Irene Agustin, the head of Baltimore’s homeless services agency that has become ensnared this year in multiple crises stemming at least partially from the department’s own missteps, is departing city government, according to an email reviewed by The Baltimore Banner.
The email to Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services staff Thursday said that Agustin submitted her resignation.
“We are appreciative of all that Irene has contributed to the City of Baltimore in service of those experiencing some form of housing insecurities,” chief of staff Roland R. Selby Jr. wrote. “Irene has contributed in a variety of ways in the service of our constituents.”
Mayor Brandon Scott’s communication office announced Thursday afternoon that Agustin submitted her resignation Wednesday, and named Ernestina Simmons as her replacement.
The social worker has worked in the welfare sector in Baltimore County and Baltimore City, and has spent the last 10 years in leadership roles in city nonprofits. She most recently worked as the chief programs officer for Family and Children’s Services of Central Maryland, according to her LinkedIn page. She will begin on Oct. 16, according to the Scott administration.
“I know first-hand the opportunity each organization has to create meaningful impact in their community by ensuring we are increasing accessibility and designing programs that are responsive to community needs,” she said in a statement.
Agustin’s resignation marks the latest in a series of high-profile departures from city government since the start of Scott’s tenure. Already, the deputy mayor for economic development; the police commissioner; the fire chief; the head of the Department of Public Works; the city administrator; two chiefs of staff to the mayor; and multiple mayoral spokespeople have resigned or were encouraged to step down.
Agustin did not immediately respond to a request for comment, nor did representatives from the mayor’s office or the Department of Human Resources.
Appointed by Mayor Brandon Scott for the position in 2021 following career stops in St. Louis and San Francisco, Agustin assumed the leadership post as the agency faced questions about its operations. In an audit for fiscal years 2019 and 2020, the city comptroller’s office found that the department took longer than recommended to rehouse clients; failed to validate client-submitted information; and did not adhere to some security protocols.
Upon entering the role, Agustin almost immediately faced a crisis when a long-relied-upon nonprofit partner, AIDS Interfaith Residential Services, Inc., stopped paying rent and utility bills for several tenants who relied on it to do so. More than two dozen tenants faced eviction, according to the city, which went on to terminate its contracts with the organization. The nonprofit provided housing and social services for more than 400 households.
The agency also faced criticism under Agustin for its promise to purchase and renovate at least two hotels that could be converted into shelter space for people who are homeless. To date, no such purchases have been made.
Then, earlier this year, The Banner reported that a series of clerical errors in the homelessness office caused the city to lose out on nearly $11 million in federal reimbursement from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Communications obtained in a public records request showed the city couldn’t maintain its access to HUD’s electronic system for disbursing grants, sometimes because city staff had violated HUD security rules and other times because key personnel had left for other jobs. The implications for this failure to secure the reimbursement are lasting: HUD, which funds millions of dollars worth of homelessness eradication projects in Baltimore every year, considers how well grant recipients comply with funding rules before awarding more in subsequent years.
More problems with the office bubbled to the surface earlier this summer when a group of five tenants and their households faced eviction in August due to another nonprofit organization’s failures to pay rent. All of the tenants were participating in a city program that guaranteed their rent and utility bills would be paid, but some of those living with acute disabilities and recovering from substance abuse disorder said their rent went unpaid for months.
Dayspring Programs Inc., the nonprofit, and the homeless services office have pointed fingers at one another, with the city agency claiming that the provider has a contractual responsibility to pay the bills no matter how late it is reimbursed, and the nonprofit organization contending that it does not have the capacity to float the payments for months.
At a City Council hearing probing the agency’s role in this situation and in the HUD reimbursement failure, Agustin defended the department’s performance amid a staff shortfall and other problems she inherited. Her responses didn’t satisfy some members of the council.
“This is frankly embarrassing, and I can see it in your face that it is not easy to sit through these questions,” Councilman Mark Conway said, addressing Agustin directly. “But I think it’s really, really important that we learn from this.”
The office reports to Dr. Letitia Dzirasa, the deputy mayor of equity, health and human services. She previously led the Baltimore City Health Department, which has not had a permanent commissioner since she switched roles earlier this year.
This article may be updated.