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Housing Advocates Urge Scott To End Homelessness, Empty Congregate Shelters

Baltimore housing advocates gathered in front of City Hall for a rally Thursday afternoon, demanding that the city empty all congregate shelters and keep people safely housed in hotels through at least September.

Advocates have called congregate shelters “death traps.” During this pandemic, Baltimore has been using some hotels in place of congregate shelters, so that residents can more easily socially distance and have safe housing.

Mark Council, leader of the grassroots organization Housing Our Neighbors (HON), gave an opening speech.

“No one should be left homeless in Baltimore City,” Council said. “Not the city that I was born and raised in. My city.”

Many of HON’s members, including Council, have experienced homelessness.

In January, President Joe Biden signed an executive order ensuring FEMA would fully reimburse cities for keeping people in non-congregate shelters like hotels.

On Wednesday, Scott announced that the city is looking for hotels to convert into long-term shelters. The city has put out a Request For Information, or RFI, in its search for property.

HON activist Koumba Yasin urged the city to ensure that the hotels are safe to live in.

“Some of the hotels that people are in are actually death traps as well,” she said.

Yasin and other HON members visit shelters in the city every Saturday. Recently, she said she stopped by a hotel that had rooms with mold.

Activist Anthony Williams said the hotels should also have harm reduction resources, to prevent opioid overdoses.

He also urged the mayor to bring activists like himself who’ve lived in congregate shelters to the table.

“The shelters were hideous and horrendous,” Williams said. “I had to sleep on a dirty mat with a clean blanket on a floor with 150 other men.”

Halfway through the rally, a group of activists delivered to the mayor’s office more than 400 postcards signed by city residents.

Mark Council said many of them are from people experiencing homelessness.

“From our neighbors,” Council said. “The ones staying in these shelters, hotels, bridges. Places they don't really belong.”

The postcards read: “We Can End Homelessness In Baltimore Right Now,” and urge Scott to permanently empty shelters and guarantee housing for all.

City Councilwoman Odette Ramos, a Democrat representing North Baltimore, commended Scott’s initiative to purchase hotels.

“That is a good first step,” Ramos said. “But there is much more to do.”

She highlighted a bill by Councilman Ryan Dorsey that would replace the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services with an Office To End Homelessness and implement a permanent housing voucher program. The City Council passed the bill last year, but then Mayor Jack Young did not sign it into law.

In an interview with WYPR, Scott said that finding hotels to use as long-term shelters is the first step in his anti-homelessness strategy.

“Our goal is to create more permanent, non-congregate housing opportunities that serve between 100 and 130 people at any single location,” he said.

Scott said another first step in tackling homelessness would be getting a new director for his Office of Homeless Services.

“Everything else comes after that,” he said. “You have to have a leader of the agency. And we're pretty close to doing that.”

For nearly a year, the acting director of that office has been Tisha Edwards. Edwards is also Director of the Mayor’s Office of Children & Family Success.

Scott did not confirm an announcement date for when he would replace Edwards.

“I don't like to jinx myself,” he said. “I'll just say it's in the very near future.”

Mark Council praised Scott’s move to purchase hotels as a step in the right direction, but urged advocates to continue holding the mayor accountable.

“We just want to keep the pressure on,” he said. “We need to keep the pressure on.”

Sarah Y. Kim is WYPR’s health and housing reporter. Kim is WYPR's Report for America corps member, and Anthony Brandon Fellow. Kim joined WYPR as a 2020-2021 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. Now in her second year as an RFA corps member, Kim is based in Baltimore City.