A city's charity sparks debate on homelessness

A decision to give a man a home started a discussion on how to help others.

November 27, 2005|By JUSTIN FENTON | JUSTIN FENTON,SUN REPORTER

For years, Peter Dacey had known about the homeless man living in Aberdeen, first in his car and later in a tent behind a store. He had let him clean up at City Hall, and often threw a couple bucks his way.

But in March, Dacey, who was the city manager at the time, decided to do something bigger: He gave him a house to stay in.

It was a vacant, city-owned bungalow at the base of a water tower just off Churchville Road. For a few months, free of rent or water and heating bills, Lewis B. Miller Jr. could get a roof over his head, take showers, perhaps get a job.

"This man helped me," said a Miller, 56, in an interview at his home. "If it wasn't for him, where would I be?"

It was an arrangement immediately met with skepticism from members of the City Council, who swiftly had an eviction notice posted on his front door. But they backed down, and the idea of the city providing homeless people with their own places to live has since gained traction, most notably with new Mayor S. Fred Simmons.

He's interested in starting an enhanced version of the program dubbed "incubator spaces," which would help more people like Miller and provide a support system. Simmons says he has been exploring the potential for corporate sponsorship of the program.

"If you put people in a position where they can get a job interview, they've had a shower, had something to eat and don't show up as desperate, they'll probably have a better shot at making self-sufficiency in a good amount of time," he said.

As the chill set in for another winter, Miller was wearing a clean pair of jeans and a sweat shirt in his home - a far cry from the layers of dirty clothing he piled on to make it through the harsh weather he endured while living in a tent. After years of struggling to get along each day, Miller said he finally has a routine.

"I've gotten used to the warm. I'm used to walking to my job," he said.

Unbeknownst to Dacey and Simmons, their plan loosely mirrors a new way of thinking among advocates for the homeless, who have been championing a "housing first" approach in recent years. Studies show the concept is more effective in rehabilitating homeless people, and saves long-term costs on shelters and other services.

The approach was pioneered five years ago in New York and Los Angeles. The Bush administration adopted the housing first model in 2002 as a way to end chronic homelessness among the severely addicted and mentally ill, and offers federal aid to participating jurisdictions. San Francisco reports that its homeless population has been slashed by almost 40 percent since it started subscribing to the philosophy in 2002, and Baltimore is trying to drum up funding to expand a broader variation.

Under most forms of the program, homeless men and women are given apartments or hotel rooms and are required to enroll in support programs, sometimes paired with social workers. It seeks to end the idea that homelessness is an unfixable social ill fanned by soup kitchens and free blankets.

"We've been doing that for 20 years. I don't see less homeless people on the street," said Laura Gillis, president of Baltimore's homeless services office.

But while Miller has been provided with living space, what's lacking is the support system that advocates say is key to the program's success.

"I don't know whether this man could, by himself, figure out things and get himself into a position where he can get his own housing [at the conclusion of the agreement]," said Carolyn McQuiston, assistant director for the county's Social Services Department. "It's dangerous to think that a home is enough."

Harford County is the metropolitan region's only jurisdiction without a permanent homeless shelter, and officials estimate there are between 75 and 100 homeless people in the county. By the beginning of the year, the county hopes to begin moving homeless people into a shelter at the Riverside Community Center in Belcamp, according to Aaron N. Tomarchio, chief of staff for County Executive David R. Craig.

Dacey decided during a cold spell last winter to move Miller into the home. After the house was inspected, an agreement was negotiated between Miller and Dacey - Miller would get four months rent-free, then begin paying about $250 a month.

"The intention was to get him through the winter and get him in a situation where he's got a place, can get a job and try to get him in a position to support himself," Dacey said.

City officials learned of the situation months later and moved to terminate the agreement. Officials said in interviews recently that they sympathized with Miller's plight, but wondered how far their responsibility for his well-being could be stretched. With liability issues looming, they voted, 5-0, to evict him in June.

"The mindset of the council was that we're not in the business of renting homes," said City Manager Donald Brand, who took Dacey's post after Dacey was forced to resign in March because of an unrelated matter. "It was viewed as an added burden."

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