A group of homeless advocacy organizations and Baltimore City Council members are stepping up their call to have the homeless population housed at vacant hotels during the coronavirus outbreak, asking for the mayor to work to get hundreds of rooms ready to shelter the vulnerable population.
In a conference call Monday led by the Housing Our Neighbors homeless advocacy group, a group that included Councilmen Ryan Dorsey and Zeke Cohen called on Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young to greatly expand the city’s efforts to rehouse the homeless.
While the mayor’s office wrote in a news release that it has started to move 150 “vulnerable, but healthy, individuals” over the age of 62 from its emergency shelters to motels, Matt Hill, attorney for the Public Justice Center, said it would take 600 to 750 rooms to adequately address the problem.
“The mayor’s office has told us they have reserved some hotel rooms and they’re looking to reserve a good number more,” Hill said, adding that it would take hundreds more “to really be able to offer housing to all of the people in congregate housing.”
Young’s spokesman Lester Davis said the mayor agrees with the goal but wants to make sure any hotel space reserved for the homeless would be properly staffed.
“The actual physical space is really the easy part,” Davis said, adding that the difficult part is making sure “they actually have the support that they need to be able to do well in those spaces.”
In a statement released after Young’s announcement Monday afternoon, the Baltimore Fair Development Roundtable, which wrote the original letter to Young, said the group is “glad to see the Mayor’s office is beginning to take a step in the right direction.”
“The Mayor must step up and commit to protecting all homeless in shelters and encampments,” the group wrote. “Everyone is at risk from the Covid-19 crisis and all are in need of safe housing.”
Dorsey and Cohen expressed during the conference call their support for an expanded effort.
“This is a human rights crisis. We’ve got to act with urgency and make sure that all of our neighbors are able to stay in a safe place,” Cohen said in a prerecorded video.
Dorsey said the request is “not out of line with what other cities are doing” and that, with rooms sitting vacant as people stay home due to the coronavirus outbreak, “we just know they’re not doing as much as is possible.”
City Councilwoman Shannon Sneed, who represents the 13th District, was initially on a conference call at 10 a.m. but had to drop out when the meeting was pushed back to around 10:45 a.m. due to the Zoom meeting being bombarded by pornography from anonymous users. Rachel Kutler, an advocate with Housing Our Neighbors, said Sneed had an 11 a.m. meeting she needed to attend.
Other cities have taken action to move homeless populations away from smaller homeless shelters toward individual hotel rooms or to a more spacious location, as San Diego did when it moved 350 homeless people to a convention center.
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As of Monday, more than 900 individuals and dozens of organizations have signed onto a letter sent to Young and city leaders last month calling on the city to rapidly rehouse the city’s homeless in hotel rooms as well as implement rent and mortgage forgiveness measures.
Mark Council, 60, who has been staying at the Weinberg Housing and Resource Center, said shelters are still taking care of hundreds of clients in tight quarters despite the federal government’s recommendations that individuals stay at least 6 feet away from one another.
“Being in a shelter and trying to keep things the way want us to stay apart, it is very impossible to keep us apart from one another in the shelter,” he said. “How can we the people in the shelter stop the spread of the coronavirus if we are piled on top of one another?”
Dr. Gwen DuBois, president of Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility, said the issue is of urgent concern, considering how easily and quickly the virus can spread.
“We can’t wait for people to have symptoms because we know they’re transmitting the virus even before they’re symptomatic,” DuBois said. “We need the mayor and governor to work together to rapidly find housing for the homeless.”
Davis said the mayor is in contact with nonprofit and support organizations to try to move more people into hotel rooms, but stressed that the city wants “to make sure we have the staffing capacity.”
“We’re scaling up as quickly as we can,” Davis said. “We are in alignment with the goal, and it’s something that the mayor is working to.”