Sister Helen Amos is this year celebrating her 50th anniversary of coming to Baltimore and her 50th year as a Sister of Mercy and is helping to lead an important effort to end or sharply reduce homelessness in the city over the next 10 years.
Born in Mobile, Ala., she came here to become a novitiate with the Sisters of Mercy at Mount St. Agnes College, which in those days was on a hillside in Mount Washington. She later taught for a while in Georgia and lived in Silver Spring for eight years when she was president of the Sisters of Mercy.
Now, she's executive chair, Board of Trustees, Mercy Health Service, at Mercy Hospital. In November, she was named co-chairman of the Baltimore Project to End Homelessness with Warren Sabloff, the developer of the Ritz-Carlton Residence on Key Highway in South Baltimore.
"We both were approached and asked if we would be willing to lead this effort," she says, "and help recruit some of the members of the leadership council."
Here is some of what she had to say about the current state of the city and region's struggle with homelessness:
So how many homeless are there in Baltimore?
No one knows exactly. ... The homeless "community" includes people who sleep on the street. But it also includes people who are sleeping in cars. They might not be visible. And the people who are sleeping in shelters ... probably 3 to 4 thousand. ... In 2005 there was a Baltimore City homeless census. They went out one night during the winter and they just tried to count and they came up with almost 3,000 individuals. Now, knowing that's who they were actually able to encounter, they suppose there are 3 to 4 thousand on any given night in Baltimore City. What we don't know is how many people are doubling up with relatives and managing in a very precarious way. And for all intents and purposes they are actually homeless. Reports such as teenagers living in abandoned housing suggest there's got to be more than are counted in this census. Is there a plan to end homelessness?
Yes! ... The idea is to develop a 10-year plan to end homelessness in Baltimore City. ... This is not a process we invented. Over 200 cities in the United States have undertaken this type of effort. So there is a kind of template for how to do it. One of the key ingredients is having a leadership council that oversees the development of the plan and helps to advocate for it once it's in place. That's really my role.
What are the main work groups?
We have two. They've already started meeting. One of them is looking at prevention strategies: how to prevent people from becoming homeless. And the other one is working on housing strategies - how to increase the supply of affordable homes. The provider community, like social workers, such people as Health Care for the Homeless, who handle a lot of the aspects of working with the homeless, or the potentially homeless, those are the kind of people who are populating our work groups. We actually recruited 33 civic leaders to be on this leadership council, and all but six of them were at the first meeting in November.
What other groups are participating?
The people on the leadership group are local civic leaders of various kinds. We've got people from Neighbor Works, Abell Foundation, Weinberg Foundation, Greater Baltimore Committee. the Shelter Group, Loyola College, Associated Catholic Charities, St. Ambrose Housing. A & R Development, Health Care for the Homeless, United Way. ...
The Baltimore City Detention Center is involved ... because that's a ... feeder to the homeless population. Sam Chambers, one of the wardens, is very interested in participating in the process, and he was at the first meeting.
Are many who leave prison homeless?
A lot of 'em are. ... And of course they have a hard time coming up with rent. ... One of the main reasons why people are homeless is because they don't have the resources to afford a rent. And a lot of people come out of jail with no resources and no job! ... And lots of barriers to getting a job.
What is being done?
There was what could be appropriately called a pilot project that was run last winter. It was called "the housing first initiative." It was under the auspices of Baltimore Homeless Services. It gave homes to 25 homeless people, 90 percent of whom are still housed. And we have a $2 million federal grant to continue and expand that program. That's 25. But it shows that it's an approach that has potential. So if we can take good ideas like that and package them with others and get people on board believing in this whole effort, then we can start working on funding strategies.
What are you trying to change?
A lot of people think that having people sleeping on the street is kind of an inevitable part of the urban landscape. We need to change people's minds about that. One of the things we trying to say is that it's not acceptable to have people living on the streets.
Have you ever done anything like this before?
I never have. And I'll tell you I was very challenged when I was first approached about doing this. But one thing that enabled me to say I will try to do it is the fact that there's a Sister of Mercy in Philadelphia who I have known for 20 years. For all 20 of those years she has been working very actively and living among formerly homeless people. And she has a terrific track record. She was a co-chair of the Philadelphia 10-year plan to end homelessness. She runs a group called Project H.O.M.E. Sister Mary Scullion. She's amazing. I'll try at least to take some energy off of her example.
Doesn't homelessness seem to be an intractable problem?
That's why we really want to study what has worked in other places and test out which of those things can work here or at least give us an idea on which to shape a recommendation that could work in Baltimore, And there are some success stories. The "housing first" initiative itself is an example that has made a big difference in places like Philadelphia. Housing them first. The general idea there is you don't make them get sober, or solve their mental health problems, or whatever. You get them a house. Get them a place to live. Then you deliver the services that they need. Which is often not possible when they don't have a place to live.
What does it take to succeed?
It takes money. It takes willing landlords. It takes social workers to make the connections. It takes people like Health Care for the Homeless identifying the needs. It is an all-but-intractable problem. But it is something that if we really bring all of us together around - government is going to have to play a role, businesses have to play a role, individuals have to play a role, health care has to play a role. It's one of those things that certainly will be intractable if we don't try to do something about it. it's certainly not going to be solved overnight. It's something you have to admit is going to be a long-term effort and therefore you just can't be interested in it for a month or a year. You've got to sustain the effort.
Doesn't that seem very far from your job at Mercy Hospital?
We actually have a lot of exposure to the homeless because of where we're located, at 301 St. Paul Place, downtown. We see a lot of these repeat patients in our emergency department because of where we are and because they have conditions that are exacerbated by living on the streets. A lot of them are known by name! Our physician in charge of the emergency department knows their needs: Dr. Laura Pimentel. That's what we're here for. We're here for whoever needs us. They need us and we're here for them.