No place to call home

September 28, 2007

The latest census of Baltimore's homeless population shows that some things are getting worse, particularly the number of people who remain homeless for more than a year - and many things remain the same, which is hardly good news. What the census report reinforces is that the homeless will continue to be with us until there is a major effort to deal with housing shortages that help push people onto the streets.

The huge imbalance between supply and demand for affordable housing makes the Housing Authority of Baltimore City's use of a specially created affordable-housing fund to demolish more than 1,500 public housing units without adequate, tangible plans for redevelopment especially alarming and regrettable.

Where's the sense of urgency - as well as a comprehensive, coordinated approach - to help not only those who are poor or working poor, but also those who have no roof over their heads?

On any given night, there are at least 3,000 homeless people in Baltimore. About a third of them are women, and about 10 percent are children. About 53 percent of those surveyed have been homeless for at least a year, and 24 percent say they have been homeless for more than three years, up from 15 percent in 2005, when the last census was taken.

This increase among the "chronic" homeless is certainly disturbing. Whether an individual or family has been on the streets for a day, a week or a year, it's a lack of housing and income that likely put them there.

Baltimore simply doesn't have enough affordable housing units to meet demand, whether the units are privately or publicly funded. With cutbacks in federal housing dollars in recent years, the decision by city leaders to set up an affordable-housing fund two years ago was welcome. And although it was expected that some of the $59 million put into the fund would be used to demolish property and get rid of blight, housing authority officials admit that a majority of the fund is being used for demolition - with little or no redevelopment.

Among the many poor and working poor people on the waiting list for public housing are homeless individuals and families, but the longer they remain on the streets, the less likely they can be found even if a unit becomes available. That's why the city's division of homeless services, which is part of the Health Department, is rightly working to give homeless people on the waiting list greater priority. But that won't do much good as long as the housing authority is unconscionably tearing down units so much faster than it's rebuilding them.

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