It's the highest-stakes lottery poor people play. Winners can get their rent paid for life. Losers may end up sleeping on the street. The last chance to play was in 2003.
Now the time has come again.
For the first time in more than a decade, Baltimore Housing will begin this month taking applications from people needing federal Housing Choice vouchers (also known as Section 8), which pays all the rent over 35 percent of the recipient's income. But advocates for the homeless are concerned about the city's process.
“They say they are getting to the end of the list,” says Jeff Singer, an advocate with Housing Our Neighbors, a nonprofit that works with homeless people on economic justice issues. “I’m sure that’s the case, but I would like to know how they got down to 800, because at the beginning of the year they were around 10,000.”
Singer thinks the city did not try hard enough to find people on the old list, many of whom may not have updated their application with new phone numbers or addresses in the intervening decade. “My fear is the most vulnerable folks are the least likely to get into this lottery,” he says.
Singer and other advocates say city officials told them that anyone who was on the old list will continue on the new one, though it is unclear by what process they would be able to confirm that. As a new "Camp 83" grows under the Jones Falls Expressway downtown, the prospect of a huge new waiting list seems only to underscore the city's housing crisis.
Years-long wait lists for Section 8 vouchers are the norm around the country.
"We are unaware of even one housing authority in the Nation (and there are 2,320 that offer Section 8) that doesn't have a waiting list," one online source says. Most people living on the street know there is a list, and that it's been closed for years, but not everyone. "I never heard of a list," Jay, a homeless man smoking a cigarette and begging for food under the JFX, steps from the City Paper office, said last week. Gregory Smith, a man lying on a mattress in the parking lot there, said he had been on a waiting list for two years, and had just begun going on tours of apartments in recent weeks. "They give you the options," he says. "And if you don't take it, you're out of the program."
Smith is in a different program than Housing Choice, says Norman Young, a Baltimore Housing employee working the line marked "Housing + Shelter" at the Baltimore Convention Center on Oct. 2. "That's Project-based NEDS, non-elderly and disabled under 62."
The complicated mix of housing subsidies available, and the complex eligibility and applications rules for the various programs, make getting free housing very difficult for the people who most need it. Almost all of them require guidance. And here in the Convention Center are hundreds of volunteers who could help.
"We're asking people if they are on the Section 8 list and they think they are," says Michelle Levy, a student at the University of Maryland School of Social Work who is interning at Housing Our Neighbors. "But often they are in a different program."
Singer says the city should have rolled out the new sign-up here, where 2,000 people met for the third annual "Project Homeless Connect Baltimore" on Oct. 2. The United Way-sponsored program offered foot-washing, dental care, food, and other services to any in need. Crowds pack the concrete convention center floor. The "Housing + Shelter" line stretches for hundreds of feet.
"People are really happy to hear the waiting list is open," says Antoine Barco, a city housing employee at the event wearing a shirt that reads "Why Wait in Line?" Young then explains that, today at least, the city workers are telling people who need housing to tell their case workers to remind them to sign up online in three weeks.
It is unclear why people can't fill out the form today. Baltimore Housing spokeswoman Cheron Porter did not respond to an email asking about the new list.
Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano briefed City Council members on Sept. 22 with a PowerPoint presentation. The program will be accepting new applications between Oct. 22 and Oct. 30. There is a website, at jointhelist.org. The idea is to take all applications—housing advocates estimate as many as 100,000 people may apply—then draw them out in a lottery. The final waiting list will number 25,000 people, and the rest of the applicants will get a letter in March of 2015 expressing the city's regrets that they did not make the list.
"I think the fact that it's time-limited at all is problematic," says Adam Schneider, director of community relations for Health Care for the Homeless. "If someone needs housing outside of that narrow time limit—which is not out of the realm of possibility—they have to wait six years to even get a chance at the lottery."
The new list "will give us a snapshot of the need," Schneider says.
Publicity about the new list began on Oct. 6 with a mayoral press conference.
In addition to the website, Baltimore Housing expects to staff five "walk-in sites" where applicants can get someone to help them fill in the online form between Oct. 28 and Oct. 30. Those sites are at Mount Pleasant Church, 6000 Radecke Ave.; Coppin State University, 2500 W. North Ave.; St. Veronica Parrish Hall, 806 Cherry Hill Road; Magna Baltimore Technical Center, 4901 Park Heights Ave.; and Pleasant View Gardens, 201 N. Aisquith St., where Spanish translators will be available.
"I didn't come away from the briefing 100 percent convinced it was all good news," says Bill Henry, the 4th District city councilman who chairs the council's Housing and Community Development Committee. He says the online-only application process could lead to a big rush when the walk-in sites open toward the end of the process.
"They said they would have people there to help," Henry says. "But it was unclear that they would be able to staff to meet demand. Fifty thousand people sitting in their sister-in-law's house typing away happily is one thing, but of you have 25,000 people all trying to crowd their way into these four or five walk-in centers over four or five days, you could have crowd-control issues."