

To measure success, the draft of the revised Journey Home plan calls for stakeholders to track the number of families and individuals without housing and the length of time people are homeless, as well as how many return to homelessness after receiving services. Among other benchmarks, it calls for the city to increase permanent housing for the homeless community by at least 3,000 homes by 2018, and to help 120 homeless and recently homeless individuals a year find jobs, with a focus on ex-offenders.

The long-term goal is to make homelessness rare and brief, primarily by providing rapid housing solutions that reduce shelter stays to less than 90 days.

Kevin Lindamood, director of Health Care for the Homeless, said that if Baltimore is going to end homelessness, the community must commit to solving the systemic issues.

"We cannot lose sight that homelessness is only a symptom of poverty," he said, noting that unless the city addresses issues of affordable housing and livable wages, homeless individuals that may be housed today will be replaced with new men, women and children.. "We can't end homelessness by ending homelessness."

ywenger@baltsun.com

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