It’s been nearly three years since Mayor Brandon Scott first announced the city’s intent to acquire hotels to serve as temporary housing for people experiencing homelessness, and officials still have yet to close a deal.
Leaders in Baltimore’s homelessness office have indicated in recent weeks that the city is nearing a deal to acquire one or more hotels to provide around 275 new beds for people experiencing homelessness, a step many had hoped would land sooner.
But the city’s slow progress comes as another winter — the third since Scott debuted the plan — is in full swing. Though temperatures have been mostly mild so far, they dipped below freezing this week while the city extended its emergency winter shelters. A mix of snow and rain hit the Baltimore area this weekend as a “significant storm system” reached Maryland.
Meanwhile, the costs surrounding the acquisitions have increased. In September, the city’s spending board approved a six-month, $119,000 extension to a consulting agreement with LeSar Development Consultants, a firm retained to help the homelessness office secure the deal, according to Board of Estimates agenda records, pushing LeSar’s total consulting costs to $221,000. The extension agreement expired Dec. 31.
Federal estimates suggest Baltimore’s population of people experiencing homelessness may have grown or stayed stagnant over the last year. The latest data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s annual estimate shows that homelessness in the U.S. increased in 2023 by 12% after a few years of decline during the pandemic. Baltimore City’s own 2023 point-in-time count, which uses surveys on a given night in January to estimate the number of unhoused people, found a 3% decline in homelessness from the year prior, a number it emphasized was not statistically significant.
Evictions in Maryland also have increased over the last year, state judiciary data shows, nearing pre-pandemic levels.
Asked last week about the status of negotiations to acquire the hotels, Kyana Underwood, spokeswoman for the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services, said only that the hotel purchase details are “still being finalized.” She did not specify when the deal might land.
Homelessness officials have already missed a target date to have the hotel purchases in place before the most bitter weeks of the winter. During a presentation at a City Council lunch meeting in early November, Ernestina Simmons, the newly installed director of the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services, reported that her office was in negotiations for two hotels and hoped to have a deal “no later” than Dec. 31.
The idea of using hotels as shelter space has gained traction nationwide, with jurisdictions in and outside of Maryland using federal COVID-19 aid to help finance the purchases.
A year ago, officials with the Office of Homeless Services told The Baltimore Banner they had yet to even finalize a budget for the hotel acquisitions, a little less than two years after Scott’s initial pledge. Officials set a lengthy timeline for the process, stating at the time that they intended to have the hotel shelters in place by the end of 2024, the federal deadline for Baltimore to finalize its pandemic aid spending plans. Scott told The Banner that the acquisition was complex and had to be done the right way, even if that meant at a slower pace.
The city has set aside about $42 million in federal pandemic aid to acquire shelter space, including the hotels, part of a $90 million pledge in American Rescue Plan Act and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funds for homeless services — the largest such investment in Baltimore’s history, according to the city.
That commitment has hit the streets slowly, though. As of the end of November, Baltimore had spent just over $4 million, or less than 6% of its American Rescue Plan Act investment in homeless services, according to a report the pandemic aid office submitted to City Council last month. Other programs funded with the one-time federal windfall, aimed at connecting unhoused residents with housing, were expected to launch in November, according to Simmons’ presentation to council members at the start of that month. The city has until the end of 2026 to use its American Rescue Plan Act funding.
At a budget briefing for City Council members last month, Scott administration officials responded to questions about the status of the hotel acquisitions.
“There is an incredibly high level of urgency,” Budget Director Laura Larsen told the council. The Office of Homeless Services has received appraisals on numerous properties it is considering for purchase, Larsen said, and the hold-up now is in bridging the financing gap between those estimates and the cost the current owners are seeking. Larsen noted that she and other city officials are meeting weekly or more to get the deal done.
Nina Themelis, interim director for the Mayor’s Office of Government Relations, added that the hotel acquisitions remains a top priority for the Scott administration and said disclosing more detail about the plans right now could compromise the city’s negotiations.
For some advocates and members of the city’s homeless community, the delays remain a source of persistent frustration.
At a December vigil honoring people known to have experienced homelessness last year who died in 2023, attendees took turns reading aloud the names of the dead. The evening event turned out a crowd of a few dozen at McKeldin Square plaza, many of them huddled under portable heat lamps for warmth and some wiping away tears as they paid respects for each of the 127 known departed.
“Again, it don’t have to be like this,” said Mark Council, who serves on the board of directors and consumer relations committee for the city-based Health Care for the Homeless, during opening remarks at the vigil.
Council, who currently is experiencing homelessness, said the annual event shouldn’t have to happen. There should be more housing for those in need, he said. No one should have to beg on the streets or sleep in the cold. And no one should have to die because they lacked what Council referred to as a human right for survival.
“We have the richest state and one of the richest countries out here,” Council said. “This is something they can do.”
Kevin Lindamood, president and CEO of Health Care for the Homeless, gave remarks about his friend, Anthony Williams, a longtime housing advocate in Baltimore and New York City who died in May of last year.
During the pandemic, while Bernard C. “Jack” Young was mayor, Williams lobbied for the use of hotels instead of traditional shelter space to slow the spread of the virus. In a Baltimore Banner guest commentary piece, he challenged the city to “quickly” divert people experiencing homelessness to temporary and permanent places. And he wrote that his work would continue “until everyone is housed.”
One friend of Williams, Tony Simmons, expressed outrage at the cold December vigil over Williams’ death, saying he was more than just a name on a string.
“We have to do something,” Simmons said. “And his life was not rare, it was not brief.”