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Let’s end homelessness (and create jobs, too)

October 21, 2011

Last week, my friend Lionel Foster penned a provocative column exploring homelessness in Baltimore City, intended to draw much needed attention to the persistent –and worsening—problem. Just weeks before, I happened upon a Washington Post article detailing a D.C. pilot program called Sweat Equity designed to help reduce homelessness, public assistance rolls and the number of vacant properties.  It’s a smart and creative idea—and not simply because I’ve haphazardly attempted to incubate a similar strategy in Baltimore City for about a year. It’s a rather simple tactic to counter homelessness, unemployment, and wide-spread housing vacancy,

“Take individuals who have been homeless and on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and give them jobs refurbishing vacant city buildings, where they can then live for two years rent-controlled.”

I surmise that there are examples of this happening in cities across the nation, and if not, there should be. The public, private, and not-for-profit sectors have invested significant capital into alleviating these seemingly intractable social problems, with minimum return on investment, whereas the Sweat Equity program is a rather low-cost and very scalable model. In the Post’s analysis of the program, the principal challenge is “the ability of D.C. agencies to work seamlessly together, the willingness of outside contractors to employ novice workers and the drive of the participants.”

Baltimore City owns many more times the vacant properties than does D.C. (there are approximately 47,000 vacant residencies in Baltimore, only a fraction of which are city-owned), maintains an official unemployment rate of 11 percent which is likely far closer to 30 percent, and has an unsheltered homeless population that jumped more than 45 percent between 2009 and 2011, to nearly 1,800 individuals. And while there is quite a bit of money being directed to reduce these figures, we should be able to do so smarter, more efficiently, and more effectively.

The D.C. model is a clever utilization of available resources, and can be replicated—and scaled— in Baltimore City. A coordinated effort between stakeholders such as the Mayor’s Office of Human Services, the Maryland Department of Human Resources, and Health Care for the Homeless, et al., with additional guidance and investment from the local philanthropic community—Abell Foundation and Open Society Institute-Baltimore, come to mind—could make for a successful experiment.

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