Focusing on the root causes of homelessness [Letter]

December 05, 2013

Your recent article on the city's homeless people cries out for clarification ("Addressing the intractable problem of homelessness in Baltimore," Dec. 2).

Managing homelessness in an effective and humane way (i.e., sheltering those who have no place to sleep other than the street) requires counting the number of families and individuals who are sheltered. As The Sun points out, this is required once a year by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which annually funds cities and suburban and rural counties to shelter people and which provides, at best, a poor measure of whether homelessness is increasing or decreasing.

There is a crucial difference between efforts to manage homelessness and efforts to end it, as the city's 10-year plan to end homelessness calls for. To claim the number of city is decreasing requires one to ignore a vast and fluid number of men, women and children who live in such precarious and frequently substandard dwellings that the threat or reality of homelessness is always present.

Evictions, illnesses, loss of jobs, lack of jobs with livable wages and a severely inadequate supply of affordable rental housing at any given time result in a fluctuating number of people compelled to seek shelter in the city and, increasingly, in the metropolitan-area counties as well. To ignore these realities, which have worsened over the past five years, is to consign ourselves to effectively meaningless rehearsals of the increasing or decreasing number of sheltered people.

And while it is true that public and private funds depend on such numbers in order to at least minimally shelter the homeless who find their way into the sheltering system, it is time to focus more on such appalling acts as the Baltimore County Council's blocking of an affordable housing development in an area where homelessness is noticeably on the rise. In focusing on the numbers of the sheltered as proxy for the severity of the problem, we inadvertently minimize the larger and more intractable systemic problems that underlie the condition of homelessness.

Jane Harrison

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