The Baltimore City Council has passed a bill to create an office to end homelessness and create a permanently funded housing voucher program.
Currently, the city manages homelessness through the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services. That office is not a permanent agency of the city government.
Councilman Ryan Dorsey, who introduced the bill, said this has hurt the city’s ability to provide for those experiencing homelessness.
“The homeless population of the city deserves to have continuity of service and mission that spans from one mayoral administration to the next,” Dorsey said. “And that isn't necessarily going to be the case if homelessness is only addressed as an initiative of the mayor.”
The bill would replace the Office of Homeless Services with a new permanent agency: the Office to End Homelessness.
“It deserves to be codified into law, with continuity of mission and some clear guidelines around how we seek to end homelessness. And I think that we have to do that if we believe that homelessness is something that we can end,” he said. “And I believe that it is.”
The bill, which passed Monday night, says employees at the Office of Homeless Services would be able to transition into the new office.
Under the bill, the mayor would choose the office’s executive director, but the City Council would have to approve.
Carolyn Johnson, a lawyer for the Homeless Persons Representation Project, collaborated with Dorsey on the bill. She said this new office would be more transparent and accountable than the existing Office of Homeless Services.
“The goal is really to elevate this issue, and to help this office have more stability, be able to have more consistent leadership,” Johnson said.
She said the new office would have the capacity to do more, like creating a permanent local housing voucher program.
Johnson said the program would start out “small.”
“The idea is to have a structure in place and get a program standing up and running that will serve a number of families," she said. "It would be something that could be built on over time as more funding is identified."
This would be the only program in Baltimore to specifically help families who are able to transition out of permanent supportive housing.
Permanent supportive housing is a combination of housing supportive services to help people transition out of homelessness.
Lawanda Williams is Chief Behavioral Officer at Health Care for the Homeless. She said the bill would be an invaluable resource.
“This is a great pathway for those individuals who don't necessarily need the supportive housing piece anymore, but still need the financial support of a voucher,” Williams said.
By helping people successfully transition out of permanent supportive housing, Williams said there will be more space to house those experiencing homelessness and move them out of shelters.
She said this has become more urgent due to the pandemic. Williams also stressed the impact of homelessness on mental health.
“Homelessness is a traumatic event,” she said. “If homelessness was the only trauma that they've experienced, they're probably very lucky.”
Anthony Williams is a member of Baltimore’s Continuum of Care, a group that serves people who are homeless, and has supported the bill.
Anthony lived in a shelter while he was homeless. He said the conditions were “horrible.”
“When you find out how much money is being spent on shelters. It just doesn't match the way people are treated or the conditions that they're subjected to,” he said.
In 2015, Anthony got a Section 8 voucher. He’s been living in a one bedroom apartment ever since. Anthony said this helped him become an advocate, and said the bill would open up opportunities for others who still need a home.
“I want them to have everything that I have,” he said. “I'm very comfortable. I'm happy...I think every homeless person, that’s something that they should have.”