City's chronically homeless on rise

Census report says one-fourth have not had homes for more than three years

September 15, 2007|By Julie Scharper | Julie Scharper,Sun reporter

An estimated 750 Baltimoreans have not have had homes for more than three years, according to a census report on Baltimore's homeless population released yesterday.

Although the total number of homeless people - estimated at 3,000 - has changed little since the last census in 2005, the percentage of chronically homeless people has increased substantially, to about 25 percent, which the report calls a "troubling change."

"Addressing chronic homelessness requires a different type of response than addressing transient homelessness," said Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, the city's health commissioner, adding that those homeless for long periods are more likely to have addiction and mental health problems than those homeless for a short time.

The census is based on data gathered from agencies that aid homeless people, and about 500 field interviews conducted in January by Baltimore Homeless Services, a division of the city health department. Health officials believe that the city's total homeless population may be larger than the report estimates, since it can be difficult to find and count homeless people.

The results of the census will guide the city's 10-year plan to eliminate homelessness, which is expected to be presented in November.

"You want to help people address the underlying reasons for their homelessness and, at the same time, you want to support them in moving into housing," Sharfstein said.

The report provides insight on the demographics of the city's homeless population.

About 80 percent of the city's homeless population is black, and nearly 70 percent is male. More than a third report serious mental and physical health problems or drug addiction.

More than half of the people surveyed had been homeless for more than a year. About 60 percent met the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's definition of "chronically homeless," which means that they had not had housing for the past year, or had been homeless at least three times in the past four years.

A section of the report explores the particular challenges that confront homeless youth. According to the census, about one out of every 10 homeless people is younger than 18, including 150 children younger than five.

"The needs of homeless youth are not the same as what the adult homeless population needs," said Julia Pierson, an independent consultant who worked on a parallel count called the Baltimore Homeless Youth Initiative. "Here are young people who are completely on their own - they don't know how to go to the grocery store, how to write a check. But they're also at a developmental stage where they can pull out of this if you give them the skills they need to successfully transition to adulthood."

More than half of the homeless young people who seek assistance are female, although this does not necessarily indicate that more young women are homeless than young men, Pierson said.

"Girls tend to be running away from abusive environments and need protection," said Leslie Leitch, the executive director of a nonprofit organization that helps people with disabilities find housing, and a member of the Baltimore Homeless Youth Initiative. Many homeless teenage girls are also seeking services for their own children, she said.

About 7 percent of the homeless youth identified themselves as transgender - having a gender identity that does not match the body they were born with. Pierson said that these young people are often forced to leave their homes after their gender identity becomes known.

Young people from poor families are more likely to be become homeless than those from wealthier families, Pierson said, because they are less likely to have relatives or friends who have the economic resources to take them in.

In August, homeless advocates expressed dismay when workers for the Downtown Partnership, a nonprofit group supported by downtown business owners, removed cardboard boxes and clothing belonging to homeless people who stay under the Jones Falls Expressway near Guilford Avenue.

This month, the Baltimore YWCA announced plans to close its downtown women's shelter, which cared for about 90 women and children, because of lack of funding.

The percentage of people homeless in Baltimore is consistent with other large cities on the East Coast, said Diane Glauber, president of Baltimore Homeless Services.

Throughout the city, she said, there are about 3,500 beds - including emergency shelters and temporary and permanent housing - for homeless people during the warmer months, and an additional 300 beds in the winter.

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

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