After her mother died in 2010, Sidney Allen could no longer afford the rent on the home they shared and spent the next three years bouncing between friends' couches and short-term rentals, without a home to call her own.
Her homelessness ended in April, six months after meeting with a Bon Secours case worker, when she moved into a house on Smallwood Street. She pays $200 a month for it, thanks to one of 650 federal housing vouchers set aside for the homeless as part of the city's 10-year campaign to address the problem in the city.
Her placement speaks to the city's efforts to refocus its Journey Home plan, which has been criticized for floundering since beginning in 2008.
"We're making better use of our resources across the system," said Adrienne Breidenstine, who started last September as the director of the Journey Home, a public-private collaboration that includes government agencies, nonprofits, businesses and faith-based organizations. "We're trying to operate more efficiently and get more people into housing."
The number of homeless families being housed each month through the Journey Home has nearly doubled since a year ago, from about 10 to about 20, thanks largely to federal housing vouchers set aside by the city for use with the homeless, Breidenstine said. This year, Baltimore Housing also added 150 more federal vouchers to the city's "Housing First" program, bringing the total number to 650.
This month, organizations across the city started using a new, standardized set of questions to evaluate the needs of homeless people, entering cases into a centralized database to make referrals for housing and other services, with the hope of streamlining care.
The Journey Home's board approved the use of $60,000 raised through donations for a housing stability flex fund to cover miscellaneous costs that can block people from entering housing, such as old utility debt, an application fee or security deposit.
The city is offering people housed through the program a $500 furniture credit — also paid for by donations — and move-in kits that include household items such as bedsheets, cooking utensils, shower curtains and towels through a collection drive organized by Wells Fargo.
"I'm blessed with the things that came my way, I'm blessed with this house, I'm blessed to wake up every morning," said Allen, who received a move-in kit at a housewarming party Thursday. "I'm just happy that I do have a stable place for my kids to be."
The home has allowed her to provide a home for her two sons, she said, and begin to look toward new goals: more schooling and finding a job.
Since July 2010, the Journey Home has found housing more than 1,100 individuals and families, mostly using the federal vouchers, according to the city. Many families end up using vouchers long-term, Breidenstine said.
Still, on any given night, an estimated 3,000 people experience homelessness in the city.
As the available vouchers run out, some advocates for the homeless say there are few indications that the city will start to move more aggressively — building units for the poorest or pushing for more funding from the state and federal governments.
"As best I can tell, they're just tinkering around the edges," said Jeff Singer, an adjunct instructor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. "There's no plan for a significant increase in affordable housing, and without that, you can't really address homelessness."
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Since June, when the city razed an encampment along the Fallsway — a move criticized by advocates when it occurs without alternative housing available — makeshift homes there have returned.
Outreach workers visit regularly with the individuals who stay there, but Gabby Knighton, outreach coordinator for the city's homeless services program, said the encampment can appear bigger than it is because the location is used as a place to socialize.
Briedenstine said she knows more needs to be done, and the city is looking at other solutions.
"We know we need to create more housing opportunities," she said. "We will run out of vouchers, but that's not the only resource."
Antonia K. Fasanelli, executive director of the Homeless Persons Representation Project, a legal services and advocacy nonprofit, said Briedenstine has created subcomittees that are active and exploring issues such as income support and development of new units.
"We haven't seen this level of focus since the Journey Home plan was originally issued," she said. "We can only hope that we continue to focus the way we have been on real solutions and do not get distracted by activities that take away from those solutions, such as the destruction of encampments without the provision of immediate housing."