The Baltimore Station, located in Federal Hill, is one of the largest shelters in the city.

When COVID 19 upended the country, forcing office workers to become remote workers, students into virtual learners, and the retailers who could into pickup and delivery services, some sectors of society had to keep the doors open: the health care industry and organizations that serve the homeless.

In the Baltimore-metropolitan area, COVID created a crisis-within-a-crisis at area shelters that serve the unhoused and those on the brink of homelessness. Service providers and advocates had to quickly devise plans that would encourage social distancing and find other ways to separate residents and clients, many of whom have pre-existing conditions that put them in the eye of the coronavirus storm.

“Shelters are dense with bunks next to each other, and they house people who are medically fragile,” said Stuart Campbell, director of community services and programs for the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development. Campbell said his agency held weekly calls with other agencies and organizations caring for the state’s vulnerable citizens to ensure they had the resources they needed.

Maryland received $14 million in federal CARES ACT funds distributed to agencies across the state to help homeless individuals and families. Larger jurisdictions, including those in the Baltimore area, were given an additional $35 million from the federal government to “decompress” shelters by relocating residents to area hotels and to find other ways to isolate residents to slow the spread of the virus.

Since that time, Maryland’s COVID-positivity rate has slowed, attributed to early aggressive government efforts to prevent homelessness, including a housing relief program, a four-month rent rebate voucher for certain renters who have been affected by the pandemic and an emergency executive order issued by the governor that prohibits Maryland courts from ordering the eviction of any tenant who can demonstrate that their inability to pay rent was the substantially the result of COVID-19; that moratorium is in place until Gov. Larry Hogan lifts the state of emergency.

Officials worry there could be a spike in evictions

What troubles officials like Campbell is the possibility of evictions, which could lead to a rise in the number of homeless Marylanders. “I don’t think it will happen, but there is the potential for a huge wave of evictions,” said Campbell, who maintains frequent contact with organizations and agencies working with the homeless.

Before the pandemic, according to the 2020 Point-in-Time Count, a federally mandated survey conducted annually in January to determine how many people experience homelessness on a given night, an estimated 2,193 (that figure varies among organizations) people in Baltimore experience homelessness on a given night. A majority, or 86.5 percent, were sheltered, and 13.5 percent were unsheltered or sleeping in places not meant for human habitation, such as sidewalks or abandoned buildings. The 2020 Point-in-Time Count shows Baltimore City accounting for 35 percent of Marylanders experiencing homelessness.

Impact of Pandemic 

Given the job losses and housing affordability challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Baltimore City officials said it is likely that evictions and homelessness will increase in the coming months, both locally and nationally. The Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services points to an August Urban Institute report that shows 49 percent of Maryland households as rent-burdened, placing the state in the top 10 of hardest-hit states. Additionally, MOHS Interim Director Tisha Edwards said in a broadcast interview this week, before the pandemic, about 10 percent of Baltimore City renters were delinquent. In April, the number doubled to 21 percent and then by 28 percent in June.

Baltimore City’s Efforts to Address the Risk of Outbreaks

In early April, Baltimore City established hotel sites to house shelter clients most at risk of complications due to COVID-19 (primarily people over age 62 and those with serious health concerns). Hotel accommodations included The Lord Baltimore Hotel, which was set up as a Triage, Respite and Isolation Center to support residents with known or suspected COVID-19 who do not require hospitalization and are unable to self-isolate where they live, along with four hotels that could be used to reduce the density in shelters. In addition, the city and its partners — Pinderhughes Emergency Homeless Shelter, Greenspring Men’s Shelter and Sarah’s Hope Family Shelter — continued to accept clients in shelters, making Baltimore City the only Maryland jurisdiction that continued to accept clients in shelters. The combined strategy of housing people in both hotels and shelters, officials said, allowed the city to meet federal health guidelines and minimize the spread of COVID-19.

Officials say the city has allocated more than $7 million in federal COVID emergency funding to permanently house 150 of the 400 clients now staying in hotels and 40 families surviving domestic violence and to prevent households from returning to congregate shelter. The city launched a $15 million temporary rent support program in July to help residents cover back rent for April, May and June and current on their rent. It will build on that effort in the coming weeks with a $16 million comprehensive eviction prevention program to help residents stay in their homes and prevent homelessness—putting the city’s initial investment in COVID-19 eviction and homelessness prevention assistance at $31 million. Officials said the city will continue to seek additional funds to respond to what they expect to be a long-term challenge.

For now, Stuart Campbell with the state’s Housing and Community Development Department said he is hopeful that the positivity rate of COVID within shelters remains low and that needs of shelter residents are being met. One sign of optimism he sees is the frequency of calls he has with agencies and organizations about troubling situations. “In the beginning of the pandemic, we had weekly calls but now those calls are less frequent. We are now talking biweekly because we have gotten to the place where there is nothing new to report.”

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Walinda West

Walinda West is an experienced communications professional who has served a variety of clients at the local, state and national level and is a longtime writer for Baltimore Fishbowl.