As the financial and health effects of the COVID-19 crisis exacerbate longstanding inequities in housing in Maryland and across the U.S., government and nonprofit leaders are focused on how to cushion the impacts and help stave off homelessness for many.

A panel gathered by the United Way of Central Maryland discussed the state’s housing challenges and the priorities of local government agencies, advocacy groups and nonprofit organizations, such as Catholic Charities.

“At this point, our vulnerable families who were vulnerable before COVID-19 are more likely to face eviction, and are more likely to lose their income,” said Amy Collier, director of Catholic Charities’ Community Services Division, and a panelist at the Sept. 22 event.

United Way’s Associate Vice President of Homeless Services Scott Gottbreht shared data indicating around 247,000 Marylanders are currently behind on their rent, while nationwide, tens of millions of renters could face eviction by the end of the year.

Adding to an already challenging landscape

A range of troubling factors have shaped or defined Maryland’s housing market even before COVID-19, Collier said. These included historical racial discrimination, such as redlining and restrictive covenants; predatory financial practices at the federal, state and local levels; and a stark lack of affordable housing in most of the state. United Way data shows just 3 of every 10 Maryland families that need affordable housing can find it.

The pandemic has only added to this landscape, Collier explained, mentioning a series of challenges that accumulate for some families. These include: high unemployment; rising costs of child care as centers close or limit participants; increasing costs of food and transportation, particularly in times of scarcity; significant health care expenses for those affected by the pandemic; growing credit card debt and fees as people work to cover their basic needs; and toxic stress that can heighten behavioral health concerns.

“Families are often forced to make difficult decisions between health care and food, between child care and being able to bring income into the house,” Collier said.

She mentioned Catholic Charities’ Elevate program as one way to support people struggling to make ends meet. The program uses comprehensive case-management services and limited financial support to help Community College of Baltimore County students overcome outside-the-classroom barriers that can prevent them from reaching graduation and attaining the education or job skills necessary to increase their income.

Other panelists at the United Way event were: Stuart Campbell, director of the Office of Community Services Programs at the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development; Jeff Garrett, a homeless advocate; Matt Hill, attorney at the Public Justice Center; and Keenan Jones, homeless services administrator at Baltimore County Department of Planning.