Homeless death toll

December 22, 2004

CHURCH BELLS rang out in the city yesterday, ushering in the winter solstice and marking the longest night of the year. The bells rang 80 times each, every toll a remembrance of a person who died this year on a cold street or park bench, in a homeless shelter or an abandoned building, in a rusted car or under a dark bridge.

Despite the commemoration, the day was no different than any other in a city where some 3,000 to 4,000 homeless people seek shelter each night. Here and in cities around the country, the homeless have become an accepted part of our public landscape. But many believe, and we agree, that such deaths are unacceptable and preventable.

A substantial portion - some advocates put it at 50 percent - of the nation's estimated 3.5 million homeless people are employed, some holding down two or more jobs to make ends meet. Many are families who cycle in and out of homelessness, headed by parents who don't have health insurance, or get sick pay. A major illness or injury that leaves then unable to work can quickly land them on the streets.

Their problems seem overwhelming, but city and state homeless services officials and advocacy groups say they are surmountable by focusing on ending, not managing, those problems. And that starts with increasing the amount of affordable housing.

Both the city's homeless services agency and the state's Department of Human Resources are working on plans to do just that, an idea that came out of a Bush administration initiative announced four years ago to end "chronic" homelessness among the disabled within a decade. More than a dozen states and 169 cities and counties have created such plans in hopes of getting federal funding.

A recent report by the governor's commission on housing policy said Maryland must build 157,000 affordable housing units over the next decade to meet the need. But the Bush administration has cut funding for federal housing assistance and public housing programs, and the 2005 federal budget does not provide for new affordable housing. Locally, Baltimore's housing authority plans to reduce public housing from 14,000 to 11,000 units.

People living and dying on city streets remind us of the year-round need for a sustained commitment to addressing the underlying causes of homelessness: lack of affordable housing, low wages, inadequate access to health care. The ringing bells should not fall on deaf ears: The state and federal governments must fund homeless initiatives in Baltimore and elsewhere that have well-crafted plans to keep individuals and families from living on the streets.

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