Where the heart is

August 17, 2007

For anyone trying to promote a thriving downtown commercial and residential district, homeless people present a dilemma. This week's effort by Baltimore's Downtown Partnership to remove trash and boxes accumulated by homeless people camped out near Guilford Avenue and the Jones Falls Expressway was regrettable. But the incident reinforces the fact that the homeless are still with us and underscores the critical need to deal with how and why they are on the streets.

The partnership routinely picks up empty boxes and trash, frequently encountering and sometimes clashing with homeless people who populate busy downtown areas. While the group has no special authority to force the homeless to move, it tries to prevent them from blocking public pathways or sleeping on public benches.

Some victims of this week's encounter said that personal items or medications were tossed; that simply shouldn't happen. The partnership, which employs more than 20 formerly homeless people, insists it does not knowingly throw out personal belongings and supports providing lockers so that homeless people can keep their things safe.

The real tragedy is that there aren't enough places for an estimated 3,000 homeless people to go on any given night. The city has about 745 year-round emergency beds for short stays. Once a person is ready to move off the streets, there are about 1,200 transitional beds that could be occupied for a year or two and come with support services to help overcome obstacles such as substance abuse. Additionally, nearly 1,600 permanent beds are sustained with rental assistance and other supports.

All of these efforts should be expanded, but more resources are required. State funding - for emergency and transitional housing, for people threatened with eviction, and for shelter for victims of domestic violence - has not increased in about a decade. And federal funding for affordable housing has also stagnated.

A city task force is developing a 10-year plan to end homelessness that is expected to focus on a number of key areas, such as increasing the supply of affordable housing; comprehensive health care; creating more employment opportunities; and more preventive services. The challenge is finding the financial resources and marshaling the political will to make any plan work. But the recent clash between the partnership and the homeless shows how crucial it is to try.

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