If you’ve ever strolled the busy walkways of the Inner Harbor or happened to stop at a busy intersection there’s a chance that you’ve encountered homelessness in Baltimore. As an omnipresent issue in Baltimore, our leaders have consistently tried to devise actions to address what seems to be an insurmountable problem. Fueled by a lack of jobs, drug abuse and an overall failure in public policy, the issue only seems to be getting worse as time progresses.
The past few years have seen a rash of scandals within the ranks of those who wish to solve the issue. It wasn’t too long ago that we learned that Baltimore mismanaged more than nine million dollars directed towards homeless services. Most recently, an excellent City Paper article highlighted that the current organizations committed helping the homeless are struggling with a lack of coordination and organization.
While the past has been marred by failures, I have no doubt that the workers at these shelters failed but had good intentions. Unfortunately, policy currently being crafted in City Hall seems to treat the population with a level of disdain previously unseen. Originally conceived by Fifth District Councilwoman Rikki Spector, the policy would further ban panhandling in the city, conveniently having a particular impact on downtown. This idea was spurred by powerful groups with downtown interests such as Visit Baltimore, the Greater Baltimore Committee, and the Downtown Partnership. The resulting legislation was panned as being ineffective and cruel. Although – to Spector’s credit – the bill was ultimately withdrawn to be further crafted – the legislation reflects leadership more centered on hiding the problem of homelessness rather than addressing it in a meaningful way.
In Public Policy, I believe solutions are discovered when current resources are properly leveraged and all participants involved receive some degree of skin in the game. In the interest of providing a solution here is one idea I thought about today:
1) Convert schools that are scheduled to close into homeless centers. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s current Transform Baltimore initiative is scheduled to close 26 schools over the next decade. Most recently, interim CEO Tisha Edwards expressed an interest in closing seven schools that are poorly performing sooner rather than later. The resulting closures creates a significant amount of vacant space, which, if not addressed, could join the wealth of vacant property the city already struggles with. Rather than take that risk, the city could repurpose these properties to include housing, workforce training, and psychiatric services. As an added bonus converting the schools reduces the need to build new buildings.
2) If this idea is accepted, there will still be a need for people who will actually provide the services to the homeless population. Since we have a wealth of Universities in the area, the city could collaborate with Social Work/Mental Health programs in the region. By forming a training and service partnership, Baltimore could develop professionals that manage the facilities. An immediate school that comes to mind is the University of Maryland Baltimore, which has an excellent program in Social Work. To encourage participants, the schools and city could offer stipends during their time in the program as well as loan forgiveness to those who agree to work in these locations for a period of time. Through such a partnership, the schools would have an opportunity to invest in Baltimore, and the city would receive steady workers to assist the population.
3) As the homeless population gains training and experience, they’ll need jobs. Let’s give tax breaks to companies that hire them (since lowering the tax rate here period seems to be a problem here), or give it to the workers themselves should they decide to hang a shingle and do it for themselves. The idea of giving tax credits for hiring the homeless was recently disputed in Utah, and could potentially draw new business to the region and give opportunities to those who successfully complete the programs offered in these locations. As an added bonus, the training offered in the centers could be crafted to meet future career needs in Baltimore such as construction and manufacturing.
Like most challenges in Baltimore there is no magic bullet to fully address homelessness. But to ignore the problem in favor of going along to get along – while simultaneously sweeping the population under the rug – is no solution either. If we view the homeless population as one with potential – as we should view every citizen of our city – they can play a critical role in making Baltimore A Great Place to Grow.
Since this is the internet I’d love to hear your ideas as well. Thanks for listening.