Seasons pass, homeless remain

Dan Rodricks

October 26, 1990|By Dan Rodricks Intern Margot Kaufman contributed to this column.

This is the time of year when people who run shelters for the homeless start getting nervous, start thinking about money, and beds, and the faces showing up at their doors. It's part of the cycle of city life: Homeless men, women and children fill the shelters during the winter, then some of the shelters close in the spring. Summer passes. Comes the fall, come the homeless. Again and again and again.

The most recent estimates put the number of Baltimore's homeless at 2,400 nightly. Some years, the number has dropped to about 2,100. There have never been enough beds for them -- and never enough money to keep all the city shelters open all year round.

Last month, nine members of City Advocates Serving the Homeless (CASH) made one of several attempts to get the Schmoke administration to take the lead in the homelessness battle. They staged a protest at City Hall. They were arrested. They were scheduled to be arraigned on trespassing charges today.

In January, CASH met with Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. The group made specific proposals. Since then, CASH says, it has made phone calls to City Hall, demonstrated in rallies, and held a press conference, all to no avail. According to Jana Myers, a member of CASH who was among those arrested at City Hall, the mayor still has not reacted to CASH's proposals.

Clint Coleman, the mayor's press secretary, had no knowledge of CASH's proposals and was unable to provide the mayor's position on them. Joanne Selinske, director of the Mayor's Office of Homeless Services, insisted that CASH is not being ignored. "We're really all working on this from a different angle," she said. "It's not us against them."

Still, CASH's shouts for justice for the bitterly poor and mentally ill who have no permanent homes prompts a fair question. In this day of budget crunches and recession and curtailed federal support, is Baltimore managing to keep its commitment to the homeless?

The city has no municipal shelter. Selinske thinks community shelters are better because they're small. They can address the specific needs of homeless people and can provide programs and special services that are unrealistic for a shelter run by the city.

"I think the people who do work in municipal shelters would agree that they are in an organizational nightmare," Selinske said. "Besides, would you want to sleep in a cot lined up in a warehouse?"

Actually, a lot of homeless advocates think a municipal shelter would be disastrous, bogged down in bureaucracy and indifference.

So there are 43 shelters in the city, all privately operated. Roughly 60 percent of the operating funds come from taxpayers, the rest from private donations.

Nineteen of the shelters are emergency shelters -- for overnight stays -- with a total of 830 beds. There are 18 transitional shelters with 418 beds, providing food and services such as day care, basic medical care, employment assistance, job training and counseling. The other six shelters are seasonal, having only enough funds to keep their doors open from Nov. 1 until March 30.

Kevin Nielson, a CASH member, said, "The number of beds provided in the last two years have been greatly inadequate. This is not the level of commitment we need."

Last year, the Mayor's Office of Homeless Services provided $1.7 million for the shelter network. With an opportunity for a $150,000 matching grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Schmoke administration plans to take a different approach this year. Schmoke wants to use the money for 150 units of subsidized (Section 8) housing certificates and 50 units of public housing, serving a total of 200 families. Selinske said that should this plan result in a dramatic improvement in the homelessness problem, the mayor will solicit more grants.

Selinske said the problem with providing more shelter is not always a fiscal one. Sometimes, people don't want homeless shelters in their neighborhoods. Right now, for instance, the city has enough money for two new shelters -- one on East North Avenue, the other in South Baltimore -- but is meeting opposition to both proposals.

And so it goes. We only seem to be able to come up with a patchwork of half-solutions to homelessness. There's not enough money. Not enough commitment. Not enough shelter enough months of the year. Comes the fall, come the homeless -- but only into our consciousness. They've been there all year.

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