Homeless aren't going away

Does anyone believe Baltimore's homeless problem is getting better?

Last week, news organizations around the country, including The Baltimore Sun, reported on U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development figures suggesting that homelessness has declined ("Homelessness declines by 8 percent in Maryland," Nov. 18).

To paraphrase Mark Twain, rumors of the demise of homelessness are greatly exaggerated.

The limited definition of homelessness used by HUD and serious methodological limitations of the federal agency's "point-in-time" approach to measuring homelessness make it impossible, if not irresponsible, to draw such a conclusion.

HUD's point-in-time method measures street homelessness on a given night every January. A tally of people experiencing homelessness on a cold January night — rather than when it's warm enough to survive outdoors — is hardly a representative accounting of our fellow citizens without safe and dignified housing. And until HUD agrees to recognize people who live on the couches of friends or relatives or doubled-up in other housing as experiencing homelessness, these counts will remain flawed. It should be noted that HUD sister agencies, the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services, apply this broader definition.

There is stark evidence that homelessness is, in fact, on the rise. The 2016 Annual Report on Homelessness issued by the Maryland Interagency Council on Homelessness both indicates that instances of homelessness are up over 2015 and documents a troubling 54 percent increase in the number of deaths among people experiencing homelessness.

Further evidence lies in Maryland's high cost of apartment rentals. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, Maryland is the fifth least affordable state in the nation for rental housing. Using federal guidelines, a household would need an income of $26.53 an hour to afford a modest market rate two-bedroom apartment. That in a state where the minimum hourly wage is a mere $8.75.

We appreciate that HUD, like those of us on the ground in the homeless services community, assert that making affordable and supportive housing universally available is the most direct and effective solution to homelessness. The irony is the extent to which the United Stated has systematically decreased its investment in low-income housing over time, spending today a fraction of what it spent four decades ago.

To truly end homelessness, we must broaden our definition of homelessness and develop data collection practices that give deeper insight into those individuals and families experiencing it. And we need The Sun and other news outlets to question government data before drawing conclusions from it. Absent that step — one the public relies upon the media to perform — news reporting is bound to have gaps and, on occasion, errors.

Kevin Lindamood, Baltimore and Antonia K. Fasanelli, Washington, D.C.

The writers are, respectively, president and chief executive officer of Health Care for the Homeless and executive director of the Homeless Persons Representation Project.

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