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"Dealing with Desperation: A Census of Maryland's Sheltered Homeless,"

by Anne B. Schlay September 1992 issue of Poverty & Race

Homelessness emerged as a national epidemic in the early 1980s. Now well into the nineties, homelessness remains a seemingly entrenched part of the domestic landscape. The intransigence of this horrific problem heightens the need for solid information to inform the development of policies and programs that both address the immediate and long-term needs of homeless people and offer help for preventing it altogether. Research tied to political and organizational action is a critical part of the work of ameliorating the acute situation that homelessness represents.

With a PRRAC grant in addition to other resources, the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies, in partnership with Action for the Homeless, a state-wide advocacy organization, conducted a census of homeless shelter providers throughout the State of Maryland. Findings of this investigation include the volume of people served, demographic and racial characteristics, time spent in each facility, people's daily activities and income sources, factors that precipitated the condition of homelessness, and characteristics of turnaways - people who asked for shelter but could not be served. With the goal of linking knowledge to action and policy changes, these findings provide a richer understanding of the forces at work in maintaining the condition of homelessness.

Who Got Shelter in Maryland?

The study found that homelessness was widely dispersed throughout the state in urban, suburban and rural areas. African Americans were substantially overrepresented among the sheltered homeless, with homeless people tending to be quite young. The typical homeless adult was between 25 and 35 years old; the typical homeless child was under six years old.

Homeless people tended to stay in shelters for periods of considerable duration. While they were there, a significant proportion (35%) were employed, looking for a job, or attending school, adult education or job training programs. For a sizeable number (16%), employment was a primary daily activity. Comparatively few sheltered homeless (3%) spent time in either drug- or alcohol-related programs or in mental health programs.

A large number of homeless people (35%) received some form of public assistance, indicating that public aid was inadequate to prevent initiation of a homeless episode or bring it to closure. For many (18%), employment was the primary source of income, indicating that employment alone will not prevent homelessness.

For most of the sheltered homelessness, the crisis was rooted in economic factors: problems finding affordable housing, unemployment, underemployment and poverty.

Tears in the economic fabric fueled other problems as well. Homelessness was also precipitated by family instability - the combined factors of family break-up, informal eviction and domestic abuse. And a sizeable number (13%) were reported to be homeless because of problems stemming from chemical dependency - a particularly troubling finding in light of the few homeless people receiving drug abuse treatment.

What happens to people after they are discharged from shelters is often unknown. Most (88%) left without any form of housing subsidy. Many (36%) were reported to have left shelter for unstable situations, moving in with relatives and friends who were near crisis as well.

For many homeless people (1,391 state-wide for the week reported), shelter was unavailable; families with children
represented the largest number of turn-aways (50%). The vast majority of turn-aways (80%) occurred because of insufficient space at the shelter.

Policy Recommendations

Based on these findings and reflecting the complexity of the homelessness issue, a set of recommendations were developed that reflect different facets of the homelessness problem: employment, welfare policy, housing policy, service delivery and discrimination. These recommendations are being used to inform organizing and lobbying activities by Action for the Homeless.

In brief, they are:
*Economic Development: Homelessness needs to be addressed as a problem of both joblessness as well as underemployment.

*Education: Altering conditions of homelessness requires developing interventions that provide people with more education and training to increase their human capital. But to prevent homelessness from occurring altogether requires addressing why Maryland's educational system is not providing sufficient human capital long before a homeless episode begins.

*Welfare Policy: The failure of welfare policies to ameliorate the causes of homelessness need to be addressed. Both the size of welfare benefits (and the volume of housing subsidies) need to be increased.

*Housing Policy: A multi-faceted strategy is needed to address the impediments against low-income housing production and the mechanisms for solving the affordability problem.

*Family Instability and Poverty: Homelessness is an acute manifestation of the overall economic devastation facing many non-homeless citizens in Maryland. The strong connection between homelessness and poverty means that conditions that produce both of them need to be addressed simultaneously.

*Racial Discrimination: Homelessness is also a race issue. A significant area of attention is how African Americans become so severely disadvantaged that they dramatically outnumber other groups among the ranks of the homeless as well as the poor.

*Service Delivery: Resources have to be directed at providing services for treating substance abuse and mental illness. Long-term and accessible services need to be developed at a variety of levels that will enhance the labor market position and economic prospects for poor households.

*Emergency Shelter: Additional funding and resources need to be provided for increasing the number of shelter beds for all groups across the entire state.

Homelessness in Maryland and across the nation is a tragedy affecting scores of individuals, with its causes rooted in larger political, social and economic forces that produce economic devastation in people's lives. An informed organizing strategy that approaches homelessness as both an immediate and longer-term crisis will be used by Action for the Homeless and others as a vehicle for intervening in the dynamics of homelessness and poverty more generally.

Anne B. Schlay is Associate Director of the Institute for Public Policy Studies and Associate Professor of Geography and Urban Studies at Temple University (Philadelphia, PA 19122). Action for the Homeless is a Maryland advocacy organization that focuses on state policies and budget issues and activities that support homeless service providers. Copies of "Dealing with Desperation: A Census of Maryland's Sheltered Homeless" (85 pp.) are available ($4) from Action for the Homeless, 1021 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, MD 21202, 410/659-0300.

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