Ever wonder how the conversation would go if you sat down face-to-face with smart people on either side of the recent controversy over how to deal with homelessness in Baltimore?
The Midday with Dan Rodricks show did that yesterday, bringing together Kate Briddell (director of the Homeless Services Program under the Mayor’s Office of Human Services) and Jeff Singer (former president and CEO of Healthcare for the Homeless and a member of the adjunct faculty of the University of Maryland School of Social Work.)
The telling data and at-times heated dialogue were revealing. Here are some highlights from the hour-long show on WYPR 88.1FM.
Briddell, on the Camp 83 Saga:
The encampment, she said, came to their attention “from a lot of different complaints from the sheriff’s deputies who park in the lot behind them, from the State Highway Administration employees that walked past there to go to some of the local eateries, and then the local eatery owners made complaints.”
“And a lot of it was about the conditions that they saw down there. . . Dogs that weren’t on leashes, propane tanks that were rolling around, people having grills in their tents, things that were very unsafe. And so when this came to our attention – the city’s attention globally not my office specifically – we made sure that we were looking at the encampment to see whether or not there was a health and safety issue and there was.”
Briddell, On What Outreach Workers Were Offering:
“Access to different services. . . It takes a very long time to establish relationship sometimes. Some were not interested. . . Access to housing or medical attention or being able to apply for the primary adult care program through Health Care Access Maryland. . . The SOAR program that helps people access Social Security benefits quickly.”
Singer, On What the Outreach Workers Couldn’t Offer:
“I believe the city has completely the wrong approach. . . Let me give you some numbers. There were 2,372 people in January 25, 2011 competing for 937 emergency shelter beds. There’s clearly a gap. . . consequently people need someplace to go.”
“There are some people who feel safer in a group of other people, in a community. And that was the case with Camp 83. These were people who felt safer being there than if they had been scattered [individually in doorways and under bridges]. And while the city was kind enough to offer them some alternative places to go, given those numbers someone else wouldn’t have had a place to go. Now it doesn’t make sense to us that people who feel safe in a community – and who have outreach workers and caseworkers who helping them find permanent housing – would suddenly be dispersed.”
Singer, on the City’s Citing Health and Safety as Reason for Move:
“Homelessness is harmful to one’s health – always – but it’s no more harmful to your health if you’re in a community where there are people to look after you than it is if you’re sleeping by yourself in a doorway or an alley or an abandoned house.”
“The issue wasn’t specifically that it was an encampment, but it was because the health and safety issues at this encampment became so . . .pervasive?”
“Yes. Apparent. And so it was dangerous at that particular encampment. There are a number of places that you know of that our outreach workers know of where people are living in encampments and they have not become unsafe.”
Briddell, on Mismatch between Emergency Beds and Need:
“It’s terrible. And everybody agrees with that. An emergency shelter is a response to homelessness, but it’s not an answer to homelessness and as we know the answer to homelessness is housing. And we have been in the worst economic recession since the great depression and it has been very difficult for us to work with the interventions that we have planned on when the 10 year plan had been released in 2008, which was to move people quickly from streets to housing with the Housing First model, which is actually what we were working on with the people that were staying at 83 – that still is the plan.”
Briddell on Cutback in HUD Housing Vouchers:
“Since 2010 I believe the Housing Authority wasn’t able to issue any additional set aside vouchers. 500 of those vouchers that you read about in the 10 Year plan were to come from the Housing Authority of Baltimore City. . . It’s a tenant-based rental assistance program. . . We had leased up to 375 vouchers but it got to the point where they were not able to issue us any more.
“The way we actually issue those is using a Vulnerability Index. This is a tool that the 100,000 Homes Campaign, of which we have been a part for a few years, has people fill out this survey to determine their vulnerability of dying on the street and the people with the highest scores get pushed to the front of the line.”
Singer, on the Voucher Program:
It’s fine, he said, noting that when he was at Health Care for the Homeless, “we had 200 people that we found on the street and we found permanent supportive housing for 85% of them. So this ends homelessness.” But the problem, he said, is “the scale that we’re talking about is completely inadequate.”
Not Just Lack of Housing, But Inability of People to Pay for Housing:
Singer noted that “54,419 people in the city of Baltimore don’t have enough income to pay their rent ever month according to the Baltimore City Department of Housing and Community Development.”
“This is fundamentally why homelessness persists. It’s wonderful that we have good services in the city but the services without affordable housing don’t end homelessness. There’s an income problem. . . a serious problem in Baltimore city when 22.6% of all city residents have incomes under the federal poverty level and 37% of all the kids in Baltimore live in houses with incomes below the poverty level.”
Singer, on City Demolishing Public Housing:
“We have destroyed approximately 7,000 units of public housing out of the 16,000 units in the past 15 years. We blew it up. Some of the people who lived there received Section 8 certificates so they could find housing on the private market. . . But any landlord can turn down a person w a sect 8 certificate. . . Gentrification works well for us middle class people, but it doesn’t work very well for poor folks.”
Briddell, on Tightened-up Federal Rules:
HUD, where they get most of their funding, used to have a simple definition of when a person is counted as homeless, she said, but now “it’s a 62-page definition.” On public housing, she said, it “used to be that if you destroyed one unit of public housing you had to create another and under a specific HUD administrator they changed that.”
“Very true but. . . that happened under Bill Clinton, a Democratic president, and any city could chose to replace those units. Baltimore is not one of those cities that did.”
With Camp 83, Did it Come Down to the Vulnerability Index Survey?
Briddell: “There were a number of them, until the deadline was set for the dismantling, who refused to take the vulnerability index survey so they could be prioritized for permanent supportive housing.”
Singer: “People shouldn’t have to take the Vulnerability Index to be able to access affordable housing. This is the wealthiest nation in the history of the world and yet we have at least a million people every night who are sleeping under bridges? It’s irrelevant whether they score something or anything on the Vulnerability Index to their right to a decent place to sleep.”
Singer’s Last Number
He called “The Journey Home” (the 10-year plan to end homelessness in Baltimore) “terrific,” but “there’s never been the resources to fund it.”
“Let me give you another number. $4,536,000. That’s approximately how much property taxes Exelon will not have to pay because of their deal with the city [on their new headquarters at Harbor Point].
“That’s more money in a year than than the city provides for homeless services out of its general revenue fund.”