At 8-years-old, Emmanuel Jackson was placed with the Department of Social Services, after years of abuse by his mother. By 18, he said he was “thrown to the wolves” and ended up homeless. “This was before the program ‘Ready by 21,’” he said.

Homeless programs, including the Baltimore Homeless Youth Initiative and Healthcare for the Homeless are providing great services, he says, but the city’s next mayor must do more. “You need more funding and more space,” he said. “And there is a lack of services unless you fall under a certain a category.” Many homeless elders, he explained, “milk the system” and exploit resources before youth can get help.

The city’s top Democratic mayoral contenders say they would initiate plans to address homelessness.

Incumbent Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake plans to continue a 10-year program established in 2008 by her predecessor, former Mayor Sheila Dixon.

“The mayor has been vocal in saying when she came into office that she would take a critical eye and keep those programs that were working and discontinue those that weren’t,” Rawlings-Blake campaign spokeswoman Keiana Page said. “This was one of the programs that was working.”

The comprehensive plan, outlined in a 70-page report includes goals to expand the Housing First Program, which provides housing for the chronically homeless. The report also offers benchmarks to extend health care resources, preventive and emergency services and offer sufficient income. Dixon launched the program with a $1 million appropriation for homeless services in fiscal year 2008.

Page says funding for Housing First halted during the economic downturn, but was later restored by Rawlings-Blake.

Otis Rolley, former city planning director and Dixon’s former chief of staff, said he would also uphold the 10-year plan. “I thought it made a lot of sense and we’ve abandoned a lot of it under the current administration,” he said. “I’d like to jumpstart it.”

Rolley served on the civic leadership panel that helped formulate the plan in 2008. “It was very comprehensive in terms of the overall approach of looking at some of the root causes of homelessness and providing wrap around services,” he explained.

But Joseph T. “Jody” Landers, former head of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors, says the city’s economic climate has changed since Dixon’s plan was devised. “My guess is that there are more homeless on the street now because of economic conditions and a loss of jobs,” he said, adding that cities are also receiving less money from the state and federal governments.

Landers would work with homeless advocates and shelter directors to develop a new approach to tackle homelessness. “We have 4,000 vacant houses in Baltimore City,” he said. “We have the inventory we can work with to try to provide living spaces for people. We just have to figure out how we are going to pay for it.

“The idea of rehabbing and putting the vacant units back into productive uses, provides shelter, training opportunities for construction, and could create a better environment.”

State Sen. Catherine Pugh says she is already researching best practices around the country. She would like to model a new program after San Francisco, which mobilizes volunteers, businesses and philanthropic groups to provide extensive services for the homeless once every two months.

“They accomplish in one day what it takes months to do elsewhere,” she said. The city offers a range of services from dental care and HIV testing to legal advice all in one location.

“They show them where to go for help and the city meets them where they are. We know in Baltimore City where homeless people congregate. We can go to them.”

According to Pugh, businesses and non-profit groups would split the costs for the effort.

She says many people end up homeless after they are released from prison without a driver’s license and are therefore unable to receive medication. She championed legislation that allows prisoners to receive their license prior to release.

Some homeless advocates say shelters often turn people away because of limited beds and resources. Select centers don’t allow children and others prioritize services for elders. “ has to appropriate more funds to the cause and provide more services that are beneficial for all homeless people,” said Jackson.

Now 24-years-old, Jackson is active in the Baltimore Homeless Youth Initiative and frequently speaks as an advocate for the homeless. Another advocate, Cynthia Brooks, executive director of Bea Gaddy Family Center, said she hasn’t met with any of the mayoral candidates and is not familiar with the mayor’s 10-year plan to end homelessness.

“I think it’s important for every mayor to be in touch with organizations,” Brooks said. But she is unsure one plan, even if formulated by the next mayor, will end the problem.

“Can you really stop homelessness?” she questioned. “I’m not sure you can. People are homeless for different reasons. You can create the best program in the world, but if a person doesn’t want to accept the services, your hands are tied.”

 

Shernay Williams

Special to the AFRO