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A look inside one of Baltimore’s pandemic hotel shelters

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The Fairfield Inn by the Shot Tower is currently serving as Pinderhughes Women's Shelter. Credit: Sarah Y. Kim/WYPR

What was once the Fairfield Inn by Marriott, right in front of the Baltimore Shot Tower, is now the Pinderhughes Women’s Shelter.

It’s one of five hotels in Baltimore City that have served as non-congregate shelters during COVID-19. The hotels, unlike conventional congregate shelters, allow people to stay physically distant. Each resident gets their own room and bathroom.

Stacy Walton is the director of the Pinderhughes Shelter. She says no two days are the same, but her regular duties include making sure all 145 rooms are clean, connecting residents with health resources, and tasting the food the residents will be eating.

“I make sure that they don't eat anything that we wouldn’t eat,” she says. “So we take pride in that and making sure that they have warm meals.”

In the lobby, residents are picking up lunches of turkey sandwiches and chips. Breakfast was sausage and boiled eggs. Walton says she gets feedback from the residents too, and tries to keep track of what they like to eat.

Walton says residents usually take their food up to their rooms. They try to maintain certain pandemic guidelines, like having a four-person limit in the elevator.

That means a bit of waiting in front of the elevator. Walton is a familiar face to the residents, and they chat with her as they wait and pass by. One of them has some good news: “I’m leaving soon.”

“I know, I heard,” Walton says.

Walton says she tries to create a sense of community for the residents.

“Just because you’re homeless doesn’t mean you can’t be able to enjoy,” she says. “Our number one priority is safety but we try to make them feel whole while they’re here.”

Every week they have town halls in the lobby where staff can address questions or concerns about the shelter. But they also do lighter social events.

“Bingo, karaoke, we do movie nights, we do football Sundays,” Walton says. “For holidays, we try to have big meals.”

They also celebrate birthdays each month – there’s cake, and they vote on a resident and staff member of the month, who win gift cards and certificates.

They also have what Walton calls a ‘wall of fame’ - photos of former residents who were able to get rehoused pasted on the windows.

This isn’t the conventional model of shelter. Before COVID, the city relied on congregate shelters, where people share bathrooms and sleep side by side.

Irene Agustin, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services, says congregate shelters aren’t going away.

“But when it comes from…having to deal with a public health crisis, congregate is not the safest way to do it,” Agustin said.

Angela McCauley is the emergency services coordinator at the office of homeless services.

McCauley says there was an increase in shelter referrals when COVID first hit Maryland, and that’s probably not a coincidence. She says that there are more families seeking shelter too, as opposed to just individuals, and more women.

“The impact of people being unable to work and have, you know, secure employment or you know, some form of income… they're unable to keep a roof over the top of their head,” she said.

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott announced last month that the city is purchasing two hotels to use post-COVID, using about $45 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding.

The five hotels currently operating were supported through FEMA money, set to expire in April. Agustin says the hotels will be closed in a “phased process.”

“We don't want to return people to the street in a very jarring manner,” she said. “We have to be very thoughtful in terms of being able to focus on rehousing.”

About 2200 people were experiencing homelessness as of January 2020, according to the city’s latest point-in-time count. Agustin says she believes that since then, the number has gone up.

The great challenge lying ahead for her office is moving more city residents out of the cycle of homeless shelters and into permanent housing. Agustin believes that it is possible to end homelessness in Baltimore, though it will be a “process.”

“We can do it, there are communities doing it, getting to functional zero,” she said. “Baltimore can be that community too.”