Baltimore gets serious about helping homeless people | COMMENTARY

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Bob Washington, left, participates in a small rally outside City Hall two years ago to protest the Baltimore's program for the homeless. File. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun).

How does one measure a society’s greatness? By its military might? By its wealth? By its natural beauty, architecture or founding documents? Here’s a yardstick that came to mind recently: how it treats its most vulnerable members.

As the United States enters the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the nation’s more than half-million homeless people certain qualify as among the most vulnerable. The group is disproportionately made up of people of color who are more likely to have dealt with disability, addiction, mental health issues and incarceration. They are usually individuals, but there are often families in these circumstances as well — their misfortune tied, above all else, to the chronic lack of affordable housing.


Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott recently announced that the city will be spending $90.3 million, most of it in federal COVID relief funds, to assist the city’s homeless population, with the centerpiece of the plan being to convert two yet-to-be-identified city hotels into emergency housing. The proposal drew predictable reactions. Those who have been laboring for years to find better opportunities for the estimated 2,200 people who find themselves living on the streets of Baltimore on any given night cheered. Those who see almost any social safety net spending, at least from government sources, as an indulgence and a drag on productivity voiced their displeasure. “Does that include room service?” asked one Twitter user.

It’s much easier to look down uncaringly at homeless people if one has viewed them only from afar and never witnessed firsthand the hardships they face each day, their health worsened and life often shortened by their unhappy conditions. To judge them merely as a nuisance, as an impediment to commerce — their tents an eyesore, their existence primarily a public safety threat — is to deny our own humanity. The question is not whether to help homeless people, it’s how best to help them to get on their feet. Converting hotels to help them get in from the cold makes a lot of sense given that a traditional homeless shelter’s congregate living design is not only often fraught, it’s especially dangerous during a pandemic. Better to provide individual living space.


There are, however, at least two significant challenges here. The first is to overcome traditional government inefficiency and red tape. Mayor Scott’s intent is right, but will City Hall be able to award contracts, meet the requirements of the American Rescue Plan and the U.S. Department of Housing, and get the money out the door in a timely fashion — and with appropriate transparency and oversight? Promising to spend millions is one thing, following through is often another. This can’t be yet another project that is loudly trumpeted today but quietly still pending years hence. Lives are literally at stake.

The second, and perhaps even more difficult, issue is simply this: Will Baltimore stand alone in this serious effort to address homelessness? Maryland needs a regional approach to this problem. If Baltimore’s initiative relieves Baltimore, Howard, Anne Arundel, Harford and Carroll counties of their own obligations toward homeless people, as individuals in crisis simply leave Towson, Glen Burnie, Bel Air and beyond to find help in the city, then the problem of homelessness isn’t being solved so much as transferred. That’s just another form of redlining (or perhaps reverse-urban flight-ing). The counties have American Rescue Plan dollars sitting around as well. Where are their plans to help the less fortunate? Baltimore County has pitched a $16 million “Affordable Housing Opportunity Fund,” but it is slated to go to at least a half-dozen purposes from preserving existing affordable housing to making existing shelters more accessible to the disabled.

Granted, maybe helping homeless people isn’t good politics outside Baltimore, and this is, after all, an election year. But shouldn’t it be? Aren’t communities with fewer people living on the street better communities for all? Critics are correct in at least one regard: The issue is complicated with many underlying factors, among them the worsening shortage of decent, affordable housing. That’s a problem that can be corrected through responsible public investment. And it’s why Mayor Scott’s approach is a reasonable one — if done responsibly, promptly and not in isolation.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.