Activists: House homeless at Baltimore hotels during pandemic

Housing advocates are calling on Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young to start moving homeless residents into hotels to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Baltimore City Councilman Ryan Dorsey and Councilman Zeke Cohen were among those requesting that Baltimore house homeless residents in currently empty hotels. The legislators called on the mayor to push hotels owned or subsidized by the city, such as the city-owned Hilton Baltimore Inner Harbor Hotel, to provide rooms.

“I don’t know that the City Council has any ability to force them to open up rooms,” Dorsey said during a conference call Monday. “I think it’s reasonable to ask the mayor that the Hilton step up.”

Activist groups, including Housing Our Neighbors and the Fair Development Roundtable, hosted the call. On March 18 those groups and others sent a letter to Young requesting that Baltimore move to prevent evictions, secure rent and mortgage forgiveness for six months, and relocate residents in homeless shelters and encampments.

So far Young’s administration has not responded to the letter, activists said.

As a result of the pandemic, Baltimore’s hotel rooms remain largely empty. The dearth of customers at hotels has contributed to projected revenue losses of nearly $170 million through the end of fiscal year 2020 and into fiscal year 2021, according to Baltimore budget officials.

Visit Baltimore, the city’s tourism promotion agency, expected to lose $7 million in hotel tax revenues through April, May and June because of empty hotel rooms based on Smith Travel Research projections.

As a result, hotels have started to lay off staff, as first-time unemployment filings for Maryland residents over the past two weeks topped 84,230.

Matt Hill, an attorney with the Public Justice Center, said the mayor’s office told him the city has reserved some hotel rooms and was looking to reserve more. Hill said that was a “good start” but that Baltimore needs between 650 and 700 hotel rooms for homeless people.

The largest challenge for Baltimore in terms of moving homeless residents to hotels is providing adequate staffing, Hill said. Those staffing needs can be met if the city works with nonprofits and the state and takes advantage of recently approved federal stimulus funds, he said.

However, Hill characterized the situation now as “unsustainable.”

Gwen Dubois, an internist and president of Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility, and Margaret Flowers, a pediatrician and co-director of Popular Resistance, said on the conference call that providing housing for the homeless during the COVID-19 outbreak would help reduce the danger to the broader population.

“It’s very alarming that men, women and children are living in crowded conditions in shelters and encampments,” Dubois said.

So far, 4,045 cases of the virus have been confirmed in Maryland, as well as 91 deaths caused by COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. In Baltimore, eight of the 435 residents infected by the virus have died.

Mark Council, a Housing Our Neighbor member who’s staying at the Weinberg Housing and Resource Center, said the shelter doesn’t provide enough space for the social distancing required to prevent the disease from spreading. There are about 300 men staying at the facility. He called the need for space “desperate.”

“We demand fair housing for the homeless and if possible in a hotel,” Council said.

The conference call, initially set up as a Zoom meeting, was disrupted by hackers. The disruption, known as Zoombombing, has become a problem on the videoconferencing site that many workers and employers now depend on to communicate while stay-at-home orders are in place. The call was quickly reorganized and hosted by Dorsey.

Dorsey said he doesn’t believe the City Council can compel all hotels to take homeless residents. However, the councilman said he thinks it’s reasonable to ask some hotels — such as the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront, which makes a payment in lieu of taxes to the city — to help during the crisis.

“With as many empty hotel rooms as there are, in a variety of hotels in this city — in some cases these hotels would not exist without the public support to make them possible — it’s reasonable to expect corporations to do as much as possible — and we know they’re not doing as much as possible,” Dorsey said.


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