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Baltimore extends contracts with hotels to house homeless residents through March

Baltimore officials have extended emergency contracts to house roughly 500 homeless residents at five city hotels for three more months, buying time to come up with a plan to move most of them into congregate living facilities amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The contracts were set to end at midnight on Dec. 31, when federal CARES act funding expired, but will now remain in place through the end of March. Daniel Ramos, the deputy city administrative officer, said Baltimore is paying for the extension through its general fund and is being reimbursed at a 75% rate by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA.

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Tisha Edwards, the acting director of the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services, said Thursday that the city needs more time to get the Pinderhughes Emergency Homeless Shelter and Weinberg Housing and Resource Center into compliance with safety guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In October, the city said it would renovate and clean the two shelters to be ready for move-in by the first of the year, when the city would lose any federal CARES Act funding not spent by then. The plan irked some advocates at the time, who said the city was forcing a vulnerable population to move toward group living while the state’s coronavirus case count was spiking.

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Now, Edwards said the city has come up with a plan that keeps those residents in hotels as it continues developing the schematics and scope of the construction projects.

“Until we’re comfortable we can meet the CDC guidelines . . . we’re going to need to maintain our hotel contracts,” Edwards said.

The plan to place residents in hotels and congregate living is separate from a $7.2 million in federal funding program designed to support 150 adult households with people deemed more vulnerable to the effects of a coronavirus infection by subsidizing rent payments at other, non-congregate living facilities for up to 18 months.

Edwards pointed to the difficulty in particular of renovating the Pinderhughes shelter, a former school converted into a shelter earlier this year that houses 78 people, including families.

She said the office is working on a plan to renovate the center to come into compliance with federal safety guidelines, adding there are additional steps to take before construction starts at the West Baltimore shelter. The CDC guidance asks congregate living facilities to install physical barriers for desk staff who regularly interact with the public as well as to make changes to various communal areas to encourage social distancing.

“It’s really getting agreement on the scope. This is an evolving process. We want to do it right,” Edwards said. “It’s a pretty extensive undertaking to covert a school into a CDC-compliant shelter.”

Ramos said that, as part of the city’s Capital Improvement Plan, Baltimore will request state and federal funding to help with the project.

That work will continue until at least March, and Edwards there’s no solid deadline as officials continue to develop the overall scope of the project.

As that is going on, the office is continuing to make progress preparing 150 individual adult households reserved for those deemed too vulnerable to the coronavirus to live in a congregate living facility. Edwards said that the city has screened 125 people in the hotels to prepare them for the moves and has recruited local landlords willing to accept the residents.

She added that, while the $7.2 million in funding will aid in placing these people, the city has already moved a total of 254 families into such facilities since the beginning of the pandemic in March.

“The housing component is really what our neighbors want and what we want for them,” Edwards said.

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