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Baltimore hopes to move homeless residents back to shelters by end of the year, worrying many as case count spikes

Baltimore officials said Tuesday they are aiming to move most of the roughly 400 homeless residents currently in hotel rooms back into congregate living facilities by the end of the year, raising concerns for their safety as the city’s coronavirus field hospital saw a 500% increase in patients last week.

During a Housing and Urban Affairs Committee meeting Tuesday afternoon, Dr. Mihir Chaudhary, the medical director for Baltimore’s coronavirus field hospital, said about 80-percent of the spike in patients is connected to congregate living facilities.

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Officials with the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services said their plans are contingent upon bringing centers into proper federal and medical guidance, but that may not be enough, Chaudhary said.

“Really, no matter what precautions are taken, shelters, I’m concerned, will remain engines of community transmission,” Chaudhary said.

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The city moved hundreds of residents into the rooms by April to attempt to stem the spread of the virus, but now, with federal funding running out, it is looking for long-term solutions.

Tisha Edwards, the acting director of the office, said the city received $7.2 million from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to go toward paying for housing for more vulnerable clients. She said the funding could support 150 adult households with subsidized rent payments for up to about 18 months.

Edwards said the city’s homeless strategy is partly funded by $130 million in federal aid given to Baltimore through the CARES Act, which provided stimulus funding during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic. The city will only have access to the funds until the end of the year, Edwards said.

Chaudhary did not elaborate on the total number of patients in the field hospital week-to-week, but did say the large percentage increase is fueled, in part, because patients are no longer predominantly coming from area hospitals, but from "all parts of the state.”

Chaudhary, who’s previously demonstrated outside of Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young’s home, was among a group of advocates to speak against the plan to move homeless residents back to shelters during Tuesday’s meeting.

The Winter Shelter Plan calls for some residents to be moved into the Weinberg Housing and Resource Center or the Pinderhughes Emergency Homeless Shelter. Currently, only the St. Vincent de Paul Baltimore and Greenspring Men’s shelters are accepting clients.

Angela McCauley, the emergency services coordinator for the Mayor’s homeless services office, said the office’s plan is a combination of placing some of the more vulnerable homeless clients into somewhat permanent housing with subsidized funding while others would move back to congregate living facilities.

As for those not deemed to be vulnerable enough to qualify, McCauley said the current plan is to reopen Weinberg and Pinderhughes and move homeless residents out of the hotel rooms by Dec. 31.

She added that the office has secured at least 139 additional beds for clients at Weinberg, Greenspring, the Maryland Center for Veterans Educations and Training (McVet) as well as at the Lord Baltimore hotel and two Holiday Inn Express hotels.

The city moved more than 100 people out of the main part of the Weinberg shelter and into hotel rooms in April after five people at the shelter tested positive.

The city took over control of the Pinderhughes shelter in March, terminating a $1 million contract with a private provider after the city’s Board of Estimates said on-site visits found multiple compliance violations and “violations related to client discrimination and right to shelter.”

With the country in the midst of a new surge of new coronavirus cases and Maryland seeing its highest case total since August, several advocates and clients spoke against the plan to move back to congregate living.

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City resident Koumba Yasin said she was staying at Pinderhughes when she and others were transferred to a hotel on June 4.

She said the shelter had mold and little space for social distancing, adding that being moved from a hotel back to the shelter would be like “being thrown back to the wolves" with the upcoming flu season on top of the ongoing pandemic.

“We can’t social distance at a shelter, which would mean we would have to wear our masks at all times,” Yasin said, adding that clients were still allowed to leave the shelter as they please.

“I worry a lot about the residents who are not strong enough to go back to the shelters,” she added.

Several speakers also made a point to highlight the lack of youth-specific services for the city’s homeless population, which Edwards says is estimated to be around 2,000 children, but is probably an undercount.

Ingrid Lofgran, the director of homeless youth initiative at the Homeless Persons Representation Project, said the city’s only youth-specific homeless shelter, Loving Arms, “has not been in operations since the beginning of the year.”

“There are no shelter options for unaccompanied minors,” Lofgran said. “What outreach strategies does the city have in place?”

While Edwards and McCauley said the target date is to start instituting the plan by the end of the year, Edwards also qualified that it was “contingent on all of [that] construction and build outs” to bring those centers into compliance with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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