Gateway To Independence

Our View: Monday's Groundbreaking For A 275-bed Shelter Downtown Is A Major Step In Mayor Sheila Dixon's 10-year Plan To End Homelessness In Baltimore.

August 11, 2009

Too bad the city was just breaking ground on a new homeless shelter and not opening it on Monday - with temperatures climbing into the dangerous range for the first time this summer, it was a reminder of how important it is to make sure all of the city's residents have proper shelter.

Just two years ago, when Mayor Sheila Dixon first announced her ambitious, 10-year initiative to end homelessness in Baltimore, the goal seemed hopelessly out of reach. Neighborhood groups were dead set against the idea of having homeless people sheltered even temporarily in their communities, and the economic downturn made paying for the project seem dicey at best.

Still, Ms. Dixon persevered: Last year, she overcame the objections of Greenmount West residents to operate an interim shelter there; two other temporary sites in Butchers Hill and Edmondson Heights also worked out well once the mayor convinced residents the project could actually benefit their communities by bringing better lighting and a more visible police presence. Meanwhile, Baltimore was renovating the old city Health Department building on Guilford Avenue as an all-day shelter and resource center for homeless people.

That facility - which opened last fall and was Baltimore's first homeless shelter to be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week - is being run by the city until the new permanent shelter at 620 Fallsway opens next year, if all goes as planned. The new shelter, housed in a former city Department of Transportation garage, will have a capacity nearly double that of the present one and a flexible floor-plan that accommodates 25 home-care beds for people recently released from hospitals along with 150 beds for men and 75 to 100 beds for women.

The city is putting up about $5 million of the $9 million in design and construction costs, with the rest coming from federal, state and private foundation grants. And the facility will cost another $2 million a year to operate. But Mayor Dixon stresses that the ultimate goal of the new center is to give the city's homeless population a hand up, rather than a handout, by helping them achieve self-sufficiency and eventually move into permanent housing. She envisions the new shelter not as an end in itself but as a gateway to independence - not as a crutch but as an opportunity for people to retake control of their lives. So far, the city has helped more than 150 homeless people move into apartments of their own, a major achievement that is only the beginning of Ms. Dixon's plans.

With upward of 3,000 people living on the streets on any given day, clearly there's more to be done - the poor economy swelled the ranks of the city's homeless by as much as 12 percent last year by some estimates, and things may get worse before they get better. Still, the construction of the Fallsway shelter is a concrete sign of Ms. Dixon's laudably compassionate effort to ameliorate homelessness, and she has expended considerable personal and political capital in making it happen.

Coupled with steps her administration recently took to clear out the eyesore of a homeless encampment at the foot of the Jones Falls Expressway, Ms. Dixon has taken on an issue that is unlikely to win her votes and but is very likely to face further obstacles, not least of which may be resistance from homeless people themselves, especially the mentally ill, who are notorious for refusing to use public shelters even when they are available. Ultimately, Ms. Dixon's lofty goal of ending homelessness may be unachievable. But she surely deserves credit for at least trying.

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