Voucher program for chronically homeless loses funding

James Hill proudly shows off his new home — a one-bedroom McCulloh Street apartment that is his first stable housing in 15 years.

Hill, 45, who had been homeless for a third of his life, now has a place to display his collection of battered family photos and the certificates of progress marking the two years he's been clean of drugs.

But city officials and homeless advocates who hoped to duplicate Hill's success have run into problems.

Money for a voucher program that is paying the rent for Hill and nearly 400 other formerly homeless city residents has dried up. While those already enrolled in the Housing Choice Voucher program administered by the city's Housing Authority will continue to receive benefits, the initiative is closed to new applicants.

"We're assisting more households than we ever have. We're maxed out," said Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano.

The plan was supposed to provide at least 500 housing vouchers over 10 years but Graziano said he does not know when funding for the program, which predominantly comes from federal sources, will again be available.

The voucher program was a part of former Mayor Sheila Dixon's 10-year plan to end homelessness. The plan also called for legislation that would make it illegal to discriminate against renters who receive government subsidies and called for the creation of an affordable housing trust that would help to encourage developers to build homes for poor residents. In 2008, Dixon called the plan a "blueprint for a society where homelessness no longer exists."

Neither piece of legislation has passed, and the halt to the voucher program has left the city's most vulnerable with no place to go.

The city's last count showed 3,419 homeless, a 12 percent increase, or 417 additional people from the 2007 census. The rising homeless population is using more resources from already strained city shelters. About 31 percent of the sheltered population were chronically homeless with substance abuse and mental health issues — a group the voucher program was largely aimed at reducing.

The vouchers were to help "the most vulnerable of the homeless," said Sylvia Park, former co-leader of the Hands In Partnership Program, a group of services organizations that helped provide the homeless with vouchers. A second program, Mercy Supportive Housing, worked to get families into the voucher program.

Park said the partnership program targets chronically homeless adults, who are often the hardest to help because they avoid shelters and other places where information and services are available.

The program, which focused on moving people into housing quickly, yielded a 90 percent success rate keeping chronically homeless off the streets, officials said. The chronically homeless are defined as those who have been on the streets for a year, or on four separate occasions in a single year.

Park said the chronically homeless face a higher risk of dying and suffering from health problems and that providing stable housing is "a critical health intervention." However, the voucher program provided "housing first. Everyone deserves a home," she said. "Housing provides stability to then address other needs."

Graziano said the Housing Authority is looking for more money and did not get a $10 million grant it applied for, although it did obtain additional money for 75 vouchers for homeless veterans and it has applied for another 200 for families with at least one non-elderly person with a disability.

For Hill and others, moving indoors has made all the difference. He said having his own home has made it easier to address his addiction and reconnect with family he lost touch with.

"After being that way for a while, it's hard," Hill said. "Coming off the street, you lose a lot of social skills," which can make the transition difficult.

Among those who have gotten assistance from the program were homeless from the Guilford Shelter, encampments at Guilford and Bath streets, St. Vincent de Paul Church, under the Jones Falls Expressway and an area on Warner Street.

The program is a collaboration of advocates and outreach workers from People Encouraging People, Bon Secours, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore HealthCare Access Inc. and Healthcare for the Homeless, Park said. She said the groups meets regularly to discuss issues and even specific people to make sure no one has slipped through the cracks.

"It's really about going out to the streets and going to the ones who wouldn't' know," Park said.

Without the vouchers however, "that means there are still people living on the street — very vulnerable people," Park said. The lack of funding "takes away this huge life-saving resource," she said.

James McKay, an outreach advocate with Baltimore Healthcare Homeless Access, which works with HIP, worked with Hill to get his apartment in May.

"Everyone deserves affordable housing. Everyone deserves to be treated like human being," he said.

An earlier version of this article misidentified the co-leader of the Hands in Partnership Program. Her name is Sylvia Park, and she left the position in August. The article also misidentified one of the programs clients. His name is James Hill. The Sun regrets the errors.