Housing the homeless ain’t that easy

For a long time, I have balked at seeking transitional housing, mainly for two reasons:  (1) There must be a thousand buildings in Baltimore City serving that function, each with its own application process, eligibility criteria and rules — not to mention desirability.  There’s no way to find “the right place” without going to each one in person. (2) I have heard too many credible horror stories of negligent house managers and conflicts with residents who abuse substances, abuse the property, and abuse each other.

Fortunately, the case manager at the clinic appears to have equipped me with the very short list of highest-rated outfits.

Last week’s City Paper cover story sets forth a microcosm of what is, in fact, the big picture:

A new program for the city’s homeless leaves them struggling amid a chaotic system of care

I will avoid using the name here of the provider on whom the article focuses.  It can be read on the one hand as the story of incompetent management by one who may well be preying on poor people.

It can also be read as a story of clients who have no concept of truth — at least, not the concept you and I have.  Instead, they live in a world where what you say at any moment is what is most likely to bring the results you desire — at that moment.  At a different moment, a different desire may impel what you say to be different.  Fact and belief play no role.

It’s a long article. Passages I highlighted to comment:

Oh!  Hey, the lady’s a radio talk show host!  That’s what I want to be!

 “I get people in my buildings who pay $100 a month, because they only get $185 [from the government]. I got people paying $400 because they get $500, [or] because they get $733.[“]

That’s too much. By the same token, she says much later in the article:

“People say ‘I just need affordable housing.’ Well, what’s your income? $733 a month? Here’s a room at $350.”

That‘s too much.  The rule of thumb is that one month’s rent should not exceed one week’s income.  I have been surprised at how well that fits for rich or poor alike.  This woman is charging these people far more than they can afford.

[“]We deal with people on SSI and SSDI”—that’s Supplemental Security Income, a maximum $733 monthly stipend for single people who are judged disabled but who haven’t paid into the Social Security system in the last 10 years; and Social Security Disability Insurance, an $1,100-or-so payment for the disabled who have a documented work history.

These are the “checks” that practically every able-bodied (sic) man I know either gets or is zealous to get. Note that no one can possibly live independently on that income.

Facing a genuine crisis—Baltimore’s homeless population is approximately 3,000 on any given night with some estimates suggesting 30,000 people a year experience homelessness here—the city has constructed a patchwork of more than 60 homeless service providers that it oversees, creating a privately-contracted homeless services ecosystem that is chaotic, ill-managed, poorly monitored, and badly integrated with state and federal agencies. Filled with suspicion and back-stabbing, the constellation of private non-profits funded by private grants and about $40 million in public funds is nominally overseen by the Mayor’s Office of Human Services, with varying results.

That Mayor’s Office is where I may go to seek a voucher for my own rent in transitional housing. Note: as I had not known, Baltimore City is already spending a ton on efforts to house the homeless. That’s happening now.

In November, the Board of Estimates approved a $252,000 grant, under which [she] was supposed to take 40 people from homelessness to permanent housing in 180 days beginning September 11.

I don’t see how she can possibly do that. Who will equip each of these people with permanent income?  Then again, what does “permanent housing” mean?  It may mean a bed in a house where twelve strangers live three to a room and share one kitchen, one bath.

That’s not what you or I may want “permanent housing” to mean, but given the direction of the economy and job market, this may be the destiny of those who might formerly have been called “middle class.”

Related:  “Normal” life goals out of reach — for millions

Turns out, under the above-mentioned $252K grant, the City directed her to house 44 specific, named individuals.

[C]ity officials complained that [she] had swept up people that the administration had not directed her to collect. The city had given [her] a list of homeless people to pick up, along with their likely locations. [She] went to those places and picked up everyone there, upsetting the triage system of neediest-clients-first that the administration had constructed.

I had not known that the City tracks us. I wonder where I am in their list.

Street people become accustomed to having no responsibility to anyone for anything.  This winds up handing property owners disincentives to invest in affordable housing, just as certain communities may hand banks disincentives to invest in those neighborhoods.  The provider in question here sometimes rents houses for her clients from other property owners.

Williams says her tenants did $30,000 damage to the house[.]

J.B. Kenney, another landlord in Baltimore …, tells a similar story: he gave [her] the keys before they had a lease drawn up and, four months later, [she] had not paid any rent even though she moved several people into the house, who he says trashed it.

Gardner says she ended up with $10,000 damage to her property and a $1,700 water bill.

The client may simply have priorities other than being housed.

“I don’t want to live in [that woman’s] house,” Missy told the social workers, complaining about the other people there. “I’m pregnant. I don’t want to live with her mother, and that dog and a bunch of saggy old men!”

Did I mention responsibility?

A different article last week said that a national expert on homelessness, Barbara Poppe, opposes Seattle’s plan to allow homeless folk to establish tent camps.  She wants them to stress Housing First instead.  I’ve expressed my reservations about Housing First here before.  One point we  agree on, however, echoes the concern I expressed at the outset:

The region has too many small organizations running too many different programs with too many varied admission requirements, and people without homes have trouble navigating the system. The new strategy should be person-centered, Poppe said.

Originally posted 2016-02-29.

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