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Joe Surkiewicz: How to end homelessness

Can the national crisis of homelessness be ended?

The answer is yes — and the solution may be closer than you think.

Join a panel of experts on Sept. 16 led by keynote speaker Rep. Elijah Cummings, D.-Md., and Baltimore City Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano, who will guide a discussion of the National Housing Trust Act, passed by Congress in 2008.

The rub: The act hasn’t been funded. Monday’s panel will discuss efforts underway to fund it, including a bill introduced in the House of Representatives that would add $200 billion of tax revenue over 10 years for low-income housing.

“The act is a beacon of hope,” said Jane Harrison, a Baltimore housing activist and board member of the Homeless Persons Representation Project, a nonprofit law firm and co-presenter of the annual Speaker Series on the Importance of Housing. “People are so ignorant of the situation regarding affordable housing. That’s why there is a national effort to shed a real light on a problem that’s mostly ignored.”

It all comes into focus when you consider that homelessness is poverty without a key to a house or apartment — and that the federal government’s commitment to expanding affordable housing is practically nonexistent.

“The direct consequence of that is people living on the street,” Harrison said. “But most people don’t make the connection. Public officials’ thinking about the problem stops at homeless shelters as the solution. But [they’re] not. I see the emphasis on the trust fund as a way of moving beyond this circular thinking.”

In her 35 years of experience as an affordable housing activist, homelessness has only gotten worse, she said.

“It’s because the underlying problems are getting worse,” said Harrison. “There is an indelible connection between folks who spiral down toward homelessness and we see them as hopeless cases. We forget about addressing the spiral. You get sick, you can’t go to work, you lose your job, the whole thing. It’s easy to lose track of the unaddressed causes. If we don’t act now, we’ll see even more people becoming homeless over the next 10 years.”

Jeff Singer, the founder and retired president of Health Care for the Homeless, will be a panelist at the event, where he will also release a white paper, “Housing Our Neighbors: The National Housing Trust Fund and Affordable Housing.”

When it comes to housing for low-income people, other developed countries do a better job, Singer said.

“European countries have larger social sectors, so they don’t have the level of homelessness that we have here,” he said. “About 25 percent of the housing is public over there, versus one percent here. About 60 percent of the housing in Vienna is public and it’s some of the best housing in the city, designed by the best architects. It’s a different mindset that says public housing isn’t the housing of last resort and it doesn’t have to be bad.”

In Baltimore, Singer said, public housing was “gutted” — along with welfare — in 1997, and since then no federal money has been spent to expand affordable housing.

“Plus, a lot of public housing units were torn down and replaced with a quarter of the number of units for families only, and none for single adults,” he added. “As a result, many single adults are homeless.”

In the U.S., about 34 million U.S. households pay more than half their income for housing, Singer said. The recommended level is no more than 30 percent.

“It’s not sustainable and it’s the number-one reason for homelessness,” he added. “The guy sleeping on the bench is just the tip of the iceberg. Most homeless people aren’t alcoholics or drug addicts. They’re people who had a job, paid rent or a mortgage, then lost their job.”

Trudy McFall, president of the Maryland Affordable Housing Coalition (the other event co-presenter), said that funding the trust act would have “a huge impact.”

“As envisioned, the trust focuses on very low-income people and it’s flexible,” said McFall, who also chairs Homes for America. “It’s the exact thing we’ve always needed, in that it will serve people at the 30-percent median income level and below. It will be a great additional tool. Anything would help. That’s why one should be enthusiastic about it.”

Another panelist, Sheila Crowley, is president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition in Washington, whose campaign, United for Homes, is the national champion for funding the trust.

“What we’re trying to address is the shortage of housing for low-income people,” said Crowley. “At the event, we’ll talk about the trust fund and how to fund it.”

The event, which is free, is Monday, Sept. 16, from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the Enoch Pratt Free Library’s Wheeler Auditorium, 400 Cathedral St. in downtown Baltimore. A short reception will follow the program. For more information, call (410) 685-6589, ext. 24.

Joe Surkiewicz is director of communications at the Homeless Persons Representation Project in Baltimore. His email is jsurkiewicz@hprplaw.org.