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Census shows striking growth in Baltimore homelessness

As one might expect in a miserable economy, Baltimore’s overall homeless population swelled nearly 20 percent during the past two years. The number of homeless young people (ages 13 to 24) jumped by 50 percent. The dramatic data, based on homeless counts conducted this winter, were revealed in two studies released in September by Morgan State University and Johns Hopkins University.

The biennial homeless censuses, which are required under federal law and are conducted on a single day—this year, Jan. 25—have trended upward since the first one in 2003 counted 2,681 homeless people in Baltimore, compared to 4,088 this year, according to the report by Morgan State’s School of Architecture and Planning. Called a “point-in-time” survey, the census effort looks for homeless people living on the streets as well as those checking into shelters and hospital emergency rooms and receiving other homeless services.

The count of Baltimore’s young homeless people, which is evaluated separately by the Center for Adolescent Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and is undertaken over a period of weeks instead of one day, has risen 135 percent since 2007, from 272 to 640. Rather than canvassing the streets for homeless youngsters, the effort relies on data provided by cooperating service providers, including the city public-schools system.

The head counts’ growth can in part be attributed to improved efforts to find more homeless people, says Katherine Briddell, the director of the city’s Homeless Services Program, which commissioned the reports. Nonetheless, the numbers necessarily lowball the actual size of a population that often resists being found and counted.

“We had many more people on the street, and in many more areas than in the past” for this year’s count, Briddell says, adding that the census “absolutely” misses large numbers of homeless people who seek shelter in abandoned structures. “We know they are there,” she says, “but we don’t know where they are or how many.”

Whereas the 2009 census “focused strictly on downtown” for counting people living on the streets, Briddell continues, the 2011 effort “dramatically expanded our catchment area. We made a concerted effort to access more people this time.”

The effort paid off by finding a much larger number of people living without shelter. According to Morgan State’s report, titled “Counting Matters,” the number of unsheltered homeless people grew more than 45 percent from 2009, when 1,243 were counted, to 2011, when the street census found 1,795 people. The rise in the number of unsheltered people accounts for more than 82 percent of the overall increase in the number of homeless counted from 2009 to 2011. (City Paper was unable to reach the report’s author, Mary Anne Alabanza Akers, by press time.)

In the future, Briddell says, the census will also seek to count more people who are “doubled up, which means two families are living in one house, but only one is on the lease. Essentially, these people are couch-surfing, and they are harder to count.”

The census of homeless youngsters, titled “Homeless Young People in Baltimore,” was conducted by Johns Hopkins professor Nan Marie Astone and Ross Pologe, executive director of both Fellowship of Lights, a nonprofit that helps runaways, and Baltimore Homeless Youth Initiative. Both say counting this population is more difficult than with homeless adults, since young people tend to hide their homelessness and are more adept at finding places to sleep at night (“Nowhere to Go,” Feature, Aug. 11, 2010).

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