Baltimore City's 2,800 homeless people will receive fewer federally-funded services this coming year, but more of them will be placed in permanent housing.
Vidia Dhanraj, director of the homeless services program, says her office responded to more than $3 million in federal funding cuts by putting more local money into new "supportive housing" programs that she expects will house more than 100 chronically-homeless people.
"This is where our office had to think strategically," Dhanraj says. "Our loss could have been much more significant."
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced the cuts in a kind of double-speak on May 2 in a press release titled "HUD Awards $355 Million for Local Homeless Programs."
The release did not specify the cuts to Baltimore City's homeless services programs, which saw some $3.8 million worth of previously-funded programs cut.
John J. Schiavone, President and CEO of St. Vincent de Paul of Baltimore and a member of the board for The Journey Home, the city's consortium of non-profit homeless services providers, wrote a letter to City Paper decrying the cuts. "Only two of 20 existing projects were awarded funding in this second phase—a devastating loss of $3.8 million in funding for Baltimore City," he wrote. "Gone in an instant were commitments for annual funding that had been in place, in many cases, for decades that have helped thousands of people out of homelessness and into self-sufficiency and stable housing."
The $3.8 million figure is what service providers perceive as the cut. This year, the city asked for $23.2 million, in part to account for increasing rents, but HUD gave just under $19.5 million. That's $2.3 million less than the year before.
In his letter, Schiavone said the city's homeless policy leadership failed to adapt to HUD's evolving policies: "The reason is a lack of a clear vision and direction in Baltimore City, and insufficient efforts to lead change."
Dhanraj says that's not true.
"These providers were our partners," she says. "We've been working with them for many years and we really value them."
She says all of the service providers have been told for years that HUD would be privileging a "housing first" model. One provider—Maryland Center for Veterans Education & Training (MCVET)—saw their $1.2 million grant reallocated to a permanent supportive housing model, Dhanraj says, adding that the organization can apply for the grants under that model.
"We want the best outcomes for the people in our city," Dhanraj says. "So it's navigating policies, navigating philosophies."
MCVET executive director Jeffery Kendrick says his 21-year-old program, which offers military veterans up to two years' residence in a structured environment, lost nearly half of its funding.
"We're a zero-tolerance program," he says. "They must abstain from drugs and alcohol. HUD says that can't be a delimiter."
Kendrick says he thought his program's success rate—he says seven out of 10 stay for more than a year and most end up with apartments and jobs at $14 an hour—might spare it from the funding cuts, but the city let him know early on that this was not going to happen. He says he could have simply re-named the space, calling it "permanent" housing instead of "transitional," and dropped the no-alcohol requirement, "but I think these men deserve better than that."
Kendrick says he's discussing with his board of directors what to do next.
The HUD announcement called this year's "Continuum of Care" grants "the most competitive ever ... consistent with HUD's policy goals as well as Congressional direction to stringently review performance."
HUD strongly encouraged local applicants to prioritize their funding request very carefully, using a mix of performance data and local needs. In addition, applicants were encouraged to submit projects that were based on research-driven approaches and supported the nation's goals to prevent and end homelessness. As a result, local CoCs eliminated a combined $124 million in renewal funding from lower performing projects in order to apply for new housing projects. These new projects will provide permanent supportive housing and rapid re-housing solutions for those experiencing homelessness."
There was another bright spot in the grant award, Dhanraj says: a $1 million "bonus grant" to Health Care for the Homeless, which will use the money to rent 55 houses or apartments around the city and house 65 people in them.
Adam Schneider, a spokesman for the non-profit, says this is an expansion of what Health Care for the Homeless has been doing for more than a decade. "Right now we have a couple of supportive housing programs funded in different ways," he says, "serving different people based on eligibility criteria and screen-in methods. This program will be for chronically homeless individuals and families, with the slots administered through the city's coordinated access system."
Under the new program, chronically homeless people selected by the city will be given an apartment and pay 30 percent of their income as rent, with the rest coming from the HUD grant. The tenant will also receive intensive services to help them stay housed. The funding helps Health Care for the Homeless pay for a full-time nurse, two full-time social workers, and a "peer housing advocate," who Schneider says will do everything from scouting appropriate apartments to helping people get furniture for their new place.
Schneider is not sure yet of the timeline for all this, and he worries about how those served by the programs being cut will fare in a city with less and less affordable housing and more and more people finding themselves without homes. "That's the contradiction here," he says. "The feds are saying 'let's move toward this effective model,' but we can only do it if we reinvest in affordable housing. We're creating homelessness for many by alleviating it for some."