Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott recently announced plans to convert two rec centers into temporary winter shelters for the city’s homeless population (”Baltimore converts two rec centers into temporary winter shelters for city’s homeless population,” Jan. 28). While we’re glad to see he takes seriously the needs of our neighbors experiencing homelessness during the winter months, warehousing people in the middle of a pandemic is not the solution. It is neither best practice for COVID-19 safety, nor for reaching people who normally shy away from the shelter system.
President Joe Biden signed an executive order on Jan. 21 enabling local jurisdictions to address the urgent health needs of people experiencing homelessness by directing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to cover 100% of the costs to move people living in group shelters or encampments to safer living spaces such as hotels through September 2021. If FEMA is footing 100% of the bill for hotel stays, why are we still moving people to cots in congregate settings? Instead, we need an extension and expansion of current hotel contracts and we need permanent housing so that no one is returned to shelters.
We must extend the contracts to allow the city time to develop a permanent housing plan and we must expand the contracts so that everyone sleeping on the streets or in a group shelter in Baltimore has the ability to move into a hotel room. Given the FEMA reimbursements, not doing so is criminal negligence.
At the start of the pandemic, Housing Our Neighbors — a group of homeless, formerly homeless, allies, and advocates fighting for the right to housing in Baltimore — launched the Empty the Shelters Campaign in partnership with public health experts, doctors, community organizations and unions. We fought to move all of our neighbors sleeping in the city shelters into safe hotel rooms. The city has moved around 500 people to hotels in Baltimore City and county. However, the city still operates a congregate shelter out of the old and dilapidated KIPP school and many people still sleep in encampments.
Despite the executive order offering 100% of FEMA reimbursements for hotel rooms through September, the acting director of the mayor’s office of homeless services, Tisha Edwards, has stated that city officials still plan to return people to group shelters as soon as March. Moving people back into group shelters where recommended social distancing and other safety protocols are impossible to maintain will lead to increased infections, death and trauma for the residents who are forced to move back. Why not extend contracts to the hotels for as long as possible to be able work on permanent housing as opposed to rushing back to group shelters? We have the resources to save human lives and prevent needless death; what we need is the political will from Mayor Scott to house people now and in the future.
We need our new city administration to consider innovative steps to end the crisis of homelessness in Baltimore, and trust people with the lived experience of homelessness to have the answers. For example, we can look to Austin, Texas and to the state of Vermont as places that have cut policing budgets and, instead, leveraged funding and resources to use hotels as short-term, and in some cases, permanent, supportive housing for people experiencing homelessness. We could also use the city-owned Hilton, which is a public resource, to provide housing to people rather than paying private hotel owners.
This moment calls for leadership from our new administration. The city should work with leaders with the lived experience of homelessness to create and implement a short-term plan that treats people with dignity, and a long-term permanent supportive housing plan to sustain housing for everyone beyond the pandemic. Hotels are a practical, affordable short-term solution, but we need to guarantee future housing for all.
James Crawford Jr. and Anthony Williams, Baltimore.
The writers are members of Housing Our Neighbors.
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