The acting director for the Baltimore Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services said that a plan to move roughly 400 homeless residents out of hotels by Dec. 31 could change if the coronavirus pandemic worsens in Maryland as it has elsewhere in the United States.
In an interview with The Baltimore Sun Thursday, Tisha Edwards said the city still is evaluating the conditions of the pandemic in Maryland before committing to its plan to move the majority of the homeless population currently in hotel rooms back to congregate living facilities.
During a meeting of the city council’s housing and urban affairs committee hearing Tuesday, city officials said they planned to move roughly 400 people out of hotel rooms by Dec. 31.
Of those 400, about 150 people deemed vulnerable due to their age or pre-existing conditions would be placed at non-congregate housing for some period of time. The remaining 250 people would be told they can go to one of the city’s various shelters, with plans to reopen the Weinberg Housing and Resource Center and Pinderhughes Emergency Homeless Shelter by Dec. 31.
Several advocates and former shelter residents complained the plan would put the city’s homeless into inadequate shared living facilities as the coronavirus pandemic continues to surge.
Edwards said Thursday that the plan is not set in stone and that it’s contingent on getting those two closed shelters into compliance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, as well as the state seeing no dramatic spikes in new COVID-19 cases.
“We will not move people back into the shelters until we can meet the CDC guidelines for congregate living,” Edwards said.
The current guidance from the CDC includes detailed cleaning procedures and social distancing restrictions that residents at Pinderhughes and Weinberg said were not followed properly prior to their transfers to hotel rooms. Gary Wilson, who said he stayed at both shelters, said during Tuesday’s hearing that large groups met in the cafeterias and staff members did not always wear masks.
The Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services is using a combination of federal CARES Act money and local funds to make improvements to those facilities, Edwards said. But if they do not meet the CDC’s guidance by Dec. 31, she said keeping those residents in hotels is not off the table.
“I don’t want the community to think the city is tone deaf on this issue, because we’re not,” she said.
But there is also the issue of how the city would continue to pay monthly hotel bills into 2021 for the residents without federal dollars.
The office’s current housing plan uses funding from the CARES Act, the coronavirus stimulus package signed into law by Congress earlier this year that sent $2.4 billion overall in aid to Maryland. Edwards said the office is partly funded by $130 million of that money given to the city.
As the law is written, the city would lose any funding not spent by Dec. 31, though many local officials are urging Congress to extend the deadline.
The homeless services office also received $7.2 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to aid the placement of more vulnerable residents at other living facilities. Edwards says they are hoping to place more than 150 people.
But if the pandemic were to worsen in coming months, Edwards said officials could explore keeping those residents in hotel rooms into 2021, even if the federal funding goes away.
“If that means that we have to go to other funding sources in order to maintain the strategy, that is what we are exploring now,” she said.
Several variables in the coming months could change the office’s course at any point.
Earlier this month, the two Republican senators from Kansas, Jerry Moran and Pat Roberts, introduced legislation to extend the CARES Act spending deadline until Dec. 31, 2022. It’s not clear what support the bill will receive.
In addition, while Maryland hasn’t seen the same surge in coronavirus cases the rest of the country has, officials reported Thursday the most new cases in a 24-hour period since Aug. 1.
Edwards said the office’s decisions are “driven by the expertise at our health department” as well as what weekly data says about the city’s coronavirus testing positivity rate.