Gillis resigns as head of homeless services agency in city

She wanted to turn public unit into a nonprofit agency eligible for outside funding

November 30, 2006|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,Sun Reporter

The head of Baltimore's homeless services division has resigned, pointing to frustration over the slow pace of the agency's transition from public entity to private nonprofit group as a major reason for her departure.

Laura M. Gillis' last day on the job was Tuesday, two weeks after city officials, including City Council President Sheila Dixon, unveiled a work group made up of business and social service professionals that will create a plan to end chronic homelessness in 10 years.

City Health Commissioner Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein confirmed Gillis' resignation yesterday and praised her for her work during the past two years. Gillis, who had a long record of working with the homeless in Baltimore before she became a civil servant, brought the "housing first" model to the city, and this year initiated what will be a winter-long shelter program for the homeless.

Sharfstein said that Gillis' departure would not jeopardize the planning process to end homelessness, adding that he hopes to fill the position soon.

"We wish her well, and we really thank her for her many contributions," Sharfstein said. He added that Gillis' work starting the "housing first" program, which provides apartments to homeless people before they are weaned from alcohol or drugs, was an important contribution.

Baltimore's program, based on a concept that has been adopted by cities across the nation, recently received additional funding and will be expanded.

Gillis was hired to head Baltimore Homeless Services Inc. in August 2004 by then-city Health Commissioner Dr. Peter L. Beilenson.

She and Beilenson agreed that her priority would be to create a nonprofit organization that would serve the homeless.

As an example, Baltimore Substance Abuse Systems Inc., which provides services to addicts and their families, also operates as a nonprofit entity, which enables it to seek private dollars as well as public grants.

Beilenson resigned less than a year later to run for Congress. That's when, according to an e-mail Gillis sent to social service providers announcing her resignation, her department's future turned murky.

More recently, the division was moved under the city health department's new Healthy Homes division, which deals in part with lead paint abatement.

In her Nov. 6 e-mail to service providers, a copy of which was obtained by The Sun, Gillis said the move was made with "no stated plans to continue the transition of [Baltimore Homeless Services] into the private sector."

Gillis, who worked for 10 years with the nonprofit Health Care for the Homeless in Baltimore and 3 1/2 years with the National Health Care for the Homeless Council before taking the city job, declined to comment on her departure yesterday. She confirmed that she had written the e-mail.

Sharfstein said he believed that there was a "mismatch between [Gillis'] expectation and what the job entails."

He said that while Gillis was eager to take her agency nonprofit, a combination of factors slowed down the process, including a lack of financial planning.

Sharfstein said that before the division can go nonprofit, the city must set aside at least $4 million to cover expenses that arise between grants. He said that the city was not prepared to make such a commitment.

"She was promised that it would become a nonprofit," Sharfstein said, alluding to the agreement between Beilenson and Gillis. "It's something that we are interested in exploring, and I think it could well happen, but not this year."

Some of those who worked with Gillis lauded her efforts to improve the lives of homeless men, women and children.

"`Housing first' is a new way of thinking," said Kevin Lindamood, vice president for external affairs with Health Care for the Homeless in Baltimore. "Laura did an effective job of creating the environment in which that ... could take place. ... Her legacy is very much `housing first.'"

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