Bring homelessness in from the cold

Forefront issue: City cannot afford to lose opportunities to stabilize residents in trouble.

September 08, 2000

THE BALTIMORE City Task Force on Homelessness got 81 advocates, givers, grantwriters, officials and executives fired up about people who have no home.

That's the kind of interest and energy the city must have to fight tough problems. Leadership is desperately needed, though, to bring the group's suggestions and the city's goals in line.

The task force and city parted ways on the first recommendation -- that the city spin off homeless services to a nonprofit agency.

But there's common ground on other points, which include creating day resource centers, where clients can bathe, rest, see a caseworker and link up with treatment and other aid; coordinating outreach services among departments, so those who seek the homeless on the street can help them find better care; and improving shelter standards.

On any given night, at least 3,000 people in Baltimore are homeless. More than 90 percent defy the belligerent-bum-in-a-box stereotype. They're people who have hit the bottom of poverty's slippery slope. Some work; many have children.

Knowing that destabilized people and families erode the city's well-being, the task force, led by George Collins of T. Rowe Price, met twice a month for five months, four hours at a time.

The commitment is commendable. The O'Malley administration's challenge will be to keep this kind of momentum going.

While the mayor's intention to keep homeless services in city government may be admirable -- "Give us a chance before you trash us," he says -- you have to wonder whether it's realistic.

Can the beleaguered Department of Housing and Community Development adequately boost its Office of Homeless Services when it is distracted by continuing turmoil in its own bureaucracy?

Can the mayor turn a well-intentioned but weak Homeless Relief Advisory Board into a body with backbone, visibility and decision-making authority that shapes a citywide vision to help the neediest Baltimoreans?

Can Baltimore convince anyone it's serious about homelessness when it anted up less than $45,000 in general funds for the problem in 2000 -- while Boston, for example, put up $4.5 million?

The mayor and the Office of Homeless Services now have to prove they can deliver. Many agencies and potential donors will be watching city government closely to see what comes of all this.

What Mr. O'Malley needs most is someone in the business community to step up as the community voice on homelessness. The mayor would do well to look closely at those on the task force. It may be his most likely shot at finding a hero.

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