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Baltimore City Council gets update on homeless services

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HON marching in November 2020, demanding affordable housing and an end to homelessness. Credit: Sarah Y. Kim/WYPR

Baltimore’s new director of homeless services met with city council members at a virtual public work session Tuesday, to discuss ongoing and future efforts to keep people safely sheltered and housed.

For much of the pandemic, the city has been using hotels to shelter the homeless where people can physically distance, in addition to existing congregate shelters.

Irene Agustin, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services (MOHS), commended city officials for setting up hotels, which she said many other cities have not yet done.

“But we can do better,” Agustin said. “And that ‘better’ means to connect people to safe affordable housing options within our community.”

She said her office is looking into a “phased approach” to eventually ending the use of Baltimore’s hotel shelters. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, has been reimbursing the city for the cost of the hotels, but those payments are set to expire in April.

The cost so far to keep the hotels open has been nearly $25 million.

Agustin said her office has put in several requests for American Rescue Plan Act money, for a total of about $126 million. She hopes those funds will help house some of the people in hotels, increase permanent housing options and establish non-congregate shelter sites.

“Our goal…is to get as many people connected to housing as possible. That is the primary goal of the work that we're doing when we're looking at demobilizing the hotels,” Agustin said. “We are looking at not returning people to the street.”

She said with limited resources, the city needs to strike a “balancing act” between providing emergency services and providing stable housing.

Bill Wells, the deputy director of MOHS, said the hotels have served 1,632 people. As of January, 432 are living in the hotels which he said does represent an improvement.

According to data presented Tuesday, MOHS has helped transition people – a total of “1,501 households” – from shelters into housing throughout the pandemic, mostly through rapid rehousing and transitional housing.

Mark Council the lead organizer of Housing Our Neighbors, or HON, a local advocacy group led by people who are or were homeless, said several of HON’s members are staying at hotels, and that they’ve noticed empty rooms. He said upon calling the shelter hotline, members are told to go to a congregate shelter, where they cannot physically distance.

“The weapon that we have against this COVID out here just to stay six feet apart, wear the masks and get the shot,” Council said. “All of that works together when it is together.”

Another HON member said some people were being discharged from shelters when they didn’t have a stable housing alternative.

City Councilwoman Odette Ramos asked Wells whether he had data on whether people leaving the hotels were necessarily going to a new home.

Wells said he estimated that the majority were rehoused, but did not give a specific breakdown Tuesday, saying his office could work on providing updated numbers.