Tackling homelessness

November 20, 2006

The days and nights are colder, and makeshift tents have already sprung up in some areas of the city. It's that time of year when the homeless are more visible - and more vulnerable. In addition to providing more warm places for those without homes to spend the night this winter, the city is putting together a 10-year plan to end persistent homelessness. It's a worthy endeavor, but only if it leads to tangible results. The fact that incoming Mayor Sheila Dixon has identified helping the homeless as one of her top priorities is a promising start.

More than 200 communities in 49 states have initiated long-term plans to deal with the issue, according to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. Maryland announced a 10-year plan in 2005 that rightly emphasizes the same four issues that the city plan should focus on. It's no mystery that the homeless need affordable housing and stable living conditions; access to income, often by removing barriers such as past criminal history, to employment; access to health care; and more and better-coordinated services, such as treatment for mental illness or substance abuse.

Those are the key solutions to a problem that is, ultimately, rooted in poverty. And those are the areas that will likely prove most fertile for the leaders of the city's planning process as they come up with more specific proposals by June 2007.

They can start with the national "housing first" initiative, which puts people who have been homeless for a while in subsidized apartments and then provides them with services to deal with the mental, drug abuse or other conditions that kept them on the streets. The program, which has been adopted by Baltimore Homeless Services Inc., an arm of the city Health Department, has been operating as a pilot here for about a year and has given homes to 25 homeless people, more than 90 percent of whom are still housed. Baltimore has just been awarded a $2 million federal grant to continue and expand the program in the next five years.

Building on the early success of the housing-first model and coming up with other fresh ideas should allow the long-range planners to offer more-effective help to the estimated 3,000 to 4,000 people who are homeless in Baltimore on any given night. While most are single adults, an increasing proportion is made up of women, children and families. They need not just a plan, but action as well.

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