Emotional stories of loss and recovery choked up those who spoke from experience about being homeless and those who advocate for them at a student forum held Tuesday at Howard Community College.
"Our mission is to get all of you fired up about alleviating the effects of poverty," Deepak Chadha, a volunteer with the Community Action Council of Howard County, told the gathering of 75 students.
The council, a nonprofit founded in 1964, joined with three men from the Baltimore Faces of Homelessness Speakers Bureau to present the program.
Chadha, who was a longtime CAC employee before switching to volunteering, presented countywide statistics on how poverty can quickly upend lives, with devastating results.
In Howard County, he said, 4.6 percent of the population — or 30,800 people — live at or below federal poverty guidelines.
"What does it mean to be poor? For a family of four, the federal government says their income must be $23,550 or less," he said.
"But $50,000 is required for a family for self-sufficiency [in Howard County]. That means an additional 43,000 people in the county need our support."
With the average county home costing $447,000 and a two-bedroom apartment renting for $19,500 a year, "it's clearly not possible for these families to find affordable housing," he said. "We have distributed 1,140 housing vouchers, but we have 5,200 families on a waiting list."
Chadha said there are four "big pockets" of need in the eastern part of the county, in Columbia, Savage, Elkridge and Laurel, while the average annual income in western Howard is $181,000.
"What kind of county do we want?" Chadha asked. "Do we want a county of haves and have-nots?"
Mark Schumann, editor-in-chief of Word on the Street, a quarterly newspaper for and about homeless people in Baltimore, followed Chadha's presentation and asked the audience, "How many people know a homeless person?"
Seven hands went up — a response he had anticipated.
"The city is more poverty-stricken and there is more homelessness" than in Howard County, said Schumann, who himself has been homeless.
Schumann said his story began at age 12 in California, when he fled an "incredibly brutal" family that had adopted him nine years earlier. Police caught him and returned him to that family, so he ran away again and was caught a second time and placed in a juvenile facility, he said.
He eventually moved to Wyoming, where he worked for 15 years until on-the-job injuries left him physically disabled and unemployed. That led to depression and drinking.
His sister brought him to Maryland, where he received services, "but seven years ago I ended up on the streets, sleeping on benches," he said. When he finally obtained housing with an agency's assistance three years ago, he knew he'd turned a corner.
"It's located in a horrible neighborhood, but being able to turn a key and walk in the door and feel somewhat secure …" he said, breaking off as emotion overwhelmed him.
Schnell Garrett, assistant director of student life at HCC, noticed that only a few hands went up when Schumann asked how many people knew a homeless person — but she challenged students to think again.
"What struck me was that even if you didn't raise your hand, you know a homeless person," Garrett said. "Many of our students don't always have a place to live.
"We tend to think of homeless people as being 'them' and living 'there,' but they are here" in Howard County, she said. "I can't hide from it anymore, because I see it every day.