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Baltimore’s homeless residents, advocates demand city extend hotel contracts, close shelters

Wearing “Housing is a Human Right” face masks, a number of homeless residents and advocates demanded the city extend its contracts with several hotels and motels to house homeless residents during the coronavirus pandemic. They also asked the city to work toward providing more permanent housing.

The group, led by the homeless advocacy group Housing Our Neighbors, delivered about 400 postcards from homeless residents to Mayor Brandon Scott’s office on Thursday, each one outlining demands as well as complaints with the city’s current strategy to house homeless residents in select hotels and motels only until June.

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Speaking in front of city hall, Mark Council, lead organizer for Housing Our Neighbors, who’s been homeless for about seven years, said the city has taken steps in the right direction to address the issue. Mayor Brandon Scott announced earlier this week that the city was exploring purchasing hotels to create “permanent and transient housing” for the city’s homeless residents after the coronavirus pandemic.

However, Council, 61, said the homeless community wants Scott to come up with a comprehensive plan that would close current shelters in favor of non-congregate housing, such as hotels, apartments or homes.

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“We need to keep the pressure on,” Council said. “We need to make sure that homelessness has an end to it.”

Council and others said they want to see the city extend the current lease agreements with hotels through September, something that housing advocates have said the city could do with available money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Public Assistance Program.

Richard Mayo with Housing Our Neighbors said that the city should contract with more hotels while working toward a solution that does not include reopening congregate shelters.

“Instead of just [keeping] six [hotels and motels] and leave the shelters open, expand the motels and close the shelters,” Mayo said. “Let Baltimore be the flagship to show we successfully ended homelessness.”

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Koumba Yasin, also with Housing Our Neighbors, said the city needs to investigate the conditions inside some of the participating hotels, adding that some of the residents who sent postcards to the mayor’s office complained of mold in their units.

“It also should be [about] putting people in hotels that are safe,” Yasin said.

Councilwoman Odette Ramos, who represents District 14, spoke in support of the event and told those in attendance that the council is “taking this very seriously.”

“If we don’t deal with this now, we’re going to actually have more people that are experiencing homelessness and that is shameful,” she said.

The councilwoman also spoke in support of a bill by Councilman Ryan Dorsey that would establish a new “Office on Ending Homelessness,” revamping the current Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services to operate as its own agency with a director subject to City Council confirmation. The legislation would also allocate more than $1 million from the Affordable Housing Trust Fund each year to pay for a housing voucher program for those who make up to 30% of the area’s median income.

She also encouraged those in attendance to participate in an upcoming Economic and Community Development hearing on May 25, where council members are scheduled to discuss the city’s long-term plan regarding the hotels and address the city’s homeless population.

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