Homelessness in the time of Covid-19 is costly, complicated and cruel.
Baltimore has recognized that congregate settings are inherently unsafe by limiting indoor gatherings to no more than 10 people. And because of the particular vulnerability of the participants, the city has closed senior centers.
Certainly, people experiencing homelessness are similarly vulnerable and congregate facilities ought to be – and remain – closed.
Since last spring, the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services has placed 500 homeless folks in motels and hotels, using CARES Act and FEMA funds. Currently, it appears the city has sufficient funds to put people up safely through at least the end of March.
Homeless Services’ budget plan, “Putting Housing First,” states that the city “must provide affordable, permanent housing solutions for individuals living in congregate shelters, hotels and on the street.”
As homeless services providers with more than a century of experience in the public and private sectors, we strongly concur with the focus on permanent solutions.
Yet when we read that the city is spending $15 million for rooms in six hotels at a cost of $96 a night, renovating now-closed shelters and converting two public recreation centers for winter emergency shelter, this appears to be penny wise and pound foolish.
Owning, not Renting
Congregate shelters cannot be made safe, especially for a population already vulnerable as a result of pre-existing conditions. The prevalence of disabling conditions such as hepatitis, diabetes and tuberculosis among homeless folks is four to 10 times as high as in the general population.
Fortunately, a permanent solution is available, if only we have the will and wisdom to implement it. Rather than paying motel owners millions of taxpayer dollars, consider the approach initiated in several progressive jurisdictions, such as Hennepin County, Minnesota, and Lake Champlain, Vermont.
They are using public funds to transform hotels and motels into permanent affordable and democratically operated housing.
Hennepin County has purchased the motel where it had been sheltering individuals experiencing homelessness. County leaders concluded that owning, rather than leasing, the space would both save money and provide enhanced control over the space.
“We can house people similarly in these properties, but with an eye toward transitioning these buildings to be permanent housing” – Marion Greene, Hennepin County board chair.
“We are currently renting hotels, which is pretty expensive,” County Board Chair Marion Greene told the Minnesota Reformer when the plan was announced.
“We can house people similarly in these properties, but with an eye toward transitioning these buildings to be permanent housing and then we also end up with an asset,” Greene said.
• Hotel stays help dozens experiencing homelessness find more permanent homes (Minnesota Public Radio 10/22/20)
In Champlain, a multi-agency effort is rehabilitating 15 sites to create 253 small apartments, all of them permanent affordable housing for people experiencing homelessness.
A project of the Champlain Housing Trust, it is using funds from the CARES Act – along with money from the State Housing Authority and Housing and Conservation Board – to establish a community land trust, in which the residents and community members participate in determining the direction, shape, and fate of these properties.
Model for Baltimore?
Baltimore is especially well-positioned to use federal emergency funds to reduce the its long-term homeless costs. The motels and hotels that currently are being used for shelter could be purchased and transformed into community land trusts.
Configured into one- and two-bedroom apartments, the buildings could become permanent housing for the new tenants.
They would be less expensive to operate, and community control would assure that profitability would no longer be part of the equation. They would belong to the people of Baltimore in perpetuity and would be operated by a nonprofit community board. One property the city already owns, the money-losing Hilton Hotel, could conceivably be similarly reconfigured.
These pandemic times are challenging for all of us, but in this instance may bring about a healthy transformation.
Baltimore could move away from providing costly homeless services and instead develop cost-effective homes for engaged citizens participating in the future of their own lives.
• Lauren Siegel, Jeff Singer and Adam Schneider, longtime housing advocates and homeless service providers, teach at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. Singer is the former president and CEO of Health Care for the Homeless.