Baltimore County plans to shorten shelter stays, increase outreach to people on the streets and expand job-seeking help under a 10-year plan to reduce homelessness.
Helping people find a path to self-sufficiency was the focus as county officials and advocates unveiled the long-term plan Thursday. They want to break stereotypes, too.
"We have to educate our county residents that homelessness isn't the guy panhandling on the street," County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said.
Kamenetz described being shocked after hearing a few years ago from a man he grew up with. The man had no place to go and ended up in a shelter after his life "spiraled out of control," the county executive said. The man, who has since died, "was not someone I thought would be a homeless person."
The 10-year plan, developed over the past four years, is meant to bring the county into line with federal standards for homeless services. This year, the county will spend an additional $530,000 for the strategy.
That money will go toward expenses such as additional outreach workers and funding a person to work at shelters to help people find job leads. Small grants will help families pay for utilities, a security deposit or essential furnishings.
The idea is to divert people away from shelters whenever possible by finding alternatives, such as staying with family members, and to use shelters only for the people most in need, said Sue DeSantis, the county's homeless services administrator. The county is focused on linking families with services to help find permanent housing.
"We're connecting them more quickly to education, to employment, which is essential," she said.
The county wants to create more "permanent supportive housing" units, which provide services such as housing counseling.
Officials outlined the new strategy at the site of the former Nehemiah House off Philadelphia Road in Rosedale. Nehemiah House was once a shelter for about 50 men, but it closed in 2012.
Now, the county's planning office and human services department have partnered with the Episcopal Housing Corporation and United Ministries to convert the building into efficiency apartments for a dozen chronically homeless men.
Each man will have his own kitchen and bathroom to encourage independence, rather than the traditional group facilities, said Daniel McCarthy, executive director of Episcopal Housing Corporation.
United Ministries will provide services such as case management, medical and mental health care, said Executive Director Sheila Helgerson.
The county estimates that more than 550 people are in county shelters or on the streets on any given night.
Last year, the county got nearly 6,300 requests to stay in homeless shelters — and turned down about 85 percent. Some requests were denied because there were not enough beds, while in other cases the county decided the shelter wasn't the best option.
The crowd Thursday heard from Debra Brown, 58, who stayed at the Hannah More shelter and at YWCA's permanent supportive housing. The staff helped her work through the grief of losing her brother and eventually toward finding a place to live independently starting in March.
"They helped me get my self-esteem back," she said.