While there are dozens of homeless shelters in Baltimore City, the mission to end homelessness is far from over. According to The Journey Home, Baltimore City’s official plan to make homelessness “rare and brief,” there were nearly 2,800 people experiencing homelessness in the city, according to a 2014 study, which represents more than a third of the state’s estimated homeless population.
“Homelessness doesn’t just become a state that a person is in because of a single bad day or a single bad choice,” said Kris Sharrar, director of philanthropy at Helping Up Mission. Rather, homelessness occurs because of a particular circumstance or set of circumstances in one’s life. He added, “addiction has a high correlation.”
Helping Up Mission was founded in Baltimore City in 1885 as an emergency overnight shelter for homeless men. But in the mid-1990s, HUM began a program not only to take men in from the street, but also to help them attain sobriety and reach physical, mental, professional and spiritual goals. “We are not exclusively an overnight shelter, but we bring permanent hope to those experiencing homelessness and addiction,” said Sharrar.
Sharrar has a unique perspective on the services he and HUM provide. In March 2006, he went through the program himself.
“I am a twice-degreed college graduate, former military officer in the Air Force, a husband, a father. Yet, none of that protected me from addiction,” he said.
Although Sharrar had a brief reprieve from addiction in 2005, simply regaining the material things he had in his life — his job, a home, money — that was not enough to keep him clean. The only thing that kept him sober, and therefore out of the streets, was to address underlying issues that drove him to abuse alcohol and drugs in the first place.
Helping Up Mission serves men experiencing homelessness and addiction by focusing on five key areas: improving clinical and mental health; developing spirituality; providing support services; providing additional medical services; and fostering life enrichment. Whether its music, athleticism, reading or writing, HUM hopes its men can either discover or rediscover what makes them tick.
While volunteering in a soup kitchen or working for a shelter might be the most common forms of helping the homeless, the factors leading so many people to experience homelessness are multifaceted, and so are the many ways one can help.
Less than a mile from Helping Up Mission are the offices of Homeless Persons Representation Project, the state’s only organization specifically dedicated to providing pro-bono legal services and advocacy on behalf of Maryland’s homeless population. Its executive director, Antonia Fasanelli, has been advocating for homeless people since her youth, after watching the son of a family friend live and ultimately die on the streets of Washington, D.C.
Besides addiction and mental health issues, Fasanelli asserts that many are left homeless because of laws and policies, such as criminal record barriers to employment.
“Homelessness is an entirely solvable condition in our society,” she said. “Until we ensure that every member of our community has housing, we will continue to have homelessness, and people will continue to die on the streets. Our biggest challenge is convincing policy leaders to make decent, safe and affordable housing a priority.”
[pullquote]“Homelessness is an entirely solvable condition in our society. Until we ensure that every member of our community has housing, we will continue to have homelessness, and people will continue to die on the streets.” — Antonia Fasanelli, executive director, Homeless Persons Representation Project[/pullquote]
The Homeless Persons Representation Project operates a dozen legal clinic sites around Maryland, including in Baltimore City and Montgomery, Cecil and St. Mary’s counties. With the help of hundreds of lawyers, paralegals and law students, HPRP is able to take on more than 1,000 cases a year to help people find homes and receive public benefits.
As fall becomes winter and the temperature steadily drops, homeless shelters and services around town will see an increase in their workload. For a person with any kind of illness, whether it’s the common cold, chronic back pain or an infected cut, homelessness will only exacerbate the malady.
“We believe housing is health care,” says Kevin Lindamood, president and CEO of Health Care for the Homeless, an organization in downtown Baltimore that not only enrolls citizens without homes into Medicaid, but provides onsite and mobile healthcare services.
Over the course of 32 years, HCH has worked to design a health-care system for vulnerable people including medical care, mental health services, addiction services and dental care, among others.
Lindamood began his work with the homeless in his youth after recognizing what he viewed as structural shortcomings. Although Lindamood has worked with Health Care for the Homeless for almost 25 years, he said the most dramatic increase in resource availability happened in 2014.
“For decades, the majority of people experiencing homelessness were not eligible for health care assistance no matter how poor they were,” he said. In 2013, only 30 percent of HCH’s clients had some form of public assistance. But in 2014, thanks in large part to the Affordable Care Act, 90 percent of clients were eligible for Medicaid.
Despite this major victory for homeless advocates across the country, Lindamood feels the answer to a happier, healthier homeless population is simple.
“The very best way we’ve found to improve the health of people experiencing homelessness is to house them,” he said. “By providing strong safety nets, we can actually save on public costs.”
Connor Graham is a local freelance writer.