Twenty months after Mayor Brandon Scott first announced the city’s intent to buy two hotels to provide permanent and temporary housing for people experiencing homelessness, city officials say they have yet to close the deal.
That means with temperatures dropping precipitously and shelters already strained, Baltimore is heading into another winter without the raft of new resources the city has promised for the expansion of emergency housing.
City officials in the mayor’s and homeless services offices contend that such transactions are complex, slow-moving and made tougher with inflation and a fluctuating economy. They say they are making progress in the acquisitions, but did not answer questions about the project’s timeline.
“You have people out here freezing to death, and it’s not right,” said Mark Council, a board member for the city-based Health Care for the Homeless.
The city’s pledge totals over $90 million in combined American Rescue Plan Act funds and aid from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the largest investment in homeless services in Baltimore history, according to the city.
The acquisition of two hotels to be used as shelters represent a flagship piece of the homeless services strategy. They’re increasingly needed as the number of shelter beds available to serve people who are unhoused has dropped, according to city data.
The push to expand the city’s emergency shelter capacity came after city officials put to work motels and hotels — including the historic Lord Baltimore, which city health officials demobilized this past June — early in the COVID-19 pandemic as housing options with lower risk of viral transmission than the city’s existing congregate shelters. States and localities across the country also adopted the approach.
Historically, the city has relied on crowded sites such as school buildings to provide shelter services. But when the pandemic hit and disrupted travel, the switch to hotels helped those in the local hospitality industry stay afloat and allowed people experiencing homelessness to isolate.
The city’s use of hotels during the initial months of the public health crisis is believed to have slowed transmission and led to better health outcomes compared to other jurisdictions with similar population makeups, according to a Johns Hopkins epidemiological study published in 2021.
Now the city is turning to federal funds to maintain the program longer-term. With millions in federal dollars on the way, Scott in April 2021 called reducing homelessness the administration’s “top priority.” His administration began searching for hotels and motels suitable for housing.
But with the arrival of a second winter since the mayor laid out those ambitions, officials have yet to even finalize a budget for the hotel purchase, they told The Banner in an email.
Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services spokeswoman Kyana Underwood said the city in October contracted with the consulting firm LeSar Development Consultants to help oversee the HUD funds. Then, earlier this month, it approved a more than $100,000 payment to LeSar for help with the city’s efforts “to replace its former Hotel options for Non-congregate Shelters,” according to city spending board records.
Underwood declined to say if the acquisition had fallen behind schedule, and did not answer a question about the original timeline. Instead, she said the city is aiming to have the hotels in place before the end of 2024, the deadline for the city to have all its American Rescue Plan Act funds committed.
Asked Wednesday about the progress of the city’s plans to spend American Rescue Plan funds on housing for homeless residents, Scott declined to share updates on the hotel acquisitions. The mayor stressed the importance of spending the money “quickly but appropriately.”
Baltimore has had its trouble managing federal dollars in the past, he pointed out. “What we don’t want to have happen is what happened before,” where, “in the rush to do something, we do it the wrong way, and then the city’s taxpayers are on the bill for that,” he said.
But some in Baltimore’s homeless community expressed less patience. At a vigil Wednesday night for unhoused people who died in 2022, Council expressed frustration at the onset of another winter without the promised resources. He also works with the advocacy group Housing Our Neighbors and is currently experiencing homelessness himself.
“I don’t know how many more names they need to put on here for them to say, ‘Okay, time for us to open up a hotel,’” said Council, standing next to a makeshift memorial to 118 people who died while homeless in Baltimore this year, their names written on bell-shaped paper cutouts hanging from a canopy tent.
The criticism is not new. In a letter sent in February, prior to the $90 million funding announcement, Housing Our Neighbors appealed to the mayor to move faster to spend the infusion of federal money on needed homeless services. “The longer funding is delayed, the greater the costs for those experiencing and on the verge of experiencing homelessness and for our city at large,” it reads.
Scott’s administration has set aside more than $42 million of the federal allocation for homelessness to purchase additional shelter space, including the hotels, according to information provided by the mayor’s office. Those funds have not yet received clearance from the Board of Estimates, Baltimore’s spending board, and the mayor’s office did not specify how much of the total federal allotment for homeless services the city has already spent.
Colder days and fewer beds
Just hours after Wednesday night’s vigil, a man believed to be homeless was found burned to death in Mount Vernon, according to Baltimore police, who found him covered in blankets. Later Thursday, Baltimore officials issued a Code Blue alert, an extreme cold declaration, beginning Friday morning through Monday morning. Over the course of 19 Code Blue days last season, 19 city residents died, according to the Baltimore City Health Department and the state Medical Examiner’s Office.
The city opens overflow shelters in such weather conditions. But Kevin Lindamood, president of Health Care for the Homeless,, said the need for additional shelter space is acute year-round.
“Shelters are operating at and beyond capacity,” said Lindamood. “There’s far more people in need of emergency shelter than there are resources to meet that need.”
Underwood said the volume of non-congregate care space — or, space fit for isolating — increased in 2020, in response to the pandemic. But since then, the number of beds available at city-funded shelters fell from 660 in December 2020 to 568 beds today, a drop of more than 13%. The figures do not include other shelters that operate independently.
At the same time, city officials have rehoused some 2,200 people since December 2020, Underwood added, and another ARPA-backed project aims to rehouse another 155 households that will open more shelter space for other clients. The city has three temporary hotel sites currently in use and will maintain them until the hotel purchases are finalized.
Other parts of the ARPA housing strategy include money for landlord recruitment, housing navigation and housing accelerator programs, which incentivize quicker building. All are components of a robust anti-homelessness strategy, Underwood said, which emphasizes both permanent and emergency housing.
Other counties have already put federal funds to use. In March, Anne Arundel County’s housing commission used a portion of its federal COVID-19 relief funds to purchase a 16-unit apartment building that currently is 100% occupied, according to Clifton Martin, CEO of the county’s housing commission.
In Baltimore County, which lacks county-run shelters of its own, there are no plans to purchase hotels and motels, officials said. Instead, they have made funding available for temporary use of hotels in emergency situations.
Baltimore City’s plans are more ambitious than its neighbors’, but the city also received by far the most COVID-19 aid of any local jurisdiction in the state. City officials said they hope to acquire and manage multiple hotels for sheltering, with a goal of providing around 278 total beds. The city plans to onboard a care management entity to run and operate the hotels.
Other states have similarly used state, local and federal funding to purchase hotels and motels.
California’s Project HomeKey, uses a combination of federal COVID-19 aid and state general funds to award and incentivize development of hotels and other residential commercial buildings as shelters. In Oregon, the state legislature has approved millions for Project Turnkey since 2020, a similar effort that also supports victims of wildfires around the state. Health Through Housing in King County, Washington, relies on a portion of sales tax revenues for the purchase of hotels and motels. And in Delaware, COVID-19 funding enabled New Castle County officials to purchase a hotel building at auction in 2020.
Eileen Cotton, who was formerly homeless and now serves on the Lived Experience Advisory Committee, convened by the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services, expressed frustration at the slow rollout of hotel beds. The city, she said, will come up with plans but “they don’t follow through with it, so it’s just a wait and see,” said Cotton.
And while some advocates and people experiencing homelessness are frustrated by the slow timeline, still others are skeptical of the plan itself, or the city’s ability to maintain the program once the hotels have been purchased.
“We don’t want it to be run like a shelter,” said Jeff Garrett, an advocate with Housing Our Neighbors, who is currently homeless. Without adequate support services or longer-term housing options, he said, some people end up staying in shelters for years. “I’m worried about the city re-warehousing these people instead of encouraging them to move forward,” he said.
Jerry Morris, who was formerly homeless and now works as a peer advocate at Project Plase, a local nonprofit, said that while expanding emergency housing options is necessary, that money could be better spent on longer-term solutions.
“That night that they get somebody out of the street could save that person’s life,” said Morris. But at the same time, he said, “If you’re going to spend money, what you should spend money on is permanent [housing], because homelessness is for real, it’s not a temporary thing. You could be in a hotel for so long but it’s a Band-Aid.”