YWCA to shut shelter in city

The Baltimore Sun

The Baltimore YWCA is moving to shut its downtown women's shelter because of a reduction in funding from the United Way of Central Maryland and other sources, including money distributed by the city.

Even though the shelter, which houses about 90 women and children, will close Oct. 1 - resulting in a significant loss in Baltimore's overall shelter capacity - YWCA officials are trying to stay positive.

The organization's other two shelters - one in Baltimore County - will remain open, and the closure of the shelter at 128 W. Franklin St. next month will allow the YWCA to return to its roots: fostering economic success among women through education and job training, said Dawn Fisk Thomsen, former chief executive officer of the YWCA of the Greater Baltimore Area Inc., which was established in 1883.

"The YWCA has had a great history, and we look at the closure of the shelter here as just another shift in that history," said Thomsen, whose last day as head of the nonprofit group was Friday. "When you're 125 years old, it's easier to get perspective."

Late last year, United Way announced that it would give $10.5 million to 40 nonprofit groups over 2 1/2 years - down from about 100 groups in the past.

United Way officials said the change was made to bolster donor confidence because recipients would be required to show proof that their programs were having an impact. The YWCA of Greater Baltimore was one of the groups affected by the change, which began this year.

Thomsen said that funding from the United Way has been as much as $500,000, but it dropped to zero as of Jan. 1. She said funding from the city dropped about $110,000 recently.

For the past several months, the YWCA has been operating the West Franklin Street shelter at a $30,000-a-month deficit. Thomsen said the board wanted to keep the shelter open long enough to move the women and children living there to other facilities or homes of their own.

"It's been a very difficult decision, difficult from every perspective," Thomsen said.

Those who work with the homeless say that the closure of the YWCA shelter could hurt homeless women, who already have a difficult time finding emergency and transitional housing. Most shelters in the Baltimore area cater to men, although more women come to them seeking beds.

Downtown business leaders recently complained about the growing number of homeless people congregating on city sidewalks and in parks.

On Aug. 15, the Downtown Partnership, a nonprofit group supported by downtown property owners, cleared away boxes and other belongings of homeless people who stay under the Jones Falls Expressway along Guilford Avenue.

The incident upset advocates, who argued that the organization didn't have the right to remove homeless people from public places.

"We're seeing this gradual erosion in our emergency shelter capacity," said Kevin Lindamood, vice president for external affairs with Health Care for the Homeless Inc., which provides medical services to the homeless and refers them to shelters. "The very real result is that more people are spending time in the parks and on the street."

The cost of providing housing for homeless people has increased in recent years while money coming to the state and the city from the federal government has remained flat or decreased slightly, according to the city's homeless services department, which distributes grants to area shelters and soup kitchens.

As a result, competition for funding among area shelters is fierce, said Diane Glauber, president of Baltimore Homeless Services, a division of the city Health Department. "We have asked the state to increase funding to the city," she said.

The city is working on a 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness and aims to release the plan before the end of the year, according to city Health Commissioner Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein.

He said the city is sensitive to the needs of the homeless and recognizes that there is a growing need for emergency housing. One option is to expand the city's winter Code Blue shelter to make it a year-round facility. "Our hope is that we could have a shelter that doesn't close," Sharfstein said.

In the meantime, the city is working with the YWCA to try to keep its downtown shelter open longer or to shift the 73 beds it offers to another nonprofit group, but the details have not been worked out, Sharfstein said.

"At this point, it's a fluid situation," he said.

The YWCA first started offering shelter to homeless women in 1981 and expanded facilities to accommodate women with children and women who need to convalesce, said Thomsen.

Federal and state funds, as well as money from the United Way, made up most of the funding for the West Franklin Street shelter, she said. Recently, those monies have dwindled to next to nothing, in large part because the United Way changed its funding formula.

"In the end, it had to be a strict business decision," said Thomsen, referring to the shelter closure. "A difficult one, but absolutely necessary."

Thomsen said that the board is looking for a new chief executive officer to succeed her and that members are excited about the opportunity to reinvigorate the charitable organization, which is one of the oldest YWCAs in the nation.

Said Thomsen: "Our mission is to be there for a much broader population."


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