Baltimore is using $90.4 million in federal funding to create emergency housing and other housing assistance programs, Mayor Brandon Scott announced Tuesday. The majority of the funds are drawn from the city’s $641 million COVID-19 relief money and mark the largest dollar amount the city has spent on homeless services.
The Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services plans to use $75 million of the city’s American Rescue Plan Act funds to change housing methods first used widely during the public health emergency, namely sheltering people temporarily in individual hotel rooms instead of congregate shelters where COVID-19 could easily spread.
Irene Agustin, director of the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services, proposed five projects that address “critical points within [Baltimore’s] homelessness response system” that would be financed by American Rescue Plan funds and a recent $15.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The federal funds will serve as a catalyst to transform the city’s response to homelessness, Agustin said. That transformation will start with more shelters becoming private rooms, rather than group shelters.
One project proposes buying and renovating two hotels into emergency housing for residents who need shelter immediately. The hotels would replace 275 beds located at several congregate shelters that will be closed. The same number of beds will be available in Baltimore but primarily in private rooms between the two hotels.
“Non-congregate shelter is a best practice we’re seeing throughout the nation,” said Agustin, referring to temporarily housing individuals in hotel rooms. “We know this is an intervention that’s going to work within the city of Baltimore.”
Kyana Underwood, a spokeswoman for the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services, said the office has not yet identified which hotels it will purchase. The city will solicit proposals from interested hotel owners soon.
Another project funded by the combined $90.4 million would focus on transitioning people quickly out of hotels rooms serving as emergency shelters and into more permanent housing. That transition would include city employees providing case management to individuals by guiding them through the rental assistance process.
About 2,200 Baltimore residents experienced homelessness daily in 2020, according to the most recent data available.
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The funding also will be used to speed up traditionally slow-moving processes in Baltimore’s homeless response system, such as the time period between submitting a rental application and waiting for a landlord to review it, Agustin said. New “housing navigation strategies” include using housing employees to communicate with landlords and help fill out forms for people searching for housing.
The homeless services office also plans to develop incentives for landlords to lease affordable units.
Agustin said her office has not finalized how it will attract private landlord partners, but pointed to a “landlord incentive fund,” for instance, through which the city would pay for property repair costs.
“The goal is to get more landlords to come to the table,” Agustin said. “So that we have a pool of properties and that we can connect people who are experiencing homelessness to, so that they’re able to move out of the shelter, off the street, and into housing.”
Other project proposals include building or renting more housing units for people experiencing chronic homelessness and having the manpower to provide those people with support services, such as a dedicated case manager.
The office of homeless services plans to create a “flexible fund” for temporary support to prevent individuals from becoming homeless. The flexible fund would act as short-term rental assistance to cover a few months’ rent or a security deposit to keep a person in their home, and also could help individuals in shelters to quickly find a more permanent residence.
“The reality is investments in housing, investments in rental assistance, they’ve just been lacking for many, many years and decades,” Agustin said. “What the federal government and HUD have seen is that housing helps keep people safe. It helps mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Overall, for people, it’s the best place for them.”