Does Baltimore have the resolve to house the homeless?

During her campaign for mayor last year, candidate Catherine Pugh promised to develop solutions to the problem of homelessness that has bedeviled Baltimore City for decades. Advocates estimate that on any given night some 2,600 people are sleeping on the streets, where their visibility makes their plight all but impossible to ignore. Yet despite some laudable past efforts, the city has never managed to permanently shelter its poorest residents or to address the dire consequences to which they’re subject as a result of having no place to call home.

That is why we were heartened by Mayor Pugh’s effort to make good on her campaign pledge last week by releasing the findings of a mayoral task force charged with coming up with ways to reduce homelessness using all the city’s public and private resources. The panel’s report also included a suggested price tag for the effort totaling some $350 million that the mayor says she’ll try to raise from the business and philanthropic communities. That’s an enormous sum for a city as financially strapped as Baltimore, even if the fundraising is spread over decades. But it at least gives us a concrete sense of what the long-voiced goal of ending homelessness would entail. It represents a clear goal to aim for and a concrete measure against which to gauge the city’s progress.

No doubt some will criticize the panel’s efforts as more aspirational than practical, and in truth the bulk of the information contained in the report is framed in terms of broad general themes and philosophical assumptions rather than nuts-and-bolts directives. For example, the report stresses three broad principles: That homelessness can’t be eliminated without strong leadership from City Hall; that the only way to end homelessness is by building permanent, affordable housing; and that reaching that goal will require significant increases in public and private investment.

Such statements ought to be self-evident to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of recent Baltimore history, but it probably bears saying again since in the past even these familiar bromides have been honored more in the breach than in the observance. It was nine years ago that then-mayor Sheila Dixon’s administration released its 10-year plan to end homelessness — an extremely detailed document that included scores of action steps and laid out which entities or agencies were responsible for fulfilling them. Yet the homeless population in the city is not much different than it was then.

Homelessness should be a solvable problem if addressed through a robust, multi-pronged strategy that starts with getting people into permanent housing and follows up with the necessary social services and mental health care to help them stay there. Whether we will follow through this time — and in particular, whether Ms. Pugh or anyone else can raise the kind of money the report says will be needed to give the city a reasonable chance of ending homelessness — remains to be seen. But this latest report reflects a robust understanding of just what we’re up against: “Contemporary homelessness is a result of poverty, structural racism, traumatic experiences, lack of affordable housing, loss of living-wage employment for low-skilled workers, and limited safety-net programs,” the report notes. Much of the damage can be traced back to huge budget cuts at the federal Housing Department of Housing and Urban Development between 1979 and 1989, which the reports says “fueled a reemergence of homelessness not seen since the Great Depression.”

Homelessness in Baltimore is a tragic legacy of that era, and it won’t be ended overnight no matter how much money the city throws at the problem. But the mayor is right that we have to start somewhere, and the city’s “Housing First” approach, based on getting homeless people into permanent quarters as quickly as possible, is as good a place as any. It is a moral imperative that the city harness its public and private resources in a coordinated, innovative effort to gradually reduce the number souls languishing on its streets and to ensure that even where individual cases persist homelessness as a way of life becomes a rare and brief experience in Baltimore City.

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