The federal government has sent about $29 million in reimbursement funding to cover Baltimore’s costs of housing more than 500 homeless residents in local hotels during the coronavirus pandemic, and city officials say they expect a total of $70 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
City administrator Christopher Shorter told members of the Economic and Community Development committee Tuesday afternoon that efforts to reimburse the city’s general fund for costs related to housing homeless residents in hotels have gone “much smoother” in recent months.
“Urban centers across the country who have all been dealing with this pandemic and the intersection of homelessness have been experiencing, in the last few months, a very smooth FEMA process in terms of reimbursement,” Shorter said.
Some advocacy organizations had questioned the city’s ability to tap into millions of dollars in available federal funding through FEMA’s Public Assistance program. While the finance department said in April that the city was expected to request about $35 million in funds for costs related to sheltering and quarantining people experiencing homelessness, other cities like Denver had already been approved for more than $60 million in such funding.
Assistant Budget Director Aaron Moore said Tuesday that the $70 million in federal money will cover a number of programs related to its pandemic response, including feeding programs and contract labor.
The committee held the informational hearing to discuss the city’s plans to address its homeless population ahead of June’s budget debates.
Mayor Brandon Scott’s office announced in April it would explore purchasing a hotel for the purpose of housing homeless residents long-term, posting a Request for Information solicitation. While advocates have largely praised the move, they’ve also called on the administration to make a greater effort to move away from congregate living facilities altogether.
Councilman Robert Stokes questioned why the city had not put more effort toward rehabilitating vacant buildings into supportive housing for homeless residents, pointing to the former Social Security Administration building on N. Greene St. as an example of a missed opportunity.
“You got homeless people sleeping at the door right there. That’s a very large building,” Stokes said.
It was an approach later echoed by Peter Sabonis, the Human Rights Development Program Director for Partners for Dignity and Rights, a social services advocacy group.
“That was federal surplus property and, according to federal law, non-profit groups, state agencies and local governments had a right of first refusal,” Sabonis said. “The opportunities for conversion will be there if we hunt for them with the same energy and creativity that private developers use.”
Shorter, the city administrator,-p said efforts to create more permanent housing face obstacles.
“Often times what we find is buildings that were used for other purposes, it is much more complex to create a home-like environment where individuals and families will feel comfortable in for years to come and feel comfortable calling home,” Shorter said.
Anthony Williams, co-chair of the Lived Experience Advisory Committee, comprised of residents who’ve experienced homelessness and advise city officials, said the group has felt left out of the discussions.
He said that after the previous director and deputy director of the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services were replaced by aides of former Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young last year, “the door was shut in our face.” Scott has chosen a former San Francisco housing official to become the new permanent director beginning next month.
“It feels like they’re working around us, not with us,” he said.
Tisha Edwards, the acting director of the office who’s in her last week in that role, said the city has spent more than $14.6 million since March 2020 paying for 524 beds at five hotels to house homeless residents and has moved another 579 individuals and families into more permanent housing through other programs, such as the federally funded Rapid Rehousing and Permanent Supportive Housing programs.
In addition, the Housing Authority of Baltimore City has announced that it will receive 278 Emergency Housing Vouchers from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to help pay for housing units scheduled to become available by July 1, Edwards said.
The total cost of the vouchers and related services is $3.1 million, and is made available through the American Rescue Plan Act.
“The good news is that there is a lot of alignment in terms of the path forward,” Edwards said.