Time for action on Baltimore homelessness

Wednesday night, the city struck a deal to relocate to transitional housing the homeless Baltimoreans who had erected an encampment on the steps of City Hall. These residents of our city have a right to be angry with many generations of our leaders, and to have chosen a very public venue to voice that anger.

Homeless Baltimoreans have always been far more vulnerable to the ravages of the weather, violence and serious health issues. In our city’s current moment, however — when violent crime is on the rise and when our city is affected by a nationwide opioid epidemic — our continuing neglect in addressing this issue can mean the difference between life and death for many of our residents.

Almost half of our homeless brothers and sisters (44 percent) struggle with substance abuse issues, according to the Mayor’s Office of Human Services. Maryland’s Department of Health identified the homeless as “targets for violence” in 2015, and they remain highly susceptible to victimization. Transitional housing alone will not prevent similar problems, or protests, in the future. Our approaches to date have been more effective at placating the immediate complaints of better-resourced community members, rather than tackling the pervasive causes of homelessness in Baltimore.

Successive mayors have brought law enforcement to bear on the encampments of homeless residents, resulting in dispersal of their communities and destruction of their property. Most recently, the city ordered residents of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard encampment to disperse, and fenced off the area they had inhabited. In nearby Baltimore County, a local church that allowed the homeless to sleep on their property was threatened with a hefty fine before government officials backed off under protest.

Actions such as these are not true solutions to the issue; they may satisfy community members closest to the encampments, but they only push the issue down the road — in both a literal and metaphorical sense. In searching for answers to this persistent question, we can find innovative strategies in the examples of other cities. Seattle has implemented “authorized encampments” where homeless residents can legally remain without enforcement action being taken against them. By refraining from dispersing people living in tent cities, the city not only protects them from arrest for the crime of being poor, but has been able to target outreach efforts to the homeless more efficiently. It has expanded outreach workers to serve these areas, established more consistent trash pickup in the camps, provided more consistent medical care and assigned police in a protective capacity.

Cities like Portland, and states like Hawaii, have declared states of emergency in response to homelessness, which allows governments to cut through red tape and take immediate action, and often to direct more funding toward effective programs like rapid rehousing.

In Baltimore, too, there is innovation taking place. Mayor Pugh should consider expanding the Baltimore Police Department’s Homelessness Outreach Team (HOT). The HOT team, which consists of just three officers, liaises extensively with the homeless, linking them with social services, helping to procure identification and other paperwork, and re-establishing trust with the police department. This is true community policing, and ought to be scaled up dramatically to meet the scope of the problem.

Ultimately, of course, these are short-term actions, and a more transformational approach needs to be implemented to make a sustainable impact. Utah provides an instructive example of the attainability of this goal. By shifting its emphasis from funding transitional and emergency housing programs toward increasing support for permanent supportive housing programs, big gains have been realized. Utah has seen a 72 percent decrease in the number of people who are chronically homeless. Given that this population is also costly to support, this approach makes financial as well as moral sense.

Mayor Pugh should exert her leverage to shift Baltimore’s support services away from transitional housing and toward permanent, supportive housing. Providing housing first helps address other issues, such as addiction and unemployment. Very soon, the Task Force on Homelessness created by the mayor will finalize its recommendations. This will present the mayor with an array of new options and with a mandate to act on them. It also represents an opportunity to transform our approach to a problem that has thwarted previous leaders.

This is a moment of both urgency and promise. Meeting it will take creativity, courage, innovation and vision such as we have seen elsewhere, but have yet to see here.

Alex Garcia (alexanderjgarcia83@gmail.com) served on the Mayoral Transition Team, where he worked on issues related to homelessness and health neighborhoods.

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