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As City Council members consider plan for Baltimore’s homeless, city must replace director of homeless services

The outgoing mayoral administration laid out a plan Tuesday to provide services to Baltimore’s homeless, as the city looks to help its most vulnerable families overcome the added challenges brought on by the coronavirus crisis.

Tisha Edwards, a top aide for Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, outlined proposed spending on homeless services during a City Council budget hearing. Edwards delivered the presentation in place of Jerrianne Anthony, who has served as Baltimore’s top homeless services provider but is no longer employed by the city.

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James Bentley, a Young spokesman, confirmed Tuesday that Anthony is no longer a city employee, but he declined to provide a reason. Anthony was placed on paid personal leave about a month ago.

While the preliminary budget proposes reducing city spending for the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services by about $3 million to $50 million in the funding year that begins July 1, Edwards said Tuesday the actual budget would be about $63 million. Millions more in federal dollars are expected to help the city support families experiencing and at risk of homelessness due to the pandemic and its aftermath.

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“About 2,500 individuals experience homelessness [in Baltimore] on any given night, so there is a real need to make sure we have a very responsive agency that partners with many, many organizations to support the needs of those individuals,” Edwards said.

Edwards, head of Mayor’s Office of Children and Family Success under Young, said she is also acting director of the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services.

It is unclear what led to the shake-up in the office and whether Anthony’s position will remain vacant until the new mayor takes office in December. Besides Anthony, former deputy director John Turner also no longer works for the city. The office’s chief of staff resigned as well. Anthony was hired in August 2018 and paid $130,000 a year.

Bentley said Young’s focus has been on providing uninterrupted services to people experiencing homelessness.

Young has conceded the Democratic primary to keep the job he inherited when former Mayor Catherine Pugh resigned last year. While results are still being counted, City Council President Brandon Scott and former Mayor Sheila Dixon are leading the race.

In the wake of the departures, the city announced plans to bring in a consultant to assess the office’s strengths and needs and manage the day-to-day operations. The consultant will recommend organizational and staff changes.

The city hired Maria Martins-Evora, a former chief administrative officer at Health Care for the Homeless, for six months at a rate of $70 an hour, not to exceed $67,200, for consulting services. She will help lead the agency during its transition and the coronavirus pandemic.

Edwards praised the homeless services staff, saying they “live and breathe” the mission to make homelessness “rare, brief and non-recurring.”

“We feel really good that we are laying a strong foundation for the agency,” Edwards said.

The homeless services office became a standalone agency in July 2019. Previously, it was in the Mayor’s Office of Human Services.

Edwards said the agency must be well-positioned in the new budget year to address what is expected to be tremendous need for housing and eviction assistance as families face the fallout from the coronavirus.

She expects to tap money from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, and additional federal money that will flow through the city to providers who serve families directly.

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Edwards said the office has acted fast to keep people experiencing homeless safe during the outbreak. Workers set up protocol to screen people staying in shelters for fevers or other symptoms of the virus. The city added shelter space to give people needed social distancing, moved some people to hotels, and dropped water and hygiene kits off at Baltimore’s 10 encampments.

Council Vice President Sharon Green Middleton said the city should brace for more people needing housing support in the wake of the crisis.

“After this pandemic, homelessness is going to be worse,” she said.

Edwards said permanent housing is the top priority to address homelessness, and that includes helping people at risk of losing their home to stay in it. Prevention efforts include providing short-term financial assistance, landlord-tenant mediation and financial counseling.

“We want to stop the pipeline,” she said. “Once people walk through that to homelessness, it is twice as expensive and twice as hard to bring them back to housing security.”

Councilman Ryan Dorsey said he believes an effective strategy begins with an accurate count of the men, women and children without housing. He believes the 2,500 estimate is low, especially when it comes to young people who are homeless.

“Is understanding that number accurately part of our strategy and how we consider whether or not funding is adequate?” Dorsey said.

Edwards said the count is challenging and under-counting is always a concern. But, she said, Baltimore’s number is derived using federal methodology and is a basis all communities use to draw down funding from Washington.

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