Why is homeless policy so disconnected from the daily struggle of people trying to find a place to stay?
ada Hicks, who has obsessive compulsive disorder, is trying for a second time to get disability benefits.
Published: November 13, 2013
They wait along the fence, with another knot of guys in the middle of the parking lot standing, leaning on canes, or sitting in wheelchairs amid bags of clothes and other belongings. There will be more than 100 men here in an hour, lining up for transportation to the overflow shelter on Sinclair Lane.
“This is for the overflow bus,” says Arnold Williams at 5 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 1. “This is what we’ve been complaining about.”
A reporter walking into the group is beset by men talking all at once. They’re allowed inside the building during the daytime, but to get a bed for the night, they must line up out here for the bus that arrives between 7 and 7:30 p.m.—35 in a bus, says Williams, who says he’s been in line since 3 p.m.
“This has been going on for a month,” an older man says.
The scene has been playing out every day at the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Housing and Resource Center at 620 Fallsway. Opened two years ago at a cost of $8 million, the city’s emergency homeless shelter has 275 beds, 75 fewer than the nearby shelter it replaced. Men and women who cannot be accommodated here get shipped to overflow shelters elsewhere, and to secure themselves an army-style cot at those places, they line up hours before the buses arrive.
Until about a month ago, the shelter would take the first 275 people in line for beds at around midday, and the rest could stay until the overflow bus arrived in the evening. But soon after Catholic Charities—and a new manager—took over for previous contractor Jobs Housing and Recovery, things changed. In an effort to focus on getting people off the street, about 275 people are assured a bed for weeks at a time and given access to health services, job training, and the like. The rest are not allowed in the buiding after 4 p.m. and are left to huddle in a parking lot for hours.
The person who runs Baltimore’s homeless bureaucracy says this should not happen. The people who operate this shelter under a city contract say that it has to happen, at least for now, for completely practical and humane reasons.
Some residents at the shelter say the recent changes have effectively turned it into a 90-day program and created hardships for those who can’t get in or who aren’t ready to comply with the terms of such a program—the long nightly lines for overflow and the fact that the men’s overflow shelter is not handicapped accessible chief among them.
The reasons for this daily lineup point to the complicated nature of the homelessness crisis. Start with this fact: The city’s shelter system is operated by a shifting array of private, nonprofit contractors who don’t seem to discuss day-to-day operational matters with each other. This creates confusion and stress among people trying to find a safe place to sleep.
Then layer that on top of the varying approaches to the problem these sometimes-powerful private operators take, which don’t always mesh with the plans and policies created at City Hall.
Add the neighborhood associations who understandably but relentlessly work to block or limit homeless shelters and other services where they live.
Finally, there’s the historical context: a generation ago the federal government spent billions more each year to house poor people; these days, much of the work done to combat homelessness has no direct connection to beds or warm buildings or any shelter at all.
The Salvation Army truck pulls up to the curb and the queue falls in behind it, men getting Styrofoam clamshells heavy with elbow macaroni and red sauce, with a folded-over slice of white bread on top. The side of the truck says “Disaster Relief.”
It’s nearing 7 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 4, just an hour after the City Council postponed a vote on an ordinance that would effectively ban panhandling all over town. The air is cold, maybe mid-30s—but the wind has died down, and the men lined up in the Weinberg lot don’t seem to mind the cold.
Jerry, who declined to give a last name, closes the lid on his dinner to tell his story. He’s been “bouncing around the past year or so,” he says, “because of the lifestyle.” He says he’s been clean since 2005. “July 2, 2005.”
He’s a painter by trade, but he can’t get a job, he says. He has a felony record.
“If it wasn’t for this place, I don’t know where I’d go,” Jerry says, though “there is lots of drama here, like anywhere.”
He is referring to the complaints about the nightly lineup.
“I spent six years in prison,” Jerry, who is white and looks to be in his 30’s, says. “They tell you to stand in line, then why not? Is it gonna hurt you that much?”
Tony Simmons, just back from the council meeting (he was ejected for loudly protesting the panhandling bill), walks up to join the conversation. Jerry drifts off to eat his starchy dinner. “Women have it worse than us,” says Simmons, a homeless advocate who says he will not go into his own home until all the city’s people are housed. “They have like 14 different rowhouses” that serve as emergency overflow. He says the men and women are afraid to complain about conditions. “I said, ‘What are they going to do? Make you homeless?’”
As the women’s van pulls in to pick up the overflow women, Simmons is talking about the men’s overflow shelter, which for the past several months has been located about 2 miles away, in the former Paquin Middle/High School on the 2200 block of Sinclair Lane. “We were just here Friday arguing with Catholic Charities,” he says. “Please make it accessible [to the handicapped]. They say they don’t have the ability. The guys can’t even take a shower.”
But Catholic Charities does not operate the men’s overflow shelter. They also don’t contract for the buses. It will become clear over the next few minutes that this kind of fragmentation leads to miscommunication and makes the job of coordinating care and services harder than it might be.
The city owns the school at Sinclair Lane, which still has the banner attached to its brick facade reading “Great Kids Great Schools.” “If they put money into that, they could house more people,” Simmons says. “You’ve got people here more than seven years.”
Tyra Parker says she’s sure that’s true. “Some people have lived for years here,” she says. “The problem is, nobody has worked with them.”
Parker manages the Weinberg shelter, a job she took in July after Catholic Charities—which also operates My Sister’s Place and Our Daily Bread—won the contract. The nonprofit Jobs Housing and Recovery had previously operated the shelter, and homeless people and advocates complained about their management too.
Shortly after taking over, Parker began making changes with the idea of stabilizing as many clients as possible. So now, people who get in here have a bed assigned; they no longer have to line up each day in hopes of getting one. For one thing, that saves up to $6,000 a week just in laundry costs, Parker says, as the blankets can stay on the beds up to a week when the same person sleeps there every night and as they are now doing most laundry in-house.
The main reason for changing their policy, though, is outreach. The staff here gets people mental-health services, health insurance, job training for those who can do that. People who have to stand around all day waiting for a bed can’t be out getting their lives together.
Parker has just five case managers among her staff of about 60 but, because people sleeping here get case management through many different avenues, the five here aren’t responsible for all 275 cases. Some get case management at My Sister’s Place, she says. “We’ve shared our list of clients.”
It’s the start of a trend that others above her in the chain of command hope to continue.
Parker, who is petite and blonde, shows the cafeteria, complete with one of those sliding tracks for trays and a big steel refrigerator-freezer. They feed breakfast and dinner to 70 to 75 people at a time, she says. And that’s kind of amazing because, despite appearances, there is no kitchen in this $8 million building.
“You can’t cook here,” Parker says, stepping through to a rear area that could have big industrial stoves and ovens and a walk-in freezer but instead is basically storage. “I could make them incredible meals for a third of the price” of the meals delivered from Moveable Feast cost, she says.
She says she’s working on getting the kitchen built.
The Salvation Army truck that stops by the parking lot most nights is “not part of our program,” Parker says. “I’m trying to get them to stop.” The food deliveries cause fights among the men awaiting their trip to the overflow shelter, she says.
Parker makes no apology for the queues in the parking lot. With both the main clientele and the overflow in the downstairs lobby and dayrooms, “you’re looking at 500 people,” she says. That stresses out both the residents and the overflow people. To say nothing of staff.
With an extra 100 or 200 people in the building all day, “we can’t work with the clients constructively,” Parker says. “Just let me work with the 275 people I’ve already got.”
This approach makes all the practical sense in the world, but it appears to be at odds with “The Journey Home”—the mayor’s 10-year plan to end homelessness, which launched nearly six years ago, at the beginning of 2008—and the latest trend in homeless services, called “Housing First.”
In the Housing First model, everyone, including the chronically homeless, the addicted, and the mentally ill, are supposed to be housed as soon as possible in a non-institutional setting. As Adam Schneider, coordinator of community relations for Health Care for the Homeless explains, it costs at least $30 a night to keep someone in an emergency shelter. That same $900 a month could get them a nice apartment—if such a thing were available.
Usually, advocates say the waiting list for federal Section 8 vouchers, which pay most of the rent for people whose income is too low for them to afford a place, is the barrier to this policy. Parker says that’s not the primary problem.
“If I had 275 Section 8 housing vouchers, I couldn’t just put them in those places,” she says. They need case management, medication. “Sometimes you can’t even get them to stay the night.”
Parker says a woman showed up recently who was prostituting herself. She stayed until 11 p.m. and then announced she could not stay any longer and walked out. On another recent night, a man was so drunk he urinated on another man who was sleeping.
“There’s holes in the Housing First model,” Parker says. “Obviously.”
And so Parker works to help the people she has, though they’re not in any formal program here. Some residents volunteer to clean up and help staff the place, for which they receive special privileges. On cold nights she’ll allow some of the overflow from the official overflow to stay overnight in the dayroom. (When “Code Blue” season starts Nov. 15, an additional 25 women and 35 men will be officially allowed into the dayrooms overnight.)
And because once people are in, they can stay, the bed turnover rate here is only about five per night, she says.
So the people who are out, are out.
“We’re about changing the odds for people facing poverty,” says Chuck Tildon of the United Way of Central Maryland. He is the contact person listed on the website for the Journey Home. “We believe family stability is key . . . so we have a policy alongside the Journey Home but not part and parcel of it. We use the Journey Home as sort of a guide.”
United Way has been a key funding source for the city’s homeless-services campaign. Tildon says the massive charity has had four main roles—fundraising, marketing, administration of the “Leadership Advisory Group” that guides policy in the city’s homeless care system, and “supporting the resource allocation process.”
When private funds came in, there was a group of volunteers responsible for seeing that the money goes where it’s needed most and for reviewing the spending, Tildon says, hastening to add that these volunteers are all professionals in the business of delivering social services.
The Journey Home website features fancy graphics, interactive audio, and moving frames the likes of which the New York Times’ website has recently gotten accolades for. But it’s out of date. It opens with this text:
“On any given night in Baltimore City, there are at least 4,000 people experiencing homelessness, and nearly 500 are families with children. And of the children staying in our city’s shelters, about 80 percent are under the age of eleven.”
That’s nearly 1,400 more homeless people than were found in the latest homeless census, taken in January 2013. (“Down for the Undercount,” Mobtown Beat, Oct. 2). The accuracy of both numbers is in dispute, but Kate Briddell, director of homeless services in the Mayor’s Office of Human Services, says she thinks the later, lower figures were derived from a better methodology. And she is the boss.
The Journey Home plan has four main points: affordable housing, comprehensive health care, sufficient incomes, and “Comprehensive Preventive and Emergency Services”—a promise that by 2018 the city’s social services system will have the ability to spot people “at risk of homelessness” and, effectively, save them from that fate.
“We believe it’s a solvable problem,” Tildon says before adding that he’s really not the contact person anymore. Since early September, the executive director of the Journey Home is Adrienne Briedenstine, a former CitiStat official who more recently worked as a management and program analyst at the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, a federal effort to end homelessness.
Ada Hicks walks up as the Salvation Army truck pulls away. She says she got off the women’s overflow bus that just left a few minutes ago, and so will need to find another place to stay tonight. “They’re putting older women off the bus,” she says. “I’m getting off the bus because I don’t want to be on it when an older woman gets put on the street.”
Hicks says the bus took them to “Code Blue”—it’s not clear where this was, since “Code Blue” is used to refer to various shelters even though it’s actually a time, not a place—which would not take the women. Then they went to My Sister’s Place, which said it would not either, as it is not a shelter. “But they have a dayroom,” Hicks says.
The bus is parked in front of the Our Daily Bread building, the $14 million facility 200 feet away that offers food and job training—but not beds—to homeless people. The bus driver, who has no authority over where people sleep or which shelters open their doors on any given night, says he has “police coming to take a woman off the bus.”
That woman, a statuesque African-American lady, is sitting two seats behind the driver. “Why they gonna arrest me?” she asks. Tears stream down her face.
Tony Simmons has walked over to agitate. “This is the only way we can get them to do it right,” he says to her and the other four or five women on the bus.
About a minute passes. Finally, the woman gets up and bounds off the bus, crying. She has a blue tote bag. “Where am I gonna go?” she wails at no one in particular. “Am I going to go to your house?”
Hicks tries to comfort her. Simmons urges her to tell her story to the City Paper. The woman yells, “This is the fucking emergency! It was to get me off the bus!” She walks over to a spot next to the steps into Our Daily Bread. She slumps to the concrete with her knees by her face and pulls her sweater over her head. Her shoulders heave with sobs.
“Stay in your spot,” Simmons says.
Hicks hopes to catch a bus to the county and stay with her daughter. She asks to use a reporter’s phone to call her. The daughter answers the phone. “I don’t know,” she says to her mother. She says she’ll ask her husband.
“OK, call me back,” Hicks says.
Hicks says she lived with her daughter for a time but her obsessive-compulsive disorder made it hard. Hicks says she washes her hands constantly, spends a half-hour in the shower. “They have to pay the water bill.” She says this calmly.
“Social services is messing with me,” Hicks says as she walks back toward Our Daily Bread. She has no date when she might be able to collect Supplemental Security Disability Income, a Social Security program for the disabled. Hicks says she started the application process with her sister’s help last year. It was rejected. She is trying again. It can take more than a year to get on SSDI; it often requires the services of a specialized lawyer. Hicks says she knows that.
It’s dark and cold out, and Hicks can’t go back to the city’s emergency shelter, she says, because she’s been told that once she gets on the bus she will get arrested if she sets foot on the property again. (Not true, says Briddell).
Hicks has a backup plan she says she’s used before on desperate nights. “I’d go over to the hospital and ask to use the bathroom and then wait,” Hicks says. It works, “unless there’s a mean guard.”
If there is a mean guard, Hicks says, she’ll take a bus out to the county and look for someplace sheltered. “I won’t stay here,” she says. It’s too dangerous.
Chronic homelessness is a relatively recent development in American history. “There weren’t people writing about homeless people in the 1970s,” says Adam Schneider.
“There’s a new generation,” says Adrienne Breidenstine, the new director of the Journey Home, “and what I fear is that they’re just going to become complacent. They’ll think of homelessness as something that always existed on the fringe of society. They don’t realize that 30 years ago we didn’t have mass homelessness.”
The crisis is driven by policy decisions, many of them made by the Reagan Administration, which in 1981 cut HUD’s low- and moderate-income housing budget authority to $17.6 billion (in constant 2004 dollars)—one-third of the amount HUD spent in 1978.
Homelessness emerged in cities immediately and as a national issue shortly thereafter, with the Stewart B. McKinney Homelessness Assistance Act in 1987 marking the first federal recognition that homelessness per se was a national problem. By 1992, the decade of disinvestment made public-housing projects unlivable for residents, and the feds stepped in with a study that became the HOPE VI plan—basically a demolition warrant for the remaining affordable housing. In 1996, funding for new public-housing units was halted entirely. More than 150,000 public-housing units were bulldozed, imploded, or otherwise lost over the ensuing 14 years.
Breidenstine was in the city when the Journey Home plan was launched in 2008. The impetus was Phillip Mangano at the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, she says, who, during the George W. Bush administration, urged “10-year plans to end homelessness” in cities across the land. “It made sense to me,” she says. “It starts in the communities.”
Now taking over the program nearly six years after its inception, “we’ve made some progress,” Breidenstein says. “The area that we’re lacking most is that affordable-housing bucket.”
She explains: Just as the Journey Home launched in 2008, the housing market crashed, developers stopped developing.
City officials have blamed much of the crisis since that time on circumstances beyond anyone’s control. The crashed economy exacerbated problems that had been expected to abate. Shelters that were meant to be temporary needed to become permanent. Emergency shelters—like the Weinberg Center—were found to be undersized.
But, Breidenstine is asked, did not the housing bust create an opportunity for governments to buy up suddenly undervalued housing stock? Some of the men in line at Weinberg say they lost construction jobs; they ask why the city doesn’t put them to work building homes for themselves instead of spending millions of dollars demolishing vacant homes.
“The idea of having them build their own homes would be a complicated policy question to figure out,” Breidenstein says.
Back in front of Our Daily Bread, two men march up talking. Darryl Nelson peels off his thin gloves to shake a reporter’s hand. His own hand is the size of an outfielder’s glove. Six-foot-3 and easily over 300 pounds, he wears round glasses as thick as the counter window in a corner store.
“It’s getting cold out here,” Nelson says loud enough to be heard across the street, where 100 men are still waiting for the bus. “I see a lot of homeless people.”
He says the city ought to have another building where people can stay. Nelson says he used to be homeless but is housed now. The trouble is, he’s only left with $82 cash every month. His fiancée is pregnant, he says (and the woman, who says not a word, is standing nearby). “This is like a prerelease center. The programs they put you in, they take your money and give you $82 a month. What am I supposed to do with $82?”
“It’s a coverup!” says the other man, Jamall Dallas. He’s a bit smaller than Nelson but just as loud. “There’s a lot of money spent. The whole thing is, I’m not seeing no services!”
Nelson is saying he can’t survive on $82 a month with a pregnant fiancée. If he gets a job, he’ll lose his housing because it’s income-constrained. He nods toward his fiancée. “She’s pregnant,” Nelson says. “If she has a baby, they’re gonna put her out.”
A third man has wobbled up. He is older, thinner, floridly intoxicated. He is squatting on a trash can. He wants to have his say. “Catholic ‘Chair’-ity,” he says, leaning in to a reporter’s face. “This is my chair.”
Dallas says he can’t get on the overflow bus because he had a dispute with the driver, who, he says, told him if he gets on the bus again, it will be the last time he ever does so. “That’s a lawsuit in effect right there!” Dallas, whose voice seems to have only one volume setting, yells. “But I didn’t take it that far!”
Nelson, meanwhile, says he recognizes the crying woman who is still balled up in a corner next to the steps. He vows to raise hell with the manager of the Weinberg Center over her treatment and walks toward that building.
Hicks is saying that she has seen what look like bed-bug bites on the legs of women coming from at least two of the emergency women’s shelters.
“That’s a lawsuit!” says Dallas.
The drunk guy leans in again. “If you want to talk to a real nigger, talk to me,” he slurs. He says he is 58 years old and used to have an encampment nearby with a car battery for light and, somehow, heat. “I wasn’t cold,” he says.
The woman in the corner is still quietly crying. Her shoulders shake. Her head is down. A scarf wraps it.
Hicks says she would not get on a bus one day recently because she’d been assigned to sleep in a house she knew had bed bugs. The bus driver, she says, told her “I don’t want you on my bus anyway.”
“Lawsuit!” Dallas yells.
Hicks’ daughter calls back and Hicks returns the call. “He says no,” she repeats.
Maybe, she says, they’ll let us stay in the dayroom tonight.
The next morning, Briddell says Hicks’ experience the night before should not have happened.
“The process is supposed to be much more integrated than that,” she says, taking notes and furrowing her brow. “People are not put on a bus unless there’s a space.”
Hicks did end up in the Weinberg dayroom that night, with three other women, including the one who was crying. Nelson takes credit for that, saying his advocacy was key. But the reality is different, an open secret that skirts the law and an understanding with the neighbors in order to save lives.
When the overflow shelters are at capacity and people are knocking on the door, they are often allowed in to the dayroom—at My Sister’s Place or the Weinberg. Briddell admits this but asks it not be publicized—even though almost anyone waiting outside the shelter says the same thing.
Fire code forbids it, Briddell says.
She is asked if she really believes that a fire marshal would decree that a homeless person freeze outside to prevent the crime of exceeding the fire code’s occupancy limit.
Briddell says the other constraint is the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association, which demanded that the city limit the utilization of the homeless structures erected on the edge of the neighborhood. It is a real, practical concern, too, as homeless men loitering tend to scare off tourists and drive down property values. Neighborhoods surrounding the recently expanded $4.5 million Beans and Bread day program in Upper Fells Point have for years complained of petty crime. Last month they posted video of a man defecating in an alley behind someone’s house.
Neighbors fought the Weinberg and the Sinclair Lane shelter, which is temporary and due to be replaced in January by the old Volunteers of America halfway house on East Monument Street, Briddell says. The new place can only hold 135 men, she says, adding that she’s not yet gotten pushback from any neighborhood associations.
The lines in the Weinberg parking lot should not be happening, Briddell says: “The clients go in and do intake and are assigned to overflow. They should get a ticket to get on the bus.”
None of these issues are what Briddell spends her time on, though. Her job is to manage the people who manage those problems—and to see that they are paid. She is more enthusiastic about the Homeless Management Information System.
The new system, which is almost ready, will allow better data tracking and better data returned to the providers, with more speed and detail than was possible before. “We’re very excited,” Briddell says. “I want to know how many purple elephants were served.”
The Journey Home plan promises such functionality under Action 4.16. Data on shelter use, outreach, the performance of “Transitional Housing Providers” like Catholic Charities, and contract compliance would seem to be standard-issue in a bureaucracy like this, but as of now the department can’t say, for example, how much it costs to make the average homeless person a stably housed person. (“I’d love to do that study,” Breidenstine says).
The data project takes about 15 percent of Briddell’s work-time. “We have a whole bunch of new things that are really exciting,” she says. “It’s all very wonky.”
Briddell’s office is also creating a new board to supersede the Leadership Advisory Group that has guided homeless policy for years.
The new group will be smaller, but still will include more than 30 members drawn from the ranks of service providers in the medical, social services, and housing fields; government bureaucrats, law enforcement, advocates, and four at-large seats, she says. This was all prompted by federal HUD rules, and that’s important because HUD supplies about $25 million of Briddell’s $37 million annual budget.
Briddell says she is doing the feds one better: “We didn’t see a space here for public health officials or for youth,” she says, “so we are adding these as well.”
One of the things Simmons and other homeless advocates say is that there are many more homeless people—youth especially—than generally acknowledged. This is not an academic matter, as the number of people needing services should, in theory, have something to do with the amount of money and social workers society assigns to help them. In Baltimore, the number often cited on the street is 4,000, being roughly the figure found by a point-in-time census taken in 2009 and 2011 by researchers at Morgan State University. Briddell says the 2013 point-in-time homeless census, which found only 2,600 homeless people, is more accurate than the earlier figures.
“We think that, not because we did anything miraculous in the last two years,” she says, “but because we thought there was a methodological flaw in the 2009 and 2011 census.”
The main flaw, she says, was a possible double-count of people who were located in day centers after the all-night count.
But the methodologies for this count have changed nearly every time it’s been done, Briddell says. The 2003 count was different from the 2005, and so on, until the ’09 and ’11 counts were done the same way. The most recent one was different.
Luckily, the point-in-time census of homeless people has zero effect on Briddell’s budget, she says, “thank God.”
Briddell’s budget is affected instead by seemingly random acts of Congress and federal bureaucrats. “Last year our Emergency Solutions budget was cut 29 percent because a grant formula changed at CDBG” (the Community Development Block Grant), census bureau numbers, and sequestration, she says. That cost Briddell’s office about $700,000.
Even the language describing Briddell’s job can make it sound more like a TV game show than a high-level management position. Her “Continuum of Care” budget, for example, would be decreased because the feds “prioritized renewal,” she says, “but they would allow Baltimore City to apply for what they call ‘bonus dollars.’”
The headaches and triumphs Briddell and Breidenstine experience on the fifth floor of the MECU building on Redwood Street are far from what Jerry and Tony Simmons and Ada Hicks experience on a given Monday night less than a mile away. The view from here is colored more by numbers and the legal meaning of specific words than the temperature outside or the head count at Sinclair Lane. But Briddell is the boss, and she says Simmons’ claim that the Weinberg shelter has shifted its focus from “emergency” shelter to a program is “not entirely accurate.
“It’s still a low-barrier shelter,” she says (“low-barrier” means “wet”—i.e., drunk people and people high on drugs can stay). But the vendor left the word “draft” off a resident handbook that was distributed in early October, and in that book, the word “program” appeared in a different context than it usually does.
“It’s a semantic misunderstanding,” Briddell says. “They are crafting certain thresholds for people who volunteer for case management. But it’s not a 90-day program.”
She adds, after some thought, that Catholic Charities is “working to get clients to housing permanency,” but “our intention and what we communicated very clearly is that this is going to continue to be a low-barrier shelter.”
Briddell looks up from her desk, tiled with thick statistical and financial reports. “When you’re living it,” she acknowledges, “it’s going to feel a little different than if you’re out.”
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