Housing shortage slows plan to help homeless

Designated apartments still being renovated

July 11, 2005|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

A pilot program to provide immediate housing to homeless people in Baltimore regardless of drug addiction or mental illness has hit an early and unexpected snag: a dearth of available low-income housing.

Officials with the Housing Authority of Baltimore City had promised a small number of apartments to jump-start the program last week. But when it came time for outreach workers to bring homeless people in off the street, there was no place for them, said Laura Gillis, president of the city's homeless services office.

Housing officials thought they'd have apartments available in a number of recently acquired rowhouses in the city's Barclay neighborhood, said Christopher Shea, an associate deputy director at the housing office. But it is taking longer than expected to clean up and renovate the houses, he said.

"I expected hurdles, but I thought I'd have housing by now," Gillis said Friday.

The delay comes at a critical time for Gillis, a relative newcomer to city government who is trying to change the way local officials address homelessness. She is working to assemble a 10-year plan to end homelessness, and hoped to work in lessons from the pilot program if she could get it going early.

Advocates - many of whom attended a June 30 meeting at the Baltimore offices of the Open Society Institute to learn about the pilot program, based on a successful "housing first" program in New York - said they question the housing authority's commitment to the project. No one from the agency attended the meeting, although Shea said he met with Gillis at her office later that day.

"This was a meeting where literally 100 people made a point of coming," said Diana Morris, director of the Open Society Institute. "We invited principal people who would make sure that this idea has a good hearing and application in the city. Clearly housing is key and they chose not to send anyone. Everyone was very disappointed."

Despite the initial delay and frustration, Gillis said she is confident the "housing first" program will be a success.

"What we are doing is changing the way the system has worked," she said. "It takes time and you just have to keep chipping away at it. I am a persistent person and I am going to do this."

Housing officials said they are committed to getting the apartments ready for the homeless but that it will take time. They are scrambling to address a number of issues, including a recent survey of public-housing stock that cited $850 million in much-needed capital improvements. Recent changes to Section 8, a federal rent-assistance program, as well as court decisions that have forced the agency to take on new projects, have further complicated matters, Shea said.

"There are a lot of moving pieces right now," he said.

In addition, the housing authority is hampered as to where it can place homeless people, he said. A long line of city residents is already waiting for public housing, and federal law prohibits moving one group of people ahead of the rest. Federal guidelines also restrict the types of people who get housing aid, Shea said. The Barclay rowhouses, however, were purchased with $250,000 in local funds, which means it should be easier to place homeless people there, he said.

"In an ideal world we would have housed a number of people already," Shea said. "But we have to rely on the existing inventory. I can't push someone out to make room for a homeless person."

Shea and Gillis said they are working together to come up with a way to fund the "housing first" project. Initially, they will focus on housing homeless people with mental illnesses because those people may be eligible for federal assistance, which in turn could cover the cost of the apartment, about $500 monthly.

For the first few months, housing authority officials most likely will cover the cost of housing homeless people by taking funds away from other programs, Shea said. The money will be returned after the program is established, he said.

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