As temperatures fall, fewer city beds for the homeless

The clean, bright hallways of Baltimore's new homeless shelter lead to laundry rooms, private showers and a cluster of computers. The building outshines in nearly every regard the temporary facility it replaced, advocates say. But the $8 million shelter does not measure up to its predecessor in one respect: It has 100 fewer emergency beds.

As temperatures fall, Baltimore officials are scrambling to come up with a plan for sheltering the city's growing homeless population on the coldest nights. They have yet to finalize arrangements for those who will not be able to fit in the new shelter, which opened its doors last summer following years of planning and construction.

"It's going to be a big public health crisis," said Carolyn Johnson, managing attorney for the Homeless Persons Representation Project. "You're going to have people sleeping outside in very cold weather. People die sleeping in weather like that."

The shelter was planned with the expectation that the city would get more federally subsidized housing for the poor, which has not materialized. At the same time, the recession has caused more people in Baltimore to lose their homes.

The new shelter, a renovated former city garage in the 600 block of Fallsway, holds 250 emergency beds. With overflow facilities, the city currently can house up to 370 people per night. Last year, the city could shelter 500.

Advocates say the city needs, at minimum, to replace the missing 130 beds before cold grips the region.

"I think we can all agree that we don't want families sleeping in bus shelters when it's 30 degrees outside," said Adam Schneider, chair of the advocacy group Stop Homelessness and Reduce Poverty.

City officials say they are working on a solution.

Kate Briddell, the city's director of homeless services, said she is working with the city fire marshal to secure permission for people to sleep in the shelter's day rooms. Officials said 60 people could sleep in the day rooms, but offered conflicting accounts as to whether those plans had been finalized.

Briddell also said she was hopeful that some nonprofit shelters would take in more people on the coldest nights.

"During Code Blue season, they do keep their doors open and let people stay," Briddell said.

Schneider said that his group plans to meet with religious leaders to see if churches could help.

"People are trying to find whatever resources might be marshalled," said Schneider.

Ironically, the city finds itself with fewer beds for the homeless in the midst of renewed efforts to craft a permanent solution to the problem.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake hosted an October benefit headlined by the singer Jewel which raised more than $300,000 for The Journey Home, the city's plan to end homelessness in 10 years. Despite four consecutive budget shortfalls, the mayor has not cut funding for homeless services.

The city allocated $5.5 million for homeless programs in the current budget — more than 20 times more than was spent on such programs a decade ago, according to the administration.

"Despite the increase in funding, we still find ourselves struggling to ensure that the availability of services can meet the demand of those in need. In the past years, as demand has increased, resources for supportive housing have decreased significantly," Rawlings-Blake wrote in a newsletter to constituents last week.

The problem, officials say, traces back to the 2008 plan to end homelessness within a decade, which relied on federal housing dollars to move people off the streets into apartments and houses — an approach advocates say is the most effective solution to homelessness. But the city did not receive hundreds of federal housing vouchers on which the plan was predicated.

The city housing authority was denied a $10 million grant it had sought to pay for Section 8 housing vouchers. With a few exceptions, the city's voucher program has been frozen since then.

Briddell said that about 378 people were placed in housing with the vouchers before funding dried up. Nearly 90 percent of them remain in that housing, she said, and receive support and case management services from the city.

Kevin Lindamood, executive director of the nonprofit Health Care for the Homeless, said the "housing first" model is the most effective way to stop homelessness.

"Housing is the solution," said Lindamood. Clients of his program who receive housing, medical care and some sort of income usually are able to remain in their new homes, he said.

Health Care for the Homeless opened a new $15.5 million building in the 400 block of Fallsway last year. Along with Our Daily Bread and the city shelter, it forms a trio of buildings sandwiched between Interstate 83 and the city jail that serve Baltimore's poorest residents.

The walls of the three-story shelter, which opened in July, are painted in soothing tones of mossy green.On a recent afternoon, a dozen men and women chatted over TV-style dinners provided by Moveable Feast in a first-floor dining room. Two "day rooms" hold metal benches, televisions, telephones and tables with built-in checker boards. Besides the emergency lodging, a separate convalescent unit has 25 beds for people recently released from a hospital.

Unlike the former city shelter, in the 200 block of Guilford Avenue, the new facility is open 24 hours a day.

"We offer shelter from the elements, but while they're here, we try to offer services to them," said Linda Trotter, program director for Jobs, Housing and Recovery, the nonprofit hired by the city to run the shelter.

One evening last week, men and women checked in, then hauled rolling suitcases, tote bags or overstuffed plastic bags to the dormitories.

In the female dormitory, women spread bags, colored blankets and a teddy bear on the 75 metal cots. One woman sat outside the showers combing her long, wet hair. A group clustered around two women who were arguing, dispersing when Trotter arrived to intervene.

The men's dormitory, which contains 175 beds, was considerably more crowded and boisterous.

Daman English, 35, said he has been staying at the shelter since September, when he was released from Central Booking. English, who had no prior criminal record in Maryland, was arrested, he said, after he pulled out a knife while arguing with his girlfriend in the apartment they shared in Edmondson Village. The charges were eventually dropped, according to court records.

Out of work, no longer with his girlfriend and with no family nearby, he now finds himself homeless for the first time in his life.

"I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would be homeless, but it's just one of those things," said English. He says he is in culinary school, and reports to the shelter each evening to sleep.

Jess Louden, 55, homeless for the past three years since being released from 21/2 years in jail, said he preferred the new shelter to the old facility. "I'd rather be here because it's better and cleaner," he said. He stood in the shelter's parking lot, as traffic on the I-83 bridge rumbled overhead, waiting with other men for a bus to the overflow shelter.

That shelter is located in the 200 block of Guilford, in the building which served as the main shelter until July. Overflow beds for women are located in several buildings around the city, officials said.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Homeless Persons Representation Project have threatened to sue because there are more beds for men than women. Women have complained that they were turned away after the beds reserved for them were filled.

Briddell said that the threat of a lawsuit has hampered her efforts to arrange for additional beds.

When asked if more people would be sleeping on the street this winter due to shelter's reduced capacity, Briddell said, "Possibly, especially if my hands continue to be tied. It's very frustrating to not be able to take decisive action."

Trotter, the shelter manager, said no women were turned away for most of the month of November, when the city added 20 overflow beds. However, shelter managers did turn away five women last week.

Trotter said turning the women away was a mistake and she suspended the six managers for a week. When the shelter is at capacity, women will be allowed to sleep in the day rooms, she said.

James Crawford Jr. who chairs the advocacy group Bmore Housing for All, said people have to line up in the early afternoon to guarantee a bed, which poses challenges for those who have jobs or afternoon appointments.

The number of homeless people in the city has increased, according to formal counts. A January census by Morgan State University students and faculty found about 4,100 people living on the street. Two years earlier, researchers counted about 3,400.

Briddell said the most recent count was more thorough and did not necessarily reflect a dramatic increase in homelessness. Lindamood and Schneider say they have seen more homeless families as a result of the recession.

"Individuals and families who previously had no inclination whatsoever that they would experience homelessness are now coming into the system in overwhelming numbers," said Lindamood.

Those who cannot find shelter on cold nights often take drastic steps, Lindamood said.

"People tell us, 'I'll get arrested because I know if I'm arrested, I won't freeze to death,'" he said. "We know people who have deliberately wounded themselves so they can go to the emergency room overnight."

"If we're going to keep people from dying on the streets this winter… we need to bring them inside," Lindamood said.

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