The Myth of 75 Journeys Home

Posted: February 4, 2013 in Uncategorized

The following is a letter from Jeff Singer, retired CEO of Health Care for the Homeless-Baltimore, on the occasion of a very public announcement that 75 Homeless folks in Baltimore would soon benefit from coordinated services and secure housing.

homelessFebruary 3, 2013

An Open Letter to the Leadership Advisory Group Overseeing Baltimore’s Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness:

Having attended Friday’s community meeting regarding the Homelessness Point-In-Time count and the 75 Journeys Home project, I wish to explain why some individuals stood  outside and in the rear of the hall, silently holding signs with messages such as “75 Journeys Home  Is Not Enough”.  Given that our mutual goal is to make homelessness in Baltimore rare and brief, such an explication may be instructive.

The compassion and hard work of everyone involved in 75 Journeys Home was quite evident during the event.  Surely the effort to house some of our most vulnerable neighbors is laudable.  Speaker after speaker described various roles: securing resources including housing and services; organizing an event requiring the collaboration of many agencies – public and private; facilitating the participation of more than one hundred volunteers; and reaching out to some of our most vulnerable neighbors.  All who engaged in these activities are to be congratulated, and the role of the LAG is commendable.

Yet…

There is little that is new in the “75 Journeys Home” project, and no reason to believe that it is a model for ending homelessness.

What did this project actually achieve?  The event organizers made the following assertions:

For the first time, public and private agencies are collaborating to end homelessness.

Of course, this claim is inaccurate.  Nearly every agency involved in this project has worked with every other agency involved to ameliorate homelessness.  Ironically, some of these agencies have also contributed significantly to creating homelessness [more about this anon].

Outreach and a vulnerability index finally are being used to identify the people who most need help.

Agencies such as People Encouraging People [PEP], Baltimore Health Care Access, and Health Care for the Homeless [HCH] have been conducting street outreach for decades, as well as using indices to assess people’s vulnerability.  Insufficient resources may be devoted to these undertakings, but the “75 Journeys Home” project does not address this ongoing problem.

Informing people living on the street that services are available makes all the difference in ending their homelessness.

Many, many people experiencing homelessness access existing services.  In the vast majority of cases, these services do not provide a path out of homelessness.  In conducting outreach for more than thirty years in Baltimore, how often have I asked someone sleeping on the street if he or she has been to the various homeless service agencies? The most frequent answer is “Yes, but they couldn’t help me with housing or a job.”

 We have finally begun to utilize the “Housing First” model to provide housing and supportive services to truly vulnerable individuals living on the streets.

Beginning in 1983, the Baltimore City Department of Social Services implemented a “Housing First” approach to homelessness.  In 2005 Health Care for the Homeless, with the support of Baltimore City, housed the 35 most vulnerable people on the streets of Baltimore. In 2007, the City officially adopted this evidence-based practice and PEP, St. Vincent de Paul, and HCH placed in supportive housing the 200 most vulnerable people living on the streets.  These initiatives failed to end homelessness in Baltimore – not because they were ineffective (to the contrary, they were wildly successful, with 85% of those placed in housing remaining there), but because, in the words of Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano, “We’re assisting more households than we ever have.  We’re maxed out.” [The Sun, 9/28/10 – more regarding this anon.]

 Finally, more than one speaker observed that “this only the beginning – we will house 75 more, and 75 more, until homelessness is ended.” 

As noted above, it is simply incorrect to think that the 75 Journeys Home project “at last” begins the process of reducing the number of vulnerable people experiencing homelessness in Baltimore.  More importantly, it is incorrect to believe that this sort of project will substantially impact upon the problem of homelessness in Baltimore.   We all wish that this were the case, but wishing will not make it so.

First, the project did not increase the availability of supportive housing in Baltimore.  Most (if not all) of the 75 housing units to be used for this project previously had been dedicated to housing people experiencing homelessness.  Now, however, a specific set of 75 people [perhaps the number is 100; the analysis is correct in either case] will be housed and 75 or 100 other people, who may have been waiting for housing for months or years, will not be housed.   It does not appear that many – if any -“new” affordable housing units have been produced or acquired for this project.

Secondly, the 75 Journeys Home project may be characterized correctly as a mechanism to connect a small number of very vulnerable people to housing and supportive services.  It cannot be described, however, as a model for eliminating homelessness.  As the Journey Home document itself recognizes, homelessness fundamentally is caused by the imbalance between incomes and housing costs (as noted by several speakers at the 75 Journeys Home event), and secondarily by lack of access to health-related services.  Consequently, it can only be ended by increasing incomes and producing a sufficient supply of affordable housing, as well as by enhancing access to health-related services.  The 2014 expansion of Medicaid to many impoverished adults in Maryland will help to some extent, but a vast array of services (including outreach, case management, dental & vision care) and a significant number of people will remain inadequately covered.  Yet there is even less cause for optimism with respect to the incomes and housing aspects.

Thus, the sine qua non for making homelessness rare and brief, not mentioned by any speakers at the event, is developing a set of public policies that address poverty and the dearth of affordable housing.  These policies include living wages, adequate disability assistance, and a dramatic increase in the availability of subsidized housing.  For example, the mean hourly wage of the 325,797 renter households in Baltimore is $15.52, only 65.6% of the $23.67/hour necessary to afford market rate housing in Baltimore.  It is not surprising, then, that 69,698 warrants of restitution were awarded in Baltimore’s Rent Court in 2012, a fine proxy for the risk of homelessness.  The market rate for a one-bedroom apartment, $1,000 per month, requires a minimum wage of $17.31 per hour unless the rent is subsidized.  Recipients of Federal and State disability assistance, having incomes well below the Federal poverty guidelines, are completely priced out of the housing market.

If we are serious about ending homelessness, our focus must be on the policies that create it far faster than projects such as 75 Journeys Home can solve it.  In addition to admirable efforts oriented toward individuals, toward increasing collaborations, and toward improved outreach, we are required to engage in public policy advocacy at every level – and to be effective, such advocacy ought to include the participation of people experiencing homelessness, who were notably absent as speakers at today’s event.

A few such policies in need of sustained advocacy could include:

– Opposing the further criminalization of homelessness and poverty, such as City Council bill 13-0186, introduced just this week – and not even mentioned at Friday’s event.

– Dedicating all Vacants-to-Values units to housing for families and individuals with extremely low or no incomes.

– Ending the practice of granting waivers to the Inclusionary Housing law (such as occurred in the case of the Lexington Square development).  Montgomery County has produced more than 10,000 units of affordable housing through its inclusionary zoning law; apparently, Baltimore has produced fewer than one dozen units (although no public accounting appears to exist).

– Withholding tax subsidies from developments that do not increase the supply of jobs with living wages or the supply of housing affordable to our impoverished neighbors [e.g. oppose new City Council legislation (13-0176) that limits certain tax subsidies to market rate housing only].

– Prohibiting the continuing destruction of public housing; during the past fifteen years, HABC has demolished 40% of Baltimore’s public housing, a policy that impacts directly upon the availability of affordable housing.  This is not solely a Baltimore City problem: since 1994, the Federal Government has authorized not a single new unit of public housing, has overseen the destruction of more than 150,000 units nationally, and continues to appropriate insufficient funds to maintain the existing stock (80% of the amount necessary for FY12).  HUD estimates a $26 billion backlog in public housing capital needs, simply to maintain the existing, inadequate stock.

– Adopting a Living Wage in Baltimore that applies to all employers, and advocating for such a measure with Congress and the President.

– Advocating forcefully for the Federal and State governments to increase the payments provided to beneficiaries of disability assistance, in order that they have an opportunity to escape homelessness.

– Implementing a general policy of Fair Development that incorporates the elements of universality, equity, indivisibility, participation, transparency, and accountability such that economic development benefits everyone in Baltimore.  The United Workers’ Fair Development Campaign is a model in this regard.

I am certain that you will find many other public policies that can move us toward the day when a Homelessness Census is superfluous, and all of our neighbors can make a journey home whenever they wish.  Only a grander vision will produce such a lofty outcome.

Sincerely,

Jeff Singer

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Comments
  1. katrivelois@comcast.net says:

    Jeff,
    Thank you for pointing out so clearly the hypocrisy that is intrinsic and ongoing with the 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness.
    I would love to turn over to you all of my documents concerning homelessness. You’re probably familiar with all of them but might not have copies of some critical ones. I wanted so much to put them all together in a book providing evidence that could not be ignored but, in my old age, I know that the evidence has always been available but ignored by the reading public and ignored as well by those bearing responsibility for the solutions.
    Please let me know how to get in touch with you to talk about my material on homelessness (telephone, e-mail, etc.).
    It would also be a pleasure to talk to you.
    K

     

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