No place to go

September 07, 2007

The recent decision by the Baltimore YWCA to close its downtown shelter for homeless women and children is more than unfortunate. If the shelter goes out of business by Oct. 1, as announced, about 10 percent of the city's temporary beds for families could be lost.

There's no question that permanent housing is the ultimate solution for getting the homeless off the streets. But in the meantime, families must not be left without a place to go.

On any given night, an estimated 3,000 people in Baltimore are homeless; about 35 percent consist of families, usually women and children. Of the total homeless population, about 10 percent are under the age of 18. City officials rightly try to put families into transitional housing as quickly as possible, generally apartments where they can stay for up to two years. Unlike shelters, transitional lodging can provide privacy - including a quiet place for children to study - and help re-establish a sense of family stability.

But with only 428 transitional spaces for families, homeless women and children must often stay in one of Baltimore's 205 emergency beds, distributed among half a dozen shelters scattered around the city, for a maximum of 90 days. The YWCA shelter on West Franklin Street provides 63 of those emergency beds for women and children (as well as 10 convalescent care beds), and the facility has long been popular for its proximity to downtown and a variety of services.

Despite the obvious need, YWCA board members say they made a business decision to close the shelter, citing recent funding cutbacks from the United Way of Central Maryland and the city, as well as a desire to refocus the organization on its core missions to empower women and eliminate racism. Yet the organization has not announced any plans to close another shelter in Baltimore County and does not rule out developing new programs that could help homeless families.

United Way has redirected its grantmaking in an effort to foster more definitive results, and the YWCA has received no money from it this year. Similarly, the city recently cut funding to the organization by about $110,000, largely because its application was deemed inadequate.

The YWCA and the city are trying to reach a compromise, but whether or not homeless families can continue to be housed at the West Franklin Street facility, the dialogue should not be so limited. Recognizing that temporary shelter is a necessary stop on the path to permanent housing, the city as well as private organizations should step in with extra space or extra funds to help fill the void.

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