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City homeless to get help paying utility bills for new houses

As part of a strategy to reduce homelessness in Baltimore, the city is teaming up with BGE to eliminate some families' past due utility debt, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced Tuesday.

The new initiative, the Power of Home, is available to homeless families and individuals as part of the city's 10-year plan to end homelessness, the Journey Home. Rawlings-Blake said the city is working toward making homelessness in Baltimore rare and brief.

"Taking practical steps like resolving past-due utility bills removes a huge barrier that keeps too many families from transitioning from a shelter to permanent housing," the mayor said. "This is a powerful example of the Baltimore community coming together to assist our most vulnerable residents."

Organizations that provide permanent housing for low-income or homeless families report that approximately a third of potential clients — about 50 individuals and families each year — have unpaid BGE bills. The debt, an average of $1,268 among these potential clients, can prevent them from obtaining housing, officials said.

The program is open to homeless men and women who are entering permanent supportive housing programs, according to the mayor's office.

The Power of Home is a partnership between BGE, the Weinberg Foundation, the Fuel Fund of Maryland and Mayor's Office of Human Services, among other organizations. BGE is providing $20,000 in bill credits and the Weinberg Foundation is donating $20,000 toward the cause. The Journey Home program will also contribute $5,000.

Rawlings-Blake said the initiative is the latest in a series of new developments in the Journey Home program, including the appointment of the city's housing commissioner, Paul Graziano, as chairman of its board and Adrienne Breidenstine as its new director.

"There is real momentum around the work," the mayor said.

The Journey Home was adopted in 2008. Baltimore's homeless is believed to have grown during the recession, but an exact count is hard to come by. A survey last year accounted for more than 2,600 people.

Jonathon Rondeau, president of the Family League of Baltimore, said the work of the Journey Home is worthwhile, as homelessness leads to a cascade of problems for families and communities. For example, a child from a homeless family is much more likely to be chronically absent from school, and that can lead to reading on a lower grade level or failing to graduate high school, he said.

The community must come together to help the vulnerable, including by working to prevent homelessness in the first place, Rondeau said.

"At the Family League, we believe that collaboration across government, private corporations and foundations is a key component to solving these problems," he said. "It's great to see some of our community's most influential individuals, organizations and companies working together on this."

The Power of Home supplements other energy assistant programs in Maryland. The state received an additional $20 million to help lower-income residents pay high utility bills this year as a result of the extreme weather. The money will be provided through the Electric Universal Service Program and administered by the Maryland Energy Administration, the Department of Human Resources and the Public Service Commission.

Governor Martin O'Malley said the money will help more than 100,000 lower-income Marylanders this winter.

"Families should not have to choose between staying warm and providing for their families," O'Malley said.

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