Street side

December 07, 2007

With the abrupt onset of winter weather, Baltimore finds itself this week with 300 fewer beds for the homeless in emergency shelters and transitional housing than it had last year. A handful of privately run shelters have closed - for a variety of reasons - and as the season progresses the city may need to scramble for more beds.

The solution to most of the homelessness problem is to have more affordable permanent housing, and the city (and country) should redouble efforts under way to address that. But with little shantytowns starting to proliferate in Baltimore, there are immediate steps that also need to be taken.

The city's big new winter shelter on Guilford Avenue has just opened, and unfortunately it is not yet ready for full capacity. It provides an array of useful services, not previously available, for homeless people, but it doesn't solve the shortage of spaces.

Wednesday night, though there's been little publicity, it had just five vacant beds, and guards erroneously turned away people who arrived after 10 p.m. As news of the shelter gets around, and as cold weather settles in, it will likely be pushed to capacity even as additional space there becomes available in the next few days.

Mayor Sheila Dixon has made the end of homelessness a signature issue, and that's all to the good. A homeless census this year found 3,000 people in Baltimore in need of shelter, but that's a constantly changing population. In the city there are about 2,000 beds in emergency and transitional housing, which suggests that on any given night there are about 1,000 people unaccounted for.

Certainly, not every homeless person wants to go to a shelter, but last year publicly supported shelters in the city turned people away 11,312 times, according to state figures.

The shortage of beds compared with a year ago can probably be mitigated by the city's Homeless Services Division with a little seat-of-the-pants ingenuity. Its director, Diane Glauber, nonetheless is right to emphasize long-term solutions. Baltimore has won a federal grant to increase the number of residential units in the Housing First program from about 50 to 150 over five years, and the plan is to get to 500 within a decade. We wish these goals were not quite so modest.

The city's Housing Department has a role to play. In April 2006 it committed to provide 88 apartments to the Housing First program over five years, beginning last January. None has yet become available. We think it's time.

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