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Gubernatorial candidates vow to tackle homelessness; mental health crises

Callan Tansill-Suddath
MD Gubernatorial Forum on Mental Health & Homelessness

Members of nine Gubernatorial tickets pledged to make managing mental health needs and tackling the state’s homelessness crisis top priorities as they offered insight into their plans at a forum on the topics Tuesday.

The candidates told a packed house at the Silver Spring Civic Building in Montgomery County how they believe the state should approach aiding unhoused communities during the two-hour event.

It was sponsored by the homelessness and poverty aid organization Shepherd’s Table in partnership with Interfaith Works, Progress Place Neighborhood Group, and Montgomery County Interagency Commission for Homelessness.

Asked how they’d address the lack of affordable housing, most candidates proposed first re-examining zoning laws.

Tom Perez, former Maryland and U.S. Labor Secretary said an abundance of state-owned property could be used to aid this effort.

“We…need to understand that we have a lot of leverage as a state. We have state-owned properties. We should be looking at every parcel of state-owned property to see how we can convert it for use as affordable housing,” Perez said.

Hyattsville Mayor Candace Hollingsworth, who is running to be former Attorney General Doug Gansler’s Lieutenant Governor, said housing vouchers along with relaxed zoning laws are part of their plan.

“We have to combat the issue on all sides, adjusting the fact that we don't have enough housing to begin with, that the housing that we do have is unaffordable for many, and that many people simply don't make enough to live,” Hollingsworth said.

She also called out policymakers and the public on becoming numb to the systemic failures that cause homelessness.

“Every time you see someone in a corner or we see tents popped up as a community, we have to remember that folks’ most vulnerable and private moments are on display for the world to see. Yet, it is a scream that many people are deaf to,” she said.

Monique Anderson-Walker, Comptroller Peter Franchot’s running mate, said affordable support services are just as important as housing itself.

We need to be more community-focused, and we need to have wraparound services that are built into our housing and mental health policy,” she said.

David Lasher, a Libertarian and the lone non-Democrat, suggested looking at zoning laws, as well. Using Baltimore City as an example, he urged the state to work to improve the environment for neighborhood investors. He argued that bureaucratic roadblocks prevent redevelopment.

“It is not money it is the regulations, the classic red tape, that is encountered in Baltimore City,” he said. “In itself, it is a mindset of hostility towards landlords, we need to move away from that.”

When the questioning turned to mental health, some candidates, including Jon Baron, a former Clinton administration official, got personal.

“I myself had significant social anxieties when I was in my 20s that prevented me from enjoying other people,” Baron revealed.

He and most others said they would work to expand Medicaid and Medicare to cover mental health and substance abuse treatment.

Nearly every candidate also said they would approach the opioid overdose epidemic as a public health crisis rather than something to criminalize.

Ashwani Jain’s plan takes the approach one step further.

“We talk about decriminalizing schedule drugs like cocaine, heroin, and meth, especially for personal use,” Jain said, Those who get caught with the drugs would go to “a local and fully funded rehab center” instead of jail, he said.

Michelle Siri, John King’s running mate, said they plan to make health care more accessible for residents, including those who are undocumented. They will also prioritize filling geographical gaps in coverage.

“We will work to remove … barriers to health care, including for foreign undocumented individuals,” Siri said. “We will incentivize providers to relocate to underserved areas – in particular specialists – where there's such a need, we'll make sure we update our list so that foreign-trained providers can safely and efficiently help ease the burden and a provider shortage in our state.”

Montgomery County Councilwoman Nancy Navarro, who is running with Rushern Baker, said intervention needs to begin early.

“We have to look at ways to ensure that we start at the schools,” Navarro said. “What we're seeing is the sustained stress for the pandemic is really wreaking havoc.”

Jerome Segal, a Socialist who is running as a Democrat, proposed large systemic changes.

The Maryland Gubernatorial primary is July 19.

Callan Tansill-Suddath is a State House Reporter for WYPR, where she covers the General Assembly.