Baltimore County says it has a 10-year plan to get its homeless off the streets and into permanent homes by increasing affordable housing, strengthening job training programs and drawing employers to the area.
For the past week, officials, clergy, nonprofit organizations, business leaders and residents, led by experts from a non-profit housing group, have been working on a public planning exercise. They have drafted a 20-page primer that outlines ways to create housing, prevent foreclosures and evictions and organize services like public transportation and childcare.
"Homelessness is solvable here, especially, if you work at it for the next five to 10 years," said Liz Drapa, director of consultants at the Corporation for Supportive Housing, a Chicago-based nonprofit organization. "You have to stick with it. In Chicago, we are in year eight of [our] plan and we have seen a 50 percent reduction in the street homeless."
The opening forum Wednesday drew about 100 people, and about 50 people typically attended the discussions at the Towson Library, the Towson Chamber of Commerce and at area churches. A $25,000 grant from the United Way of Central Maryland paid for the events.
The final session Monday at Central Presbyterian Church in Towson recapped the discussions, previewed the plan and looked ahead.
"We spoke to each other and learned from each other," said Cynthia Taylor, who represents several United Methodist churches. "Now there is a document that shows us we have been heard. That is an automatic buy-in for the plan."
A one-day homeless census in January counted nearly 1,000 homeless throughout the county — a 25 percent increase from 2009. A third were homeless for the first time. Some were living in county shelters but many others resorted to cars, tents and the streets. Families with children accounted for about 25 percent of the census.
The data underscores the need to alter thinking about services currently provided and instead, construct a network of agencies allied in the effort to find permanent housing, said Heather Lyons, who also works with the consulting company. The plan will not necessarily cost more, but it will redirect the way funds are spent.
"It is often cheaper to create affordable housing than it is to run shelters," Drapa said.
County service agencies expect to soon organize into committees that will address aspects of the plan. Officials will also issue progress reports throughout the community.
"The system alone cannot resolve this problem, particularly when the resources picture is not about to get any better," Lyons said. "You have to engage the broader community."
The workshops also helped providers to the homeless build connections and encouraged a pooling of resources.
"A whole week on this issue has really opened my eyes to new ways to solving this problem," said Linda Galinski, a shelter nurse for the county Health Department.