Neighbors, but no homes

December 21, 2005

December has been cruel to Baltimore's homeless. It took five lives in just 10 days and capped a year marked by the deaths of many of the city's most vulnerable residents. Advocates for the homeless had hoped this year would be different than last year, and worked hard to turn the deadly tide, but 2005 differed from 2004 in only a minor respect: The death toll grew by four to 84.

The deaths point to serious challenges in helping a population hobbled by high rates of alcoholism, drug abuse, mental illness and defeatism. The deaths also point to the failures of federal, state and local governments to address the shortage of affordable housing and the lack of health insurance and consistent medical care that lowers the chances for survival for the homeless. Though many believe that more homeless people die in the winter because they freeze to death, acute and chronic medical conditions - even more than mental illness or substance abuse - are the leading causes of homeless deaths.

Today, as cities around the country mark the annual commemoration of those who died, local governments, the Bush administration and Congress should commit to increasing homeless people's access to coordinated medical and mental health care. The administration proposed increasing funding for community-based health centers, the first line of defense for the homeless, by $304 million in 2006, but Congressional lawmakers have tentatively approved just $66 million. They can do better.

The administration should also increase funding for the development of affordable housing. Until this is a public policy priority, the administration's campaign to end homelessness within a decade will never happen. Requests for emergency shelter increased in 24 major cities this year, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and some of that need went unmet.

Studies in major American cities as well as in Canada, Europe, Asia and Australia found a persistent relationship between a lack of housing and excess mortality, according to the National Health Care for the Homeless Council. Homeless people are three to four times more likely to die than the general population.

While the recent cold spells and the holiday season will no doubt increase sympathy for people often overlooked at other times of the year, it's important that the homeless people who are still living are remembered year round.

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