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Baltimore will keep homeless in hotels through June, but hasn’t tapped federal money set aside to pay for it

Baltimore will continue housing about 500 homeless residents in hotel rooms at least through June, extending a program designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19, even though it has not yet applied for $35 million in federal money that would pay for it.

Tisha Edwards, the acting director of the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services, said the city made the decision in early March to extend its contracts with local hotels rather than let them expire while Maryland is experiencing an uptick in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations.

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“As long as there is a need, we are more than willing to make those hotels available,” Edwards said of the program, which is designed to keep homeless residents from congregate living centers during the pandemic. “We still have a lot of work to do to get into the homeless community to reach optimal vaccination [rates].”

The announcement comes as advocates for the homeless say the city’s lack of action has kept it from accessing federal dollars that could keep residents in hotels through September.

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Hundreds of millions of dollars to help house the homeless during the pandemic are available through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Public Assistance Program, and many similar-sized cities already have gotten money. Denver, with a population of about 700,000, announced last month that it had been approved to receive $60.4 million “for costs related to emergency shelter for those experiencing homelessness.

Baltimore’s finance department said through a spokeswoman that it “is expected to request approximately $35 million in FEMA reimbursement for the costs of sheltering and quarantining people experiencing homelessness,” but did not say when that would happen.

The finance department said that the FEMA program application “is a multi-step process to secure a commitment for funding, which can take several weeks, even months, to complete” and that FEMA already has committed to reimbursing the city $18 million in other related costs. FEMA’s deliberation process is exempt from public records disclosures, making it impossible to know how much the agency has promised to Baltimore until the reimbursements have been approved and made public.

A National Homelessness Law Center analysis of the FEMA reimbursement program shows that the program is offering to reimburse municipalities 100% of all costs to provide non-congregate housing to homeless residents through September.

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Carolyn Johnson, the managing attorney for the Homeless Persons Representation Project in Baltimore, said the city is missing an opportunity to renew the hotel contracts for a longer period, especially given an executive order signed by President Joe Biden that she and others said would allow the city to seek reimbursements through September.

Johnson had a theory about the city’s delay, saying Baltimore may be at a disadvantage compared to cities that routinely experience hurricanes and other natural disasters and may be more familiar with the FEMA process.

“I think a lot of the states that were more familiar with working with FEMA … already had the systems in place,” she said. “It was a brand-new thing and not a thing that homeless services would’ve interacted with ever.”

Johnson and other advocates say the city is in a unique position to reevaluate the way it addresses homelessness, pointing to the estimated $670 million Baltimore will receive from the American Rescue Plan Act, Congress’ COVID relief package.

They are focused especially on making sure the city shifts to non-congregate living facilities as an alternative to the traditional shelters. Non-congregate facilities — such as hotels, apartments or homes — allow families to live together separately from others, compared to shelters, which commonly group those experiencing homelessness together in a large room.

“It’s just not a way that people should be living long-term,” Johnson said. “It’s not dignified. It takes away people’s privacy.”

Anthony Williams, co-chair of the Lived Experience Advisory Committee, agrees, but said he doesn’t have confidence the city will put together a comprehensive plan that would use the cash infusion to move away from congregate living facilities.

Williams said doesn’t believe that Edwards and her office are committed to tackling the homeless issue in a serious way. He also criticized the city for its decision to convert two recreation centers into temporary shelters this winter, saying it was against the advice of the committee.

“I don’t have the confidence in the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services, that they will not move people back into congregate living because that’s their plan to do that,” he added.

Edwards said her office does not see non-congregate living facilities and the city’s shelters as an “either-or” proposition as the city awaits millions of dollars in federal funding. She added that her office has been focusing on sheltering a vulnerable population through an unprecedented pandemic.

She also pointed to the total number of people who have been moved into more permanent, non-congregate living facilities during the pandemic, and the office’s work moving homeless residents considered to be particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 into more permanent housing.

“Since the onset of the state of emergency as a result of the pandemic, [the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services] has necessarily focused on executing a robust emergency response plan,” she said. “We have housed more than 500 individuals experiencing homelessness in hotels to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, moved 412 families from emergency shelter to permanent housing and expanded our distribution of food and safety kits to those experiencing street homelessness.”

She added that the city schedules regular meetings with advocacy groups and the city’s continuum of care board, which helps steer homeless services in the city. Her office still is preparing its long-term plans as it awaits guidance and funding from the American Rescue Plan.

“It is now time to look at a longer-term response. The American Rescue Plan resources are very much about the future,” Edwards said. “And I think there will be more opportunities for all of our partners to participate in informing how we move forward on an ongoing basis.”

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