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Baltimore program turns vacant public housing apartments into homes for chronically homeless families

Diamond Christy moved into Douglass Homes with her two children in a pilot program that takes empty housing units, renovates them, and moves the most vulnerable families into them. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun video)

Baltimore’s latest effort to get the most vulnerable families into permanent housing and off the streets, out of shelters and no longer couch surfing involves an obvious solution: pairing them up with vacant apartments in the city’s public housing complexes that have sat empty amid a shortage of federal dollars to fix them up.

The Housing Authority of Baltimore launched a new program with the Mayor’s Office of Human Services and Health Care for the Homeless to place up to 50 chronically homeless families into the units that have been in need of repair. To start, a dozen families will be selected to move into newly refurbished apartments by pooling $500,000 between the agencies.

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“The Housing Plus Pilot program is designed to make an immediate impact on the huge issue of homelessness in our city,” said Janet Abrahams, executive director of Baltimore’s Housing Authority. “These homes represent our contribution to joining with the city in collectively addressing the crisis.”

Diamond Christy and her 1-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter were among the first families placed in a home. She got the keys to their new apartment in East Baltimore’s Douglass Homes late last year.

Christy, 23, grew up in Edgewood but lost a place to live when her grandmother’s home went into foreclosure and a relative’s home got too crowded. In September, she moved into a shelter in a church basement in Baltimore with her son and left her daughter with family so the girl could stay in her school.

“I didn’t have anywhere to go,” Christy said. “I found a shelter, and said I was going to make the best out of it. It was a big, old room full of beds and women and children. I was really determined to get out of there.”

Christy, who recently found a job in a hair salon with a goal of going to college to study business management, heard about the new housing program and applied after about three months in the shelter.

She said she was overwhelmed by her new place: fresh paint, clean floors, a kitchen with cherry cabinets and new appliances — and the chance to be reunited with her daughter.

“It felt good to be in a place of my own, safe and secure for my kids and myself,” Christy said. “I can go to sleep with peace of mind.”

Abrahams, who was hired about a year and a half ago, said she came up with the idea after a strategy session with her staff.

Together, the housing authority and the mayor’s office are splitting the cost of the program, drawing, in part, on community development block grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Abrahams said it is unclear how much the program will cost as it grows to serve 50 families, because it will depend on how much it costs to renovate the empty public housing units.

The maintenance backlog at the city’s public housing complexes runs into the hundreds of millions of dollars. At least 150 units are estimated to be empty, but an exact number wasn’t available Wednesday. The housing authority’s average vacancy rate is less than 4 percent across the 10 complexes it operates.

The families are being selected through a screening system used by city outreach workers and advocates to determine how vulnerable a homeless person or family is, including their risk of preventable death on the streets. The screening process identifies what services they need to live independently. Case managers from Health Care for the Homeless will work to make sure the families stay on their feet.

Under the program, the families will move into complexes including the 400-unit Douglass Homes, the 700-unit Latrobe Homes and the 1,400-unit Cherry Hill Homes. In public housing, families must pay 30 percent of their incomes toward rent.

The housing authority also provides 700 vouchers to house homeless people in Section 8 properties.

Kevin Lindamood, director of Health Care for the Homeless, said the program — leaning on a public-private partnership — is a creative solution in a tough climate for public housing authorities that have seen dramatic disinvestment from the federal government.

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“It’s a shame to have public housing units that our community owns but aren’t habitable because there haven’t been resources to renovate them,” Lindamood said. “By creatively identifying resources, we can end homelessness for more families.”

Terry Hickey, director of the Mayor’s Office of Human Services, said the new program is among many efforts underway to serve the approximately 2,500 men, women and children who are homeless in Baltimore. The number is expected to be updated soon as the city awaits the results of a count of homeless people staying in shelters and on the streets on a single night in January.

Hickey’s office also is looking to rewrite contracts with service providers to require they help transition people from emergency shelters to temporary or permanent housing more quickly. Some people have been living in city shelters for years when a stay should really be 90 days or less, Jerrianne Anthony, who leads homeless services for the city, told council members at a luncheon this week.

“We can’t get vulnerable people who are on our streets into our shelters if you have people who have been there for 5, 6, 7 years,” Anthony said. “It should not be a maze for them to access shelter. We have to make it easier for them. They are already in crisis. They are experiencing a lot of trauma.”

Many like 30-year-old Cardi Searcy did not know where they would sleep Wednesday.

Searcy said to avoid the snow, freezing rain and blustery cold, she has spent the last week staying in abandoned houses — worried she will be bitten by an animal, caught by authorities or worse — after fleeing a situation with a roommate that had become dangerous.

She said has been turned away from shelters because she does not want to give up her dog Queen, a 3-year-old pit bull mix that Searcy said has saved her from being attacked. She said she has a job lined up at a pizza shop but needs to sort out her housing situation first.

“I haven’t really been stable,” Searcy said. “I was stable at one point.

“My dog … she is all I got.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Ian Duncan contributed to this report.

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