An advocate for the poor and homeless Nonprofit's new director has played active role in anti-poverty efforts

May 26, 1998|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

The new head of Health Care for the Homeless Inc., a kind of downtown Baltimore MASH unit, contends homelessness in Maryland is getting worse because poverty is getting worse.

"Poverty is growing," said Jeff Singer, chosen recently as president and chief executive officer after serving as the community relations director of HCH since 1989.

"In 1985, when we started giving medical assistance, we saw 700 different people, each person slightly more than twice, in 1,700 visits. In 1997, we saw more than 9,000 different people in 50,000 visits to our comprehensive services."

Singer runs a full-service medical clinic at 111 Park Ave. in downtown Baltimore. Its paid staff of 65 -- doctors, nurse practitioners, social workers, aides and others -- sees an average of 200 people a day and decides priorities of treatment based on medical urgency.

"It's always busy here," said Singer.

Adults come with problems ranging from malnutrition and cuts and bruises to diabetes, AIDS and mental illness. Comprehensive medical service is provided without regard to income or insurance.

The homeless check in on the first floor and are processed by aides. Stored there are the medical records of 60,000 people examined since the agency opened on Liberty Street in 1985. A "triage nurse" decides who needs immediate help.

On the second floor, internists, psychiatrists, addictions specialists and others see patients in nine examining rooms.

Singer, 46, chosen from 140 candidates after a nationwide search, has been known as a vigorous advocate for the homeless and anti-poverty lobbyist at more than 100 hearings of the City Council, General Assembly and Congress.

He has worked with the homeless for more than 25 years. He said his father ran a junk store in Roanoke, Va., and his mother was a teacher, and that they helped poor people.

"They taught us to be sensitive and generous to the poor. I'm ecstatic about getting this job," he said.

Singer, who decries social-service cutbacks by governments on all levels, plans to encourage his staff, clients and board to become more involved in public policy advocacy to reduce poverty.

He noted an annual report by the Maryland Department of Human Resources. The number of bed nights -- nights when shelter bed was occupied -- has increased every year during the past nine years, from 600,000 in 1988 to 1,428,394 last year.

Singer said that other than in winter, when there are more emergency beds, Baltimore has 2,500 homeless people every night and only 900 beds in various public shelters.

HCH's board picked Singer, who had been acting director, last week to succeed Jacquelyn Gaines, who resigned in January. She became vice president, community health system integration, at Bon Secours Baltimore Health System.

Gaines, in her last annual message, said "the elimination and decimation" of various federal and state social benefits for the poor has not meant "a better place for our children."

HCH lists "a complex combination of factors" causing homelessness in Baltimore and Maryland:

"A lack of affordable housing and housing assistance programs; an increase in poverty due to decreasing labor market opportunities, stagnating wages and a decline in the value and availability of public benefits; a lack of health care insurance; domestic violence; mental illness; and chemical dependency."

Three-quarters of the clients are men, and one-quarter are women. Three-quarters are black, and most of the others are white.

Children are taken to the Children's Health Outreach Program at Mercy FamilyCare. "Families and children under 18 are the fastest growing segments we see," Singer said.

Social workers at HCH tell the clients about places to sleep and eat; a wall map of Baltimore pinpoints locations with dozens of little flags.

HCH, which has a $3.5 million annual budget, has satellite clinics in Montgomery and Frederick counties. The nonprofit organization gets funds from federal and state programs, foundations and hundreds of individual contributors.

Singer hopes to make his organization "leaner" and to expand alliances with other nonprofits.

A "delighted" Mark Glaze, market development director for NeighborCare and HCH chairman of the board, said, "Jeff has continuously demonstrated his dedication and concern for the plight of homeless men, women and children throughout Maryland."

Pub Date: 5/26/98

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