Baltimore needs a new homeless shelter

July 04, 2011

Michael D. Ullman is simultaneously right and wrong in his views on a Baltimore homeless shelter ("Not a home, not a help," June 29). The practices he advocates would turn back the clock to the early 1980s, when homelessness was ignored by the public sector.

As Dr. Ullman begins with a sports analogy, let's start with his homeruns: Permanent supportive housing is the true solution to homelessness.

That's absolutely right. Shelters are costlier than permanent housing. But add those two ideas together and it doesn't add up to a moratorium against new shelters.

While emergency shelter is insufficient, we can't condemn our neighbors to sleeping on steam grates until permanent housing is available. The real failure of public policy is the dramatic disinvestment in affordable housing that began in 1979 and has been perpetuated in partisan fashion ever since. In fact, the federal housing budget needs some $60 billion more this year just to approximate its value during the first half of the Carter administration.

It's hardly a surprise that in Baltimore tens of thousands languish for years on frozen housing waiting lists.

Three decades later, there's finally agreement that housing is the solution. Baltimore's 10-year Plan to End Homelessness is centered upon the proven success of the "Housing First" approach. But this achievement alone can't restore that $60 billion in lost resources. Until the supply of affordable housing increases, we commend the city for ensuring safe shelter.

Here's one more thing: Charging for shelter is a very bad idea. How patronizing to assume that poor people can't possibly realize the value of a humane intervention unless they pay for it.

We'd love to close the shelters for good — but only when there's no longer a need for them. Let's put our energies toward making affordable housing a true national priority, not toward increasing the number of people living -- and dying -- on our streets.

Kevin Lindamood

Jeff Singer

The writers are, respectively, vice president and president of Health Care for the Homeless

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