Sheltering the homeless

The Baltimore Sun

This year, a guard at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore noticed that someone was sleeping in the covered entrance of the old Greyhound bus terminal on Howard Street, which the society owns. It turned out to be a homeless man, who insisted on remaining where he was rather than go to a shelter - even after guards erected a chain-link fence around the spot. Each night, the man simply shimmied under the steel mesh and returned to his bed.

With temperatures lower this week, officials are hoping most of the homeless people living on the city's streets will prefer to take refuge inside the shelter on Guilford Avenue that opened in October. The 350-bed facility is Baltimore's first 24-hour, year-round homeless shelter. Diane Glauber, president of Baltimore Homeless Services, an arm of the mayor's office that operates the shelter, says she's keeping her fingers crossed people will use the facility rather than risk frigid temperatures outside. As of last week, the city hadn't suffered a single fatality from exposure. That's an improvement over previous winters, when many of the city's homeless succumbed on the streets. Ms. Glauber recently attended a memorial service for 47 people who died last year, when the city operated only temporary shelters and lacked adequate beds.

Still, she has observed a disturbing new trend: As a result of the economic downturn, this year has seen a substantial increase in the number of people seeking shelter for the first time because they have lost jobs or homes. The newcomers include large families with children as well as single adults. Many are employed but no longer earn enough to pay for housing. On one recent evening, the shelter had to turn 20 people away.

There were 3,002 homeless people in Baltimore when the last count was done in 2007. That number is expected to increase when the city conducts its next count in January, though the figure includes people in shelters, temporary emergency housing and rental assistance programs as well as those living on the streets. Over the last year, the city has placed about 100 families and single adults in permanent housing, with access to medical and mental health care, employment counseling and substance abuse treatment. These are all important milestones toward realizing Mayor Sheila Dixon's ambitious plan to end homelessness in Baltimore within 10 years.

But the severity of the recession may slow progress toward that goal. Today, there still aren't enough beds for single adults with older children or for large families. And the permanent shelter the city plans to build near the Fallsway won't be completed until 2010 at the earliest. In the meantime, the city will continue to rely on smaller shelters run by churches and other charitable organizations to handle the overflow. And some homeless people, especially those suffering from mental illnesses, will refuse to stay in shelters even when beds are available.

Despite the important strides Baltimore has taken toward caring for some of its most vulnerable citizens, the city still has a long way to go.

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