Advocates say Baltimore's plan to end homelessness is in disarray

Journey Home strategy is updated but criticized as homelessness continues to be an 'epidemic'

March 17, 2013|By Yvonne Wenger, The Baltimore Sun

Halfway through Baltimore's long-term plan to end homelessness, advocates complain that the strategy is in disarray and worry that the number of men, women and children without permanent homes has grown — despite millions of dollars being pumped into local services.

The 10-year Journey Home strategy, the advocates say, has fallen short of its objective, floundering without a direct line of leadership or accountability and frustrating the social services community that is pushing for solutions to a primary cause of homelessness: the lack of affordable housing.

The plan was a "game changer" when it was created in 2008, said Antonia K. Fasanelli, director of the Homeless Persons Representation Project in Baltimore. And while certain components have been successful, such as the availability of 500 housing vouchers and the opening of a 24-hour emergency shelter, Fasanelli said the city needs to do more.

"Homelessness has increased dramatically every single one of those five years," Fasanelli said. "That should tell us that we need a very clear plan for our common goal of ending homelessness."

Olivia D. Farrow, director of the Mayor's Office of Human Services, said the city's investment, as well as the commitment from the social services community, has made a significant impact on homelessness in Baltimore — but so has the recession. Job loss, foreclosures and the economic downturn have contributed to local homelessness, she said.

The most extensive count of the homeless found more than 4,000 individuals living on the street or sleeping in shelters on a single night in 2011, up from 2,600 in 2007. Surveyors counted about 3,400 in 2009. The most recent count was conducted in January, but the final tally won't be released until April.

The city had more than 500 chronically homeless men and women at last count, down from more than 850 in 2009. Each chronically homeless person costs taxpayers roughly $40,000 a year, through their use of police, emergency rooms and other services.

The survey, conducted in odd-numbered years, is imperfect. Enumerators visit increasingly larger swathes of the city each year, but they don't wander into vacant properties or search street by street. They also do not include the number of homeless people — especially children and teens — sleeping in the homes of friends and family.

Councilwoman Helen Holton said she's disappointed with the city's lack of progress.

"The need is great, but I don't get the sense of urgency as a city," Holton said during a hearing before the Housing and Community Development Committee last week. "I've been hearing about the 10-year plan for the last 10 years."

A consultant from Canada was hired for $28,000 to update the Journey Home plan, but the 71-page report presented last month was panned by homeless advocates. The draft is being scrutinized by the plan's oversight panel, the Leadership Advisory Group, and eventually will be presented to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake as advice in the coming weeks.

The report says, "Homelessness continues to be an epidemic in the City of Baltimore."

Sister Helen Amos, chairwoman of the Journey Home's Leadership Advisory Group, said the oversight panel commissioned the draft report to refocus the community's efforts.

The plan is built around four core issues — housing, health care, prevention and emergency services — and an underlying principle of "housing first." The idea is that permanent housing is the first step in stabilizing a person's life.

"We've been chipping away at the chronically homeless population through the 'housing first' concept, but all of that hasn't gone as robustly as was originally envisioned," said Amos, who added that "sadly," homelessness in Baltimore isn't better today than it was five years ago.

Still, Amos said advisory group members have faith in the city's ability to conquer homelessness.

While others agree that the "housing first" strategy at the core of the plan is a success, they say the city's failure to hire an executive director to shepherd the Journey Home has been detrimental.

The city conducted interviews in the last year for an executive director, but two finalists backed out. One questioned how the plan was to be implemented and who was in charge of its success or failure, and the other withdrew for personal reasons, said Kate Briddell, director of homeless programs for the mayor. The search continues.

The city, meanwhile, has allocated nearly $4.8 million for homeless services in the current budget, up from about $759,000 in 2008.

The public money is supplemented by donations to Journey Home, which stand at about $2 million. Private funds, which paid for the consultant's update, will also cover the salary and benefits for the Journey Home's future executive director.

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