Editor’s note: A day after this story published on Nov. 30, a donor stepped forward to keep the families in the hotel. More donations trickled in through December and into January, long enough to secure permanent housing.
Last Christmas, Robin “Robbie” Young filmed a short video on her phone showing off an elaborate Christmas setup at her East Baltimore rowhouse: silver tinsel, bright string lights, a small tree perched on a dresser. With music humming in the background, she points the phone toward the wall mirror, smiles and waves.
A year later, Young’s holiday season looks different.
She and her adult son, Curtis, 26, were evicted from their home in October and moved into a long-term stay hotel near the Johns Hopkins Hospital. Curtis, who is autistic and has other health problems, has not adjusted well to the disruption of his routine, Young said. He and his mom also are still grieving the death of her long-time boyfriend, Clay, who died from COVID-19 in late 2021.
Young and her son lived at their East Baltimore address for about 10 years prior to the eviction, and she made it a priority to keep the place neat and tidy. She had been enrolled in a joint city-federal program that allotted money to a nonprofit organization to pay for rent and counseling services — a solution that evidence shows reduces homelessness and keeps people out of emergency rooms.
Many of those enrolled in the program live with disabilities, have histories of substance use disorder or have experienced homelessness in the past. And many, like Young, have children with complex needs.
But starting in the fall of 2022, Young began receiving notices from her landlord that the nonprofit responsible for paying the bills, Dayspring Programs Inc., had missed payment deadlines. She knew they had been late to pay in the past but brushed off the panic; they reassured her they would pay eventually, as they always had.
Without her knowledge, Skyline Properties Management LLC began filing failure-to-pay rent cases in court and ultimately won enough judgments against Young to remove her and her son from the home for good last month. It couldn’t have come at a worse time: When the eviction happened, Young had been mourning the deaths of several family members who died in unrelated incidents within a one-month span.
Now Young and another program participant, Melissa, who asked to withhold her last name to protect her school-age child’s privacy, could be forced out of the hotel as early as this Friday, according to attorneys from the Homeless Persons Representation Project. The city, which has been paying for both families’ stay after the fallout with Dayspring, has offered to relocate them to a city-funded shelter near the entrance to Interstate 83. Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services spokeswoman Kyana Underwood said the two women are no longer covered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grant program that housed them, but will able to stay at the shelter until the agency finds them a new housing program.
Young, who experienced homelessness before entering the Dayspring program, said she fears for the safety of her and her son in a congregate care environment, especially one so close to a major highway. Curtis only eats certain foods and typically only what his mom prepares; the hotel’s kitchenette has helped with his transition to a new environment, she noted. She’s also experienced assault in other shelters, she said, and does not want to expose her son to a site that could trigger past traumas.
“I wish they did this before it got cold,” Young said through tears earlier this week at her room in the hotel. A few framed photographs of Curtis, some cookware and one plaque with a serenity prayer are all she brought with her to make the one-bedroom suite more like home. “It’s so cold now.”
Melissa said the move has been difficult for her and her 13-year-old son, who she has tried to shelter from the painful reality of their eviction. Their home was close enough to his father’s for him to bike back and forth. She worries about destabilizing him at a tender age.
“I’m not having my son there,” she said about the shelter. She said she benefited from living close enough to walk to Johns Hopkins, where she receives treatment for a disability caused by a 2008 car accident. She’s unsure if she can afford bus fare. “It’s [the pain] been worse since this happened. As the saying goes, ‘You are the way you feel.’ Now I’m hurting.”
Young and Melissa were two of five Dayspring tenants who faced eviction this past August due to the organization’s failure to pay rent for months. The two women and their children were forced out of their homes in October; the other three are still housed for now, said Carolyn Johnson, managing attorney at the Homeless Persons Representation Project.
Johnson called on the city to continue paying for the hotel for as long as necessary — and to make changes to the system that enabled the evictions to happen at all.
“It remains unclear what, if any, changes MOHS [the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services] has made to its PSH [permanent supportive housing] programs to ensure that rent gets paid on time every month, and that supportive services are actually being provided to families,” Johnson said in an email. “There are significant improvements needed in these programs to ensure more families are not harmed.”
City Councilman Zeke Cohen, who also has been involved in negotiating the hotel setup, said the homelessness agency “must do right” by the families by keeping them where they are for now.
“These families’ ... lives have been thrown into chaos because of mismanagement several degrees removed from them,” he said.
Both Melissa and Young said they benefited from Dayspring for most of the last decade. Then, after the pandemic hit, they had more difficulty getting calls returned. They both went months at a time without case managers.
The Baltimore City Council held a hearing in September to investigate Dayspring’s failures and probe the role of the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services in keeping the provider up to date with payments. Irene Agustin, the director of the city’s homelessness agency, pledged during that hearing to help the five households and intervene in their cases if necessary. She also vowed to address some of the longer-term problems the tenants might face, including clearing the eviction judgments from their records — which can taint a renter’s permanent record and make it more difficult to access future housing.
Later that month, Agustin resigned.
Baltimore City Sheriff Sam Cogen delayed the eviction for two weeks — the maximum available to him by law — using his office’s authority, according to Young’s attorneys. Cogen did not respond to a request for comment.
Young, who lives with chronic back pain, said even those two additional weeks hardly gave her enough time to pack 10 years’ worth of belongings and important paperwork. And now she has an eviction judgement attached to her name for a situation she did not cause.
“I don’t deserve anything that I’m getting,” she said Monday.
Dayspring, long a fixture in Baltimore’s nonprofit arena, did not respond to a request for comment. The nonprofit is supposed to receive funding from HUD that flows from city government into their accounts and then to landlords and utility providers. Since December 2020, the city’s five-person spending board has allocated more than $20 million to the organization, according to city records. The funds are meant to be reimbursements, meaning that Dayspring is contractually obligated to front the costs and be paid back at a later date.
In a lengthy, unsigned letter sent to The Baltimore Banner in August, representatives from the organization said they had not received reimbursement from city from at least April until Aug. 25.
“Dayspring is a small nonprofit and is unable to front hundreds of thousands of dollars to cover the costs,” the statement said. It faulted staffing problems in the homeless services office for some of the delays, and said while there have been problems with late payments in the past, this year has been particularly tumultuous.
Skyline Properties Management, the landlord for the five Dayspring tenants, cited similar reasons in August for evicting the families.
“As a landlord, it doesn’t matter how big or small you are; you can’t not get paid and pay your bills,” office administrator Ann King said in August. “Our hands are tied. If we had $5 million in the bank, it would be different.”
This isn’t the first instance of city tenants — many of them medically fragile, unable to work or living with disabilities — standing on the brink of eviction due to breakdowns outside of their control.
More than 20 tenants who received housing subsidies and social services from AIDS Interfaith Residential Services, another city contractor that provided services in both the city and Baltimore County, faced eviction last year when their rents stopped being paid. Complaints about the nonprofit began piling up in early 2022, and a review by city officials found that the head of the organization had been drawing funds from the accounts meant to pay rent and other bills, but not using them for the assigned purposes.
HUD’s Office of Inspector General received a referral about the organization last year, and city and county officials terminated their contracts. The nonprofit supported about 800 people throughout the region, and HUD has since taken over the decrepit federally subsidized buildings owned by the organization’s subsidiaries, according to tenants there.
The new director of the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services, Ernestina Simmons, previously worked for AIDS Interfaith Residential Services as its chief operating officer as recently as 2020, according to tax documents filed with the Internal Revenue Service. She was not made available by the city for an interview.