Aid agency statistics show more homeless; Baltimore clinic treats more 'working poor' too


Statistics from a Baltimore nonprofit aid agency suggest the number of homeless people sleeping on city streets increased sharply last year.

Health Care for the Homeless (HCH) reports that 925 clients slept on sidewalks, in vacant buildings, under bridges or in the woods at least several times last year, compared with 673 in 1997, an increase of 37 percent.

"This is very troubling," says Jeff Singer, president and chief executive officer. There was also other bad news, such as increases in uninsured clients and clients diagnosed with the human immunodeficiency virus.

Singer says those sleeping on the streets sometimes can't get to a city shelter with a bed or are turned away because the shelters are full. A man with no physical or mental problems can usually find a bed. But shelters catering to women or people with a mental illness or physical disabilities are often filled.

"It happens every day that our social workers call the city's Shelter Line and find that shelters welcoming certain kinds of homeless people are full," Singer says. (The Shelter Line's number is 1-800-817-4358.)

Singer couples the 1998 figures with a defense of his agency's location at 111 Park Ave.-- and criticism of legislation before the City Council that would demolish its center as part of the proposed 10-year plan for redevelopment of the city's west side.

"We want to stay here where the homeless are and will be," says Singer. "We are a positive part of downtown Baltimore, and we are fighting real hard to prevent this from happening."

Singer says the agency is in an excellent location to meet clients' needs and doesn't want to waste time and effort looking for new space while it should be serving the homeless.

He notes that the agency's building can be reached by bus, subway, light rail or foot. It is equidistant from Mercy Medical Center and University of Maryland Medical Systems, which offer acute services to its clients.

He said the agency's investment of $1.5 million in its center included a $300,000 public bond issue which converted the former bank and station of the Washington, Baltimore & Annapolis Railroad to a full-service clinic that can serve 125 people a day.

"It's the only structure in the west-side redevelopment that is registered with the Maryland Historical Trust," he says.

Singer points to other services offered in 1998 for clients, who come with problems ranging from malnutrition and cuts and bruises to diabetes, AIDS and mental illnesses.

There was a 55 percent increase in clients diagnosed with the human immunodeficiency virus, from 139 to 215. Altogether, almost 10 percent of the clients, or 470 of 5,000, had the virus.

The number of clients without health insurance, many of them working poor, jumped from 14 percent in 1997 to 55 percent last year.

About 15 percent of its work is conducted in places other than its Park Avenue clinic. Last year, 60 percent of these "outreach encounters" provided general medical services, and 39 percent consisted of addiction services.

The number of city clients decreased slightly last year, but those clients came more often than in 1997. Since 1985, the number of city clients served by the agency has increased from 734 to 5,000. Figures for the agency's work in Frederick and Montgomery counties are not available.

"The real issue about the homeless here is that they can't afford housing or health insurance. We should create an all-Maryland health insurance plan. And we should build more affordable housing," says Singer.

He says that in Baltimore, 72,000 low-income households compete for 44,000 low-cost housing units -- and points to the latest U.S. Conference of Mayors' survey on homelessness in 30 American cities, including Baltimore.

Lack of affordable housing leads the list of causes of homelessness identified in the report, issued in December.

Other causes include substance abuse, mental illness, low-paying jobs, domestic violence, changes and cuts in public assistance, poverty and the lack of access to affordable health care.

Pub Date: 1/08/99

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