The pandemic forced Baltimore and other cities to do what homeless advocates have been preaching for years — put more people without a place to live in stable home environments, rather than temporary shelters or leaving them to fend for themselves in tent cities, wooded areas or on street corners. Instead, 500 homeless people in Baltimore have lived much of the pandemic in hotel rooms, where they have a bed to sleep, a place to shower and most important of all a guaranteed spot to stay every night.
The intent was to prevent the spread of COVID-19 by keeping homeless people from congregate living centers, where the virus could be easily passed. And that worked remarkably well; the spread slowed and lives were saved. The secondary effect was just as important and productive: Without the worry of where to sleep each night, people can try to focus on the circumstances in life that resulted in homelessness in the first place, as well as the flawed systemic issues that put affordable housing out of reach for so many people. This “housing first concept” is not a new line of thinking. Get rid of homelessness by addressing the need directly and giving people a place to live.
The city now seems poised to make this a fundamental part of its strategy to end homelessness in Baltimore with Mayor Brandon Scott recently announcing that the city is looking to buy hotels, rather than rent rooms like they currently do, to make the program permanent after COVID. A Request for Information solicitation for sites with 100 to 200 bedrooms to convert to “permanent and transient” housing was recently issued, and Mr. Scott has said he eventually wants “multiple” properties under the city’s management. We think this approach, already used by a handful of other cities, is the right way to go. The idea also should please the advocacy organizations who have encouraged the city to look to alternatives to reopening city shelters by using some of the $670 million Baltimore coming from the federal COVID-19 relief package. Like Baltimore, cities in California and Oregon have also said they plan to continue using hotels as shelters and housing for the homeless even after the pandemic.
Every person deserves somewhere to live, and it’s shameful that homelessness exists in a place with the riches of America. Hotel space offers a way to move large swathes of people into housing at one time. This is not only the humane thing to do, but if done right, it should also result in huge cost savings as people use fewer social services. For instance, people are healthier when they have their own space, which should result in health care and Medicaid cost reductions. People who were given shelter in hotels in King County, Washington, during COVID said they felt better both mentally and physically and could focus on more long-term goals, such as employment and permanent housing rather than just trying to survive, according to a study by University of Washington. Another study found that in Denver a “permanent supportive housing” approach saved $15,733 per year, per person in public costs for shelter, criminal justice, health care, emergency room, and behavioral health costs, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. The savings were enough to completely offset the cost of housing — $13,400 — and still save taxpayers $2,373.
If Baltimore ultimately proceeds with its effort, it should be accompanied by partnerships with nonprofits and other groups and institutions that can provide wraparound services, such as mental health and substance use treatment, to help get people completely back on their feet. Families should be connected to child care help that may be preventing them from working or food services if they don’t have enough to eat. Combined with a stable housing environment, addressing these social issues will only make the lives of Baltimore families better.
We would also caution against ridding our city of the shelter system completely, once more hotels are available. There is room for shelters, if they operate truly as emergency facilities as intended. They were meant to be places for people to stay a night or two, but have ended up everyday refuge for some. The result: overwhelmed facilities with a host of problems. If used as their intended purpose, we think there is room for shelters in the plan to combat homelessness.
Lastly, we can’t continue to ignore the systemic issues that lead to homelessness, and that, several hundred hotel rooms won’t solve. High rents, low wages and the lack of affordable housing simply makes the basic necessity of having a roof over one’s head impossible for some. Hotel rooms are a start. Much more needs to be done.
The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.