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Homelessness and Housing

Neighborhoodsby Fern Shen5:36 pmJul 2, 20240

As Baltimore’s mayor salutes hotels purchased for the homeless, residents are confined to their rooms

The lockdown was intended to protect privacy, say officials, who held a VIP ribbon-cutting to celebrate the $15.2 million purchase to create more permanent supportive housing

Above: Notice to residents circulated ahead of the mayoral event marking the purchase of two former hotels to shelter homeless persons. At left, a resident peers down from a room at the former Holiday Inn Express on Gay Street. (Fern Shen)

Celebrating the purchase of two downtown hotels to house the homeless, city officials led by Mayor Brandon Scott closed off a portion of the Fallsway yesterday and held an upbeat ribbon-cutting ceremony, summoning the media and state and federal dignitaries to attend.

“We should all stand in our resolve to help our unhoused residents,” said Shamiah Kerney, whose role as the city’s chief recovery officer was to supervise the channeling of federal Covid relief funds for the hotel purchases.

“They’re not problems, they’re people,” Kerney continued, drawing applause from the crowd outside the former Sleep Inn & Suites and the Holiday Inn Express.

But problems-to-be-hidden is exactly how some homeless people said they felt after they were instructed to stay in their rooms and not come outside over the course of the event.

“There will be no movement throughout the building on Monday July 1, 2024 between the hours of 8 a.m. to 12 p.m.,” said a notice distributed to the families and individuals living at 300 North Front Street and 221 North Gay Street.

The curt warning to “MOHS constituents,” referring to the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services, was insulting to Stephanie Lovelace.

“It was them saying, ‘We don’t want you to be in the spotlight,’” said Lovelace, who has been living in the former Sleep Inn since she was forced to leave a tent encampment at Wyman Park in March.

Lovelace was one of several residents whose faces could be seen peering through windows while the speakers below were addressing the crowd.

When she and other residents figured out what was going on, they were upset.

“This has to do with you, but we don’t want people to actually see you,” Loverlace told The Brew after the event ended. “People didn’t get it at first, but then it was like, ‘So that’s why we were locked away in our rooms?’”

The children who live in one of the buildings and ride buses to a summer camp program, she noted, were “escorted to the back” so they could board the buses behind the hotel, instead of in the front.

Mayor Scott headlined the event. Others speaking and posing for photos included Adrianne Todman, acting secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; Jake Day, secretary of the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development; and City Councilman Robert Stokes, whose 12th District includes the former hotels.

No one living inside, however, was asked to speak or included in the ceremony, which started at 10 a.m. and lasted about an hour.

Mayor Brandon Scott speaks at ribbon-cutting for two hotels the city has purchased for use by the Mayor's Office of Homeless Services. From left, Matt Garbark, Adrianne Todman, Robert Stokes Dan McCarthy, Shamiah Kerney and Faith Leach. (Fern Shen)

Mayor Brandon Scott speaks at ribbon-cutting for two hotels the city has purchased for use by the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services. From left, Matt Garbark, Adrianne Todman, Robert Stokes, Dan McCarthy, Shamiah Kerney and Faith Leach. (Fern Shen)

City: “We’re protecting privacy”

A MOHS spokeswoman said the city was acting to protect residents’ privacy by ensuring that “all clients that were leaving for the morning were able to do so before the anticipated road closures and arrival of media and invited guests.”

The agency’s intention was “to avoid any instances where clients were recorded, included in pictures, or any activity that they did not directly consent to,” said Jessica Dortch, public information officer.

“So that’s why we were locked away in our rooms?”  – Stephanie Lovelace.

Carolyn Johnson, managing attorney at the Homeless Persons Representation Project, said she started getting calls from residents soon after the event ended, asking, “Why were we locked in the building and not allowed outside?”

Johnson said the city’s restrictions on resident movements were wrong and rejected MOHS’ explanation.

“Privacy rights belong to the individual. Residents at the hotels are perfectly capable of making their own decisions on whether to attend a public event, interact with the press or be observed coming in and out of the building,” she continued.

“The city had no right to confine people in these buildings and prevent their free movement.”

A spokeswoman for Maryland Housing Secretary Day said he was not aware of the incident and had no comment.

“Since the city organized it, we weren’t involved with the planning,” Brandi deBenedictis said.

The Holiday Inn Express and the Sleep Inn, two hotels purchased by the city for use by the Mayor's Office of Homeless Services. (Fern Shen)

The Holiday Inn Express (left) and the Sleep Inn were  purchased by the city for use by the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services. (Fern Shen)

Safe Spaces Needed

Addressing the crowd at the ribbon-cutting, Scott called the acquisition of the two hotels “a significant step in Baltimore’s fight to end homelessness,” pointing to his administration’s “emphasis on taking it a step further.”

The hotels, where the city has been leasing space to house people for years, will continue to be used for emergency housing, but will eventually be converted to long-term “permanent supportive housing” with wraparound services to be provided onsite.

The Board of Estimates in February approved an agreement covering $15.2 million for the two hotels and the parking lot between them as well as $3.2 million to the current management group for nine months of maintenance and operations.

Officials said the city would draw on its allocation of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to make the purchase.

The transaction was a long time coming.

Scott announced the idea of purchasing hotels to shelter the homeless in early 2021 amid the Covid-19 pandemic. The city was already leasing hotel space to house the homeless and came to realize the need for more safe, non-congregate shelter space.

The following year, with Covid still rampant and no hotel purchase in sight, advocates pressed the mayor to make good on his promise and to take other actions to provide affordable housing to needy residents.

Advocates for the homeless approach a still-closed City Hall asking the mayor to help (2/11/22)

Within weeks, Scott made a splash announcing that $75 million of federal ARPA money would be directed toward housing and homelessness programs, including purchasing two hotels in order to add 275 beds to the city’s shelter inventory.

Two years later, the plan is now moving forward on a smaller scale – the two hotels have 130 rooms between them and the timetable for completion of promised permanent supportive housing is unclear.

Continuum of Care board chair Dan McCarthy speaks at ribbon-cutting for hotels purchased the city. At right, Shamiah Kernay and Faith Leach. (Fern Shen)

Continuum of Care Board Chair Dan McCarthy speaks at the hotel ceremony. At right is Chief Recovery Officer Shamiah Kerney and City Administrative Officer Faith Leach. (Fern Shen)

Seeking Developers

Despite the protracted process to get there, the ribbon-cutting event elicited praise from some online.

“Thank you for your leadership @MayorBMScott and for your clear commitment to #housing as the solution to #homelessness,” Health Care for the Homeless President and CEO Kevin Lindamood tweeted on X.

But advocates have many questions about how the plan will be implemented:

They have questioned where the funding will come from to subsidize permanent supportive housing, how it will be managed, and whether a location like the Fallsway – next to I-83 and in close proximity to the Weinberg Shelter, Our Daily Bread Soup Kitchen, Health Care for the Homeless and City Jail – is an appropriate place to house individuals and families on a permanent basis.

Also unclear is how the Scott administration plans to make up the emergency shelter space lost when the hotels are converted to permanent housing.

Mark Council, of Housing Our Neighbors, said the hotel purchase was “long overdue” but welcomed it as “at least a start.”

He worried, however, about whether the city might be decreasing the net number of emergency shelter beds by phasing out other facilities like the Fairfield Inn on President Street.

“Are we going to be decreasing the number of beds compared to what we’ve had and what we need?” he said, citing the continuing threat of Covidand the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision out of Grants Pass, Oregon “making sleeping outside illegal.”

“All these factors are in play, so they need to continue to look for more ways to accommodate people,” he said.

“MOHS will continue to seek permanent shelter locations and will include congregate and non-congregate shelter settings,” Dortch told The Brew. “The city’s goal is to have to have 800 emergency shelter beds for clients experiencing homelessness.”

Asked if the buildings will ultimately be turned over to a developer, Dortch said, “Yes, that is the plan.”

She said the agency plans to issue an RFP to solicit proposals from developers and community-based providers.

“Person-centered approach”

Also according to MOHS:

• The Sleep Inn & Suites had been used for cold weather shelter, but is now used to house families, couples, former encampment residents, and, most recently, individuals and families who have become displaced due to house fires.

• The Holiday Inn Express has been used primarily to house male clients and provide them with individualized case management, mental health services, housing navigation, employment assistance and additional services.

• Since April 1, the two hotels have served 378 individuals, including 136 adults over the age of 50 and 40 children up to age 17.

Ernestina Simmons, noting yesterday that she became MOHS director nine months ago, delivered an upbeat message on permanent supportive housing, which she stressed is a very different approach to homeless care.

“What I want people to understand is that our most vulnerable clients deserve an opportunity that they can be housed. They can be cared for. They can receive the support that they need,” she said.

“It’s a person-centered approach.”

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