With Baltimore awash in an estimated 16,000 vacant houses, including many that are city-owned, why not use some of them to shelter some of our 4,000 citizens who are sleeping on the street or in shelters?
It’s a natural question, and one that’s being asked a lot lately with the city leveling a homeless encampment under I-83 and a fatal stabbing reported Sunday morning at the Weinberg emergency shelter.
Whether sleeping on peoples’ couches, in doorways or under overpasses, Baltimore’s homeless population has been rising in recent years, raising questions about whether the city’s “10-Year Journey Home” strategy is having any effect at all.
Emergency shelter space is scarce and, according to many homeless people who have used it, chaotic and dangerous. Amid Baltimore’s poverty, dearth of good jobs and other urban ills, the need for a solution that is affordable, safer and less short-term is becoming apparent.
So could that solution be hiding in plain sight in the form of Baltimore’s boarded-up houses? Or is this a facile and unworkable pipe dream? The answer seems to be is somewhere in between.
Across the Street from Whole Foods?
Cities from New York to Paris have been seriously considering it. Should Baltimore consider doing so as well, here’s a quick-reading list to get the conversation going:
• Why Can’t We Just Convert Vacant Buildings into Housing for the Homeless? (Atlantic Cities). The piece mentions a couple of models for converting vacant housing into space for the homeless but also talks about their limitations.
Under the Title V program (part of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act), for instance, the federal government requires that empty or “underused” properties that it owns be made available to homelessness advocacy organizations. There’s also the 1994 Base Closure Act, which converts closed bases into homeless housing (run by a local redevelopment authority).
• Homeless Fix Can Be Found in Vacant Buildings, Lots: Report (WNYC). Discusses the reaction to a 2012 report by the New York-based group, Picture the Homeless (“Banking on Vacancy“) that says tens of thousands of apartments that are vacant could be re-purposed to solve the long standing city’s homeless problem:
“The same neighborhoods that send high numbers of families into the homeless shelter system have the highest density of vacant property – in most of them, there is enough vacant space to house ten times as many people as are currently housed in shelters in that district. Citywide, vacant property could house the entire shelter population five times over.”
• Still Housing the Needy in a Changed Manhattan (The New York Times). Baltimore has “supportive housing,” an interim step between emergency shelter and market housing. Here’s a story describing how the concept has worked out surprisingly well in upscale parts of New York:
“About 25 years ago, when many of Manhattan’s grand older buildings were derelict and decrepit, the city started selling abandoned buildings and troubled single-room-occupancy hotels to social service agencies for use as long-term ‘supportive housing’ for chronically homeless New Yorkers. At the time, the buildings were haggard, having surrendered long before to drug dealers and decay, and the neighborhoods where they stood were often sketchy.”
Today, these facilities are still operating, but “in a different universe,” the article continues, describing how affordable units for low-income people with HIV/AIDS and mental illness are next to high-priced condos, a Whole Foods and fancy restaurants.
• Could France’s empty office buildings ease its homeless crisis? (Christian Science Monitor). The piece describes how 60 people have moved into an unoccupied four-story office building in the 10th arrondissement and how these “occupations” have gotten attention in a city with an estimated 190,000 homeless.
“The government has identified 120 vacant buildings in and around Paris, and is conducting “technical visits” to assess whether the properties are inhabitable,” the article reports.
“Though owners will be offered compensation, it doesn’t bode well for absentee landlords who wish to wait for property values to soar even higher before they sell to the highest bidder.”