Volunteers try to count Baltimore County's homeless

Eric Becker was a teacher, with a house and a family. But when his wife was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, he quit his job to care for her.

And so the downward spiral began. As he tells it, his health insurance lapsed, his savings ran out, and soon after his wife died, he lost their home in Timonium to foreclosure.

On the street for more than two years, he took time Thursday at the Prologue outreach center in Towson to fill out Baltimore County's annual survey of the homeless population.

"Once you are homeless, it is difficult to get hired anywhere," said Becker, 58. "It's a full-time job just finding a place to go and a place to sleep. If nothing else, this survey will recognize more people are homeless and need help."

For 12 hours Thursday, 65 volunteers traveled the county to check shelters, libraries, soup kitchens and bus stops. The data they gathered will be critical to securing money from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development for transitional housing programs, outreach centers, havens from domestic violence and shelters for families and singles.

"The study paints a picture of how many people are living on the streets or in shelters and why they are homeless," said Sue Bull, the county's homeless coordinator.

Stuart R. Hancock Jr., program director at the Prologue center, helped Josh Bobbitt, 35 and homeless since June, fill in the blanks.

"It is all about getting help and getting back out there," Bobbitt said.

Jim Frye, 61, homeless for nearly three years, works two days a week at the center, helping to hand out donations of clothing, blankets and hand-warmers, while keeping the coffee brewing. When not at the center, Frye's home is a tent he pitched in an isolated wooded area.

"This count will help the government see what kind of services people can use and what is not available," Frye said.

Becker was hopeful.

"All I want is a permanent, steady income and a room somewhere so I can start living in a civilized way again," he said.

Hancock worked from his office at the center - an easier task, he said, than the volunteers focused on a street count: "You could wander in the library at three different times today and still miss 15 homeless."

Counting all the homeless in the county's nearly 650-square-mile expanse in one 12-hour period is nearly impossible, Hancock said. "But for organizations that are totally grant-funded, this survey is critical."

Bull said that the weather Thursday, milder than during last year's count, which took place in the aftermath of an ice storm, should help volunteers get a more accurate count of the numbers living without shelter. She expects an increase from the 2009 count of 671 homeless.

"We are sweeping the county and wrapping the Beltway," she said. "The homeless are helping us, too. They know each other and will let us know where we can find people."

The volunteers asked respondents basic questions, including how they became homeless and where they slept the night before. They promised anonymity to respondents.

"We want to know if this is a first time or chronic problem, if you are a veteran and if you are accompanied by others, especially children," Bull said.

Hancock saw a nearly 60 percent increase in visits to the center last year, which typically welcomes about 40 homeless a day, mostly men, but occasionally women and children. He also sees longer periods of homelessness, with about 46 percent on the street for more than a year, he said. Nearly half have a high school education and most are willing to work, he said.

"We are seeing a real shift in demographics," he said. "We are seeing more single parents, intact families and elderly. ... Clearly, there is a need for more resources."

Hancock gently urged center visitors Thursday to complete the survey. Most were willing.

Census workers will likely call at the same locations in April, he said.

"We already know that the Census Bureau is aggressively trying to connect with programs that deal with the homeless," Hancock said. "Our survey, which is for HUD, does not carry the same weight, but we get a snapshot of this population."

Bull said her staff will need about two weeks to compile the data and formulate a final count. She expects the survey to show a growing problem that is "both awful and very real," she said. "It helps tell us why homelessness exists and how many people it affects."

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