Opinion: We can end homelessness in Baltimore with more targeted support

Continuum of Care leaders mark progress, outline actions still needed

Published on: November 14, 2022 6:00 AM EST|Updated on: November 14, 2022 1:18 PM EST

Michael and Rose Young pose for a picture in front of their tent on Friday, Oct. 7, 2022. They are residents of a homeless encampment under the Jones Fall Expressway.

This year, Baltimore has rehoused 1,188 individuals and families experiencing homelessness. But the annual point-in-time census counted 1,597 Baltimoreans in need of housing on just one night in February. Every day, more neighbors, friends and family reach out for help.

But only 1,188 housing placements is not enough.

We represent Baltimore City’s Continuum of Care. This group of elected volunteers includes people with lived experience of homelessness, service providers, system leaders and citizens of Baltimore. Hundreds of CoC members work together to make homelessness in Baltimore rare, brief and non-recurring. We set the strategy for engaging and serving those experiencing homelessness, leveraging $25 million in federal CoC funding to make the greatest impact. The majority goes directly to people experiencing homelessness as rental assistance and housing.

That $25 million is not enough.

Many systemic and personal factors result in the loss of one’s home. The idea that homelessness is a personal failing, or that individuals can solve their own experience of homelessness without support, is a harmful stereotype. Homelessness has many faces. All people are deserving of dignity and respect. Encampments form out of people’s need for survival. Decades of research shows that forced encampment closure is ineffective and counterproductive. Relocating encampment residents must be based on real health and safety concerns, be done respectfully with trauma-informed engagement and include safer housing options. Our collective efforts in Baltimore are making a difference. In the 2022 point-in-time count, the number of individuals living on the street was 58% lower than in 2020.

We won’t stop until everyone is housed.

The CoC’s strategy focuses on the idea that housing is health care. Housing is safety. Housing supports economic development and thriving neighborhoods. Treating homelessness as a crime harms real people and fractures communities. Our action plan focuses on five evidence-based strategies to end homelessness through real, systemic change.

1. Increase safe, healthy and affordable housing located throughout the city. Pair housing with services to help people stay housed.

The CoC supports legislation to dismantle exclusionary housing. We are working with the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services and the Baltimore City Department of Housing and Community Development to create a Housing Accelerator Fund by leveraging $32.5 million in federal funds from the HOME Investment Partnerships Program and the American Rescue Plan Act. The use of HOME/ARPA funds on city housing — an overall investment of $90.4 million — is the single largest investment in Baltimore housing in three decades. We need developers and investors. We need to keep city rents reasonable without sacrificing safety and health.

2. Divert people from becoming homeless through a properly-resourced system that identifies and addresses a personal housing crisis quickly.

The city’s coordinated entry system efficiently and equitably distributes scarce resources. The HOME/ARPA funds established a rapid resolution fund to resolve housing crises and prevent homelessness. We need landlords willing to provide safe, affordable housing to people exiting homelessness.

3. Provide safe and trauma-informed interim housing when homelessness occurs.

We strive to not put human beings in harm’s way. Trained and compassionate staff and peer advocates are needed to help return people to their own housing quickly. We work to ensure services provide dignity to people in crisis. We must ensure specialized services for youth, people who are LGBTQ+, veterans, people experiencing domestic or sexual violence, people returning from incarceration and people experiencing mental health or behavioral health crises.

4. Increase access to employment and income able to support citizens in their housing and basic living needs.

A 2016 Abell report found 57% of Baltimore renters were paying over 30% of their income on housing; about 34% were paying more than half. The CoC is working on ways to provide access to meaningful employment. When employment is not possible, we must advocate that safety net income sources are enough to prevent homelessness.

5. Address the inequity created through redlining and disinvestment in communities of primarily Black and brown citizens.

Black families in Baltimore live in less-expensive housing but are more likely to be paying more than 30 percent of their income on housing than white families, according to the Abell report. Seventy-three percent of those experiencing homelessness in Baltimore are Black. The CoC is listening and learning from those who have experienced homelessness and building new systems that do not perpetuate the harms of the past.

Join us in this important work.

Everyone must be part of the fight to make homelessness rare, brief and non-recurring in Baltimore. There are opportunities to act, to invest and to advocate for the resources we need to win this fight.

Together we can end homelessness.

Janice Miller is the Continuum of Care Board chair

Anthony Williams is the Continuum of Care Board vice chair