City to seek homes for all

Baltimore preparing plan to eliminate homelessness

State also weighing in on issue

Officials hope to use `housing first' approach

December 13, 2004|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Baltimore is following in the footsteps of Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Denver and putting together a plan to eradicate homelessness within the next decade - action that could provide permanent housing to roughly 4,000 people who sleep in parks and shelters each night in the city.

Local advocates and service providers for the homeless say they can meet their goal by increasing the number of affordable housing units, providing immediate access to the housing, and expanding services targeted at drug addiction, mental health and job training.

State officials have launched a similar initiative and will sponsor a two-day gathering beginning tomorrow at the World Trade Center in Baltimore to kick off the planning process.

"Maryland has never engaged in anything like this before," said Gregory D. Shupe, director of the Office of Transitional Services at the Maryland Department of Human Resources. "For a long time, the planning around homelessness has been more about shelters and soup kitchens. The focus now is not how to manage homelessness but what we need to do to end it."

A comprehensive plan could be ready for review by state legislators by June, Shupe said.

The action follows a decision four years ago by the Bush administration to end "chronic" homelessness, or long-term homelessness among the disabled, within the next 10 years.

"It's time to stop managing the crisis and end the disgrace," said Philip F. Mangano, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, who will share success stories from across the nation with conference participants. More than a dozen states and 169 cities and counties have created plans in hopes of accessing federal funds to pay for new housing and medical aid, he said.

Baltimore, with the largest homeless population in the state, will prepare its own plan, but a city representative will work with the state to make sure the two documents align.

Heading up Baltimore's planning process is Laura M. Gillis, the city's recently appointed president and CEO of the quasi-public agency Baltimore Homeless Services Inc. A veteran of street outreach, Gillis spent a decade working with Health Care for the Homeless in Baltimore, serving as clinical director for seven years. Most recently, she worked for National Health Care for the Homeless.

Gillis manages a staff of 25 and an annual budget of $24 million, most of it federal money. The restructured office of homeless services, which moved from the housing authority to the Health Department in August, has applied for nonprofit status and will have a board headed by city Health Commissioner Dr. Peter L. Beilenson.

For Gillis, the city's efforts are a dream come true. But some who work with the homeless in the city say that the plan will never work unless drug treatment is a core element.

"Drug dealers are getting a lot of people out of their homes," said David Shepard, resident manager of the Frederick Ozanam House, a transitional home at 400 S. Bond St. for men recovering from addiction. "We can't stop homelessness in the city unless we address these issues."

One night last week, Shepard passed out free sandwiches and hot chocolate to a dozen homeless men in front of City Hall. Surveying the group, Shepard said that he knew most of the men and that many were drug addicts.

One of the homeless men, Calvin Cannady, a 51-year-old day laborer, offered a different story. He said he lost his apartment and most of his possessions in a fire five months ago. Cannady said he is saving to get a new apartment, but with an hourly wage of $6.25 he figures it could take a while.

"If there was a way the city could help, that would be great," Cannady said.

Getting people off the streets will require a shift in thinking, Gillis said. Officials in Philadelphia, New York, San Francisco, Denver, Boston and Los Angeles use a "housing first" model to provide permanent housing to the homeless and are getting results.

Under the housing first model, homeless people get their own rooms or apartments almost immediately, rather than staying at shelters until after they receive medical, drug-addiction or mental-health treatment. The problem with shelters, Gillis said, is that many homeless people don't like living in group settings. Some don't feel safe. Others don't want to follow the rules. Many return to the street, making their recovery more difficult.

"The housing first model allows homeless individuals to claim something as their very own," Gillis said. "It's a very important first step."

Exactly how Baltimore will provide housing for the homeless is unclear, but with a 10-year plan in hand the city will be better positioned to compete for federal funds, said Mangano and other experts. The current federal budget sets aside $3 billion for the homeless, but not all of that money is earmarked for the "chronic homeless" initiative. Federal budget pressures are expected to keep funding flat for the next several years, Mangano said.

Those who know Gillis say that she has the right combination of skills and experience to make the most of what funds are available. She is also familiar with the people who need help the most.

"She is the first person ever in the position to have this unique combination of direct service experience and involvement at a national level with homeless issues," said Jeff Singer, president and CEO of Health Care for the Homeless in Baltimore, who worked with Gillis for a decade. "This is a pretty unique situation. She has a real sensitivity to client issues."

For Gillis, the time to act is now, while the federal government has a spotlight on the issue.

"Let's end homelessness," she said. "Let's stop managing it and end it."

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