Out of sight, out of mind

JEFF SINGER

August 21, 1992|By Jeff Singer

OUT of sight, out of mind.

It's a philosophy some Baltimore officials are considering in dealing with homeless people.

You can see it in the metal canopy installed around the steam grates at Charles and Fayette streets, where the homeless used to huddle on winter nights.

You can see it also in a new policy city officials are considering as they look northward to the City of Brotherly Love. Philadelphia has been advising Baltimore on ways to revitalize our downtown by creating a "downtown management district." Ours is patterned after Philadelphia's "center city district."

The Baltimore plan, the result of City Council Bill 201 approved earlier this summer, levies a property tax surcharge to fund additional "crime and grime" services. One of its purposes is to deal with the homeless more "prudently," as one official put it, thus improving the "quality of urban life." Fewer people would beg on city streets and fewer would sleep wherever they could find a warm place.

As a member of the Homeless Relief Advisory Board of Baltimore City, I met recently with Paul Levy, director of Philadelphia's center city district. Before Baltimore plays copy-cat, it ought to // consider some comparative statistics.

On a typical day about 4,500 people are homeless in vTC Philadelphia. In 1990, $52 million in public funds were committed to homeless services. Because of severe budget constraints, this year the amount was reduced to $37 million, of which $11 million comes from local funds. Baltimore has about 2,400

homeless on an average day. This year, using the most optimistic estimates of city officials, about $5.4 million will be spent on the homeless. Of this, perhaps $1 million comes from local funds. The entire 1990 expenditure was less than $4 million.

Philadelphia is now proposing a two-step strategy for resolving the homeless problem. First, it will centralize authority to coordinate spending for homeless services. At the same time, it will end feeding programs and enforce anti-loitering statutes and laws against public sleeping and panhandling.

Should Baltimore follow this course?

We have to note that Baltimore, one-third the size of Philadelphia with half as many homeless people on a typical day, now spends one-seventh as much on homeless services ($5.4 million as compared with $37 million).

Moreover, people in Philadelphia have a legal right to shelter. This right exists as a result of a City Council ordinance and related lawsuits which, in turn, reflect a very broad and active homeless advocacy movement. No family must spend the night on the streets of Philadelphia. In Baltimore, it happens with sad regularity.

We need to ask how effective the Philadelphia approach is. In the literature provided by the Philadelphia center city district, there is no attempt to answer this question. There is, rather, an analysis of the city's homeless services and a conclusion that fragmentation and the lack of coordination have led to inefficiency.

Write a "strategic plan," say the Philadelphians, centralize authority, restructure the way services (including shelter) are provided and "change the rules on the streets" to discourage people from living on them.

But there is no evidence that the Philadelphia "model" can transform the housing patterns, income distribution and health care of the truly needy who become homeless.

Homelessness is caused by the lack of affordable housing, by inadequate incomes (for the employed and for the disabled) and by a health and human services system that grossly neglects our most vulnerable citizens. Mr. Levy advised us that the Philadelphia effort does not attend to those issues. Let us not make the same mistake.

Far too long, public and private interests have exhibited a curious schizophrenia in Baltimore: The public and private sectors together embarked on a 30-year downtown development strategy, which included constructing hotels, a baseball stadium, a festival hall, convention center and office buildings. At the same time, much low-income housing (such as inexpensive hotels) was eliminated and neighborhoods were denuded of necessary public resources like adequately funded schools, clinics and libraries. To remedy the problems they helped create, both sectors, public and private, have devoted precious few resources to social welfare and charity.

We should coordinate policies and programs. But first we must understand the problems and processes they are designed to address.

Our values are enshrined in our actions. In a civilized society, we guarantee that our neighbors at least have a roof over their heads and the means to obtain food, clothes and medical care. Here, however, the demands of the bottom line preclude such community values.

Driving people from downtown streets -- "changing the rules," as the Philadelphians would have it -- is an inexpensive way of removing our failures from sight.

But if we wish to "heal" the downtown area of the "disease" of homelessness, the surgery of removing the bodies is far less beneficial than nurturing those who need help.

Jeff Singer is on the staff of Health Care for the Homeless in Baltimore.

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