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Baltimore hires new Homeless Services director from California to help face post-pandemic challenges of housing hundreds

A former San Francisco housing official has been chosen as Baltimore’s director of the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services, Mayor Brandon Scott announced Tuesday.

Irene Agustin, the former director of coordinated entry and problem solving for San Francisco, will head the city’s office starting in June, Scott said in a news release.

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Agustin will replace Acting Director Tisha Edwards, who assumed the role in May 2020 and led the office through its response to the coronavirus pandemic that saw the city house hundreds of homeless residents in hotels. Edwards also serves as the executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Children and Family Success.

In addition, the city announced that William Wells, the senior vice president of business strategy for the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, will become the deputy director.

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Agustin and Wells will head an office that has faced increased scrutiny over its plans to address the more than 500 homeless residents currently residing in hotels as a way to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. The city has maintained congregate living shelters for years to house the city’s homeless, but moved hundreds into hotels last year amid the outbreak.

The city has extended its emergency leasing contracts with a handful of hotels and motels in the area to house those residents through the end of June. Some advocates have said the city could have done more to better access a federal program to help pay for the housing.

During its Wednesday meeting, the city’s Board of Estimates approved spending $6,875.89 to pay for the cost of Agustin moving from Oakland to Baltimore.

In a statement, Scott thanked Edwards for “her diligence in the dual roles she has played over the past year, particularly during COVID-19.”

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Scott announced last month that the city is exploring purchasing a hotel to house homeless residents long-term, posting a request for information solicitation for sites with 100 to 200 bedrooms.

However, homeless advocates have called on the city to extend the existing hotel contracts through September and have raised concerns about the city’s ability to secure millions of dollars in federal reimbursement funds made available through a Federal Emergency Management Agency program.

Advocates also have called on the city to use available funding through the American Rescue Plan to move away from congregate living facilities entirely, as the city is expected to receive about $670 million in COVID relief aid.

While Scott has outlined some of his plans for spending the money, he has not addressed how much he hopes to use toward addressing the city’s homeless residents.

Edwards has said she does not see plans for housing city residents in non-congregate living facilities — such as hotels, apartments or homes — and the city’s shelters as an “either-or” proposition, saying the two solutions could work in tandem in a post-pandemic world.

The city’s Economic and Community Development committee is scheduled to hold an informational hearing May 25 about the city’s current plan to address homeless residents and those currently housed in hotels.

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