Staci M. Watkins was found dead a week ago in a patch of woods along U.S. 1 in Laurel, not far from the Turf Motel, where she'd been living for a few weeks.
She and her boyfriend, Donald "Butch" McCulley, were managing to keep the room on the first floor and avoid the more raw existence of many fellow homeless people who stay close to the old highway — some living in their cars, some under highway overpasses, some in tents in the woods behind the used-car lots, industrial buildings and fast-food restaurants.
About 10 p.m. on a Tuesday last month, she called a friend for a lift, McCulley says. She went out for cigarettes, he says, but didn't come back that night. When she didn't return the next day, he called police to report her missing. She'd been "pretty distraught," he says, worried about the treatment she was facing for osteoporosis that she feared would leave her without a left leg.
Howard County police say they do not suspect homicide, but no cause of death has been reported and the investigation is continuing.
Watkins was 49 years old, short and dark-haired, a former waitress and "phenomenal cook," McCulley says. Hers was a familiar face to regulars and volunteers at the Day Resource Center a couple of miles north of the Turf Motel, where homeless people can stop for a shower, use the Internet, pick up donated clothing and see a doctor once a month.
Every six months or so, a person with "no fixed address" is found dead in Howard County, often near U.S. 1, and often before their 50th birthday, says Joe Willmott, a county homeless advocate who volunteers at the resource center. Some, including Watkins, might have benefited from the apartments for the homeless that the Howard County Housing Commission hopes to build about two miles south of the center, Willmott says, part of a broad strategy intended to end homelessness in Howard.
"I think she's sort of a typical case of a person who had some medical vulnerabilities," says Willmott. Though she was living indoors before she was found, Willmott says she still "represents a type. Living on the verges of society, sometimes able to pay for a motel, sometimes not. Sometimes getting help, sometimes not, ultimately dying alone in the woods. ... If we had those sort of apartments, she'd likely be alive today."
Surveys done on one day in late January the past four years have shown that about 200 homeless people live in the county at any given time. This year's survey showed 230, nearly two-thirds of whom were in one of the county's three homeless shelters, one specifically for people dealing with domestic violence, or in temporary cold-weather refuge at local churches. Eighty-two of the homeless were not in shelters, meaning they were living outdoors, in their cars or in stairwells and doorways.
In September, the Housing Commission, a state authority independent of county government, bought the 5.5-acre Beechcrest trailer park property behind the Econo Lodge on Washington Boulevard as a site for an apartment building for the homeless. The agency envisions a building with 33 to 50 efficiency apartments, and a new location for the Day Resource Center.
Executive Director Tom Carbo says the commission bought the land for $1.6 million from a development group that had planned to put up an apartment building. He says the project is "in its infancy" and that no formal plans have been filed with the county and no analysis has been done of the cost.
"We may find out it's not cost-effective and we can't do it," says Carbo, adding that the plan is to lease the building to Volunteers of America, which runs similar projects elsewhere, including one in Greenbelt.
"This is not a shelter; it's not transitional housing," Carbo says. The people who rent the apartments, each 300 to 350 square feet, would pay an affordable rate and have a lease "like any other tenant."
Such apartments were called for in the county's Plan to End Homelessness, outlined in a 21-page report issued in 2010. The goal would be to allow homeless people to have a more stable life, particularly those considered "chronically" homeless, differentiated from those considered "situationally" homeless because of a crisis brought on by losing a job, a serious illness or accident, or the need to escape violence at home.
Chronically homeless people often have a history of mental illness, addiction or disability, and might spend years shuttling from shelters to emergency rooms to clinics to jails. Twenty years ago, a psychologist in New York began to explore the possibility that what homeless people need immediately is a stable place to live, rather than waiting to be considered ready for their own place by going through treatment first.
Once set up in an apartment of their own, Willmott says, homeless people "can work on the issues that caused their homelessness in the first place."
Howard County's Committee to End Homelessness says that "moving from place to place or living outdoors saps energy and resources, making difficult the changes needed to return to normal living. ... Without housing, nothing else works to end homelessness."
The approach has been shown to be effective and less expensive than the services homeless people rely on when on the street. According to the website of the nonprofit Pathways to Housing, the model has been adopted in more than 40 American cities.
Studies by Pathways in New York and Washington, according to the county committee, have shown that with a stable apartment, chronically homeless people "are twice as likely to be in housing after three years compared with persons who must seek treatment before being able to obtain housing."
The apartments would be part of an effort that includes addiction treatment, housing subsidies and health care, and a central contact point for people to call who are facing a housing crisis. The blueprint is being carried out piece by piece over a number of years.
Lois Mikkila, director of the county Department of Citizen Services, says as an element of the effort to end homelessness in Howard County, the apartment project "is huge, because right now, in most communities, affordable housing is an issue. Right now, we have the emergency shelters, but we don't have a lot of options beyond that."
Not everyone is enamored with the idea. People living in the trailer park, who have been told Beechcrest will close next November, are confused about what's next, and other area residents are unhappy with the notion of a homeless center in their midst.
"It's a big mess," says Chuck Winfrey, a carpenter who lives at Beechcrest with his wife and 2-year-old daughter. "Nobody knows what's going on."
Soon after the commission bought the land, representatives met with Beechcrest residents to tell them what was happening, and the panel has given the one-year notice for closing a trailer park required by state law, Carbo says. He says a management company has been hired to take over the property, including gathering information from renters and owners to prepare for a move.
The commission will offer the residents help in finding affordable homes, including paying moving costs and rent subsidies on their new places.
Some area homeowners say a center for homeless people is not what the area needs.
"I don't think the people in the area like it," says Bibi Perrotte-Foston, president of the North Laurel Civic Association, who says she's received several calls and email from residents who object to the apartment plan. She says she does not believe the proposal fits the goal of revitalizing U.S. 1, which is emphasized in PlanHoward 2030, the county's new master plan for growth adopted this year.
"I don't think a homeless shelter would be good for the area," Perrotte-Foston says. "I don't think that's what revitalization means."
While the Housing Commission did hold one community meeting last month, she says, officials have done a poor job of keeping people informed.
Richard Freas, a retired county firefighter who has lived in North Laurel for 26 years, says he's in favor of helping homeless people and realizes that opposing the project "makes you sound, at least, like a NIMBY [Not In My Backyard]."
Still, he's concerned about the impact the apartments could have on property values and wonders whether it's yet another example of how the 11-mile stretch of U.S. 1 corridor in the eastern end of Howard County seems to get the short end of the stick.
"This area sort of gets dumped on," Freas says.
Carbo says this is the beginning of the project and that further meetings with residents will be held as the work unfolds. He says the location makes sense for several reasons: The property is zoned for an apartment building; it's on U.S. 1, where most of the county's homeless people live; and it's close to public bus lines.
"We were not able to identify [other locations] that are appropriate," he says.
The spot is not far from the Turf Motel, from the place where Watkins' body was found, and from the Day Resource Center, where McCulley stopped by last week, getting hugs from people who had heard the news about Watkins.
They were together for three years, he says, spending the past year in three motels. It wasn't cheap, says McCulley, 50, who works as a handyman, walking U.S. 1 with a cardboard sign offering his services, handing out printed business cards and fliers. But he says they were never able to save enough for the upfront costs of a month's rent and security deposit for an apartment, or able to pass the required credit check.
"We never talked a lot about her past life," McCulley says. "But at least we were together and we loved each other."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun