By Alison Matas, The Baltimore Sun
6:58 PM EST, February 1, 2013
Whitney Swander woke before dawn three days this week to talk with people who have been sleeping on the city's streets.
That's how she met Ron — a man who has moved across the country since becoming homeless and, lately, has spent his days drinking coffee in a McDonald's in southern Baltimore.
"He wants a way into a more stable life," she said, pausing. "I keep thinking about Ron."
The Mayor's Office of Human Services-Homeless Services Program and the Baltimore Home for Good Campaign announced Friday morning an initiative to find housing for the 75 most vulnerable homeless people in the city. The effort is part of the 10-year plan to eliminate homelessness in Baltimore, which is at the halfway point. Although the new program focuses on helping those who cost the city the most in time and resources, some people in attendance Friday said the plan doesn't go far enough.
More than 100 volunteers visited neighborhoods and shelters in Baltimore from 4 a.m. to 6 a.m. Monday through Wednesday. They talked with the homeless about their health conditions, such as whether they have liver or kidney disease, whether they have a history of hypothermia and how many emergency rooms visits they've made in the past three months.
The information will be used to identify the 75 individuals most likely to die if they remain on the streets and then find housing for them. These people, who are considered chronically homeless, pose the greatest expense to the city because they spend nearly every night in a shelter, said Mark Slater, who is helping to head up the campaign. Getting at-risk individuals in permanent housing frees up the city to use its limited resources in a smarter way, he said.
The city said it needs $75,000 to get the 75 in homes and solicited donations Friday.
About 10 protesters who attended Friday's event displayed neon signs that read "What about #76?" and "Housing is a human right!"
Paul Behler, 59, who was among the protesters, said he's been homeless for the past year and a half, since he lost his job working as a concert piano tuner and rebuilder. He called for the city to re-examine its priorities.
"Seventy-five people being housed is only a drop in the bucket," he said.
That sentiment was also echoed by several of the morning's speakers, who included city officials and volunteers. Many of them noted that the push to get 75 people in homes is just a starting point.
Volunteers also counted the homeless in Baltimore this week; the Housing and Urban Development Department requires cities to conduct a census of their homeless populations every two years. They encountered 636 homeless people, 147 of whom they deemed highly vulnerable, according to data presented Friday.
The final tally for Baltimore won't be available until April, said Gabby Knighton, outreach coordinator with the Homeless Services Program. In 2011, however, the city counted more than 4,000 homeless individuals during its January census.
After the event, protester Brooks Long said that he was glad to hear officials say they would look to help more than the initial 75 homeless and that it seemed like their hearts were in the right place.
"I think everybody knows we can do better," he said.
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