- The Washington Times - Monday, December 13, 2004

BALTIMORE (AP) — City and state officials are putting together a plan to eradicate homelessness within the next decade — aiming to provide permanent housing to about 4,000 people who sleep in city parks and shelters each night.

The action follows a decision four years ago by the Bush administration to end chronic homelessness among the disabled within 10 years, and follows in the footsteps of cities such as Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Denver.

City and state officials will hold a two-day conference beginning today to kick off the planning process.

“Maryland has never engaged in anything like this before,” Gregory D. Shupe, director of the Office of Transitional Services at the Maryland Department of Human Resources, told the Baltimore Sun.

“For a long time, the planning around homelessness has been more about shelters and soup kitchens. The focus now is not how to manage homelessness but what we need to do to end it.”

A comprehensive plan could be ready for review by state lawmakers by June, Mr. Shupe said.

Local advocates and service providers for the homeless say they can meet the goal by increasing the number of affordable housing units, providing immediate access to the housing, and expanding services targeted at drug addiction, mental health and job training.

“It’s time to stop managing the crisis and end the disgrace,” said Philip F. Mangano, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, who will share success stories from across the nation with conference participants.

More than a dozen states and 169 cities and counties have created plans in hopes of accessing federal funds to pay for new housing and medical aid, he said.

Baltimore, which has the largest homeless population in the state, will prepare its own plan, but a city representative will coordinate efforts with the state’s plan.

Leading Baltimore’s planning process is Laura M. Gillis, the city’s recently appointed president and chief executive of the quasi-public agency Baltimore Homeless Services Inc.

Miss Gillis manages a staff of 25 and an annual budget of $24 million, most of it federal money. The restructured office of homeless services, which moved from the housing authority to the Health Department in August, has applied for nonprofit status and will have a board led by city Health Commissioner Dr. Peter L. Beilenson.

Some who work with the homeless in the city say that whatever plan Baltimore devises must include drug treatment as a core element.

“Drug dealers are getting a lot of people out of their homes,” said David Shepard, resident manager of the Frederick Ozanam House, a transitional home at 400 S. Bond St. for men recovering from addiction. “We can’t stop homelessness in the city unless we address these issues.”

Under the housing-first model, homeless people get their own rooms or apartments almost immediately, rather than staying at shelters until after they receive medical, drug-addiction or mental-health treatment.

The problem with shelters, Miss Gillis said, is that many homeless people don’t like living in group settings. Some don’t feel safe. Others don’t want to follow the rules. Many return to the street, making their recovery more difficult.

“The housing-first model allows homeless individuals to claim something as their very own,” Miss Gillis said. “It’s a very important first step.”

It is not clear how Baltimore will provide housing for the homeless, but with a 10-year plan in hand, the city will be better positioned to compete for federal funds, said Mr. Mangano and other experts.

The federal budget sets aside $3 billion for the homeless, but not all the money is earmarked for the “chronic homeless” initiative. Federal budget pressures are expected to keep funding flat for the next several years, Mr. Mangano said.

For Miss Gillis, the time to act is now, while the federal government has a spotlight on the issue.

“Let’s end homelessness,” she said. “Let’s stop managing it and end it.”

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