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Combatting homelessness in Harford County | READER COMMENTARY

Our nonprofit, the We Coalition of Maryland, has created a local coalition of individuals and service providers that have come together to advocate for vulnerable and homeless populations of Harford County. The COVID-19 pandemic, along with the economic crisis of 2020, has been devastating to hundreds of local families. We are asking for your help.

Our nonprofit formed to provide advocacy and resources for women and families in Harford County primarily due to the lack of housing and the devastating effect that has on a human being. It is our understanding that there are no more emergency housing funds available from county resources. Specifically, the Harford Community Action Agency is currently out of emergency housing funds and is referring calls to the Department of Social Services. The Department of Social Services does not provide emergency assistance. They investigate reported cases of neglect and abuse of vulnerable individuals.

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What are local families to do?

This year has been extraordinarily difficult for families and exposed numerous weaknesses in our system. We believe some of these actions are short term and some are longer term. The following recommendations require the attention of the County Council and local municipal leaders and should be implemented immediately.

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Expand homeless shelter resources: Welcome One, the only homeless shelter in the county, is located in Belcamp. This shelter has 15 beds, does not serve families and is located in an industrial park that many people cannot access without transportation. Harford County has no emergency shelter for families. Recently, several cases of pregnant homeless women were reported to local authorities that went unaddressed due to lack of resources.

To address this, we recommend the following:

  • Immediately identify public facilities and resources to expand the bed capacity and operation of Welcome One.
  • Open satellite emergency shelters around county.
  • Streamline referral process (service now — forms later)

Improve crisis response/homeless intake process: It is time to invest in our continuity of care program. Currently this crisis/homeless intake system is underfunded. While a housing crisis could take place at any time of day, the supportive agency that provides the continuity of care in Harford County works daytime, weekday, and seasonal hours. They need additional funds to provide crisis response 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Currently the system refers people to a 211 system that is not easy to use and does not ultimately connect to emergency housing resources. Countless people report barriers to obtaining these services and calling without a timely call back when they seek help because our response is not designed to offer 24/7 coverage.

Here are some recommendation to address this:

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  • A 24-hour crisis line should be immediately implemented by a third party agency to receive, assess and dispatch the calls, similar to the setup in Baltimore County. The dispatcher then refers to an appropriate provider. Often a person in crisis is not able to assess the best place for them to seek help.
  • Identify staff to do street outreach when a case is reported and assist with the actual form and intake process. Currently, clients must complete a multi-page form they can only access online or by driving to an office, which can be very difficult to accomplish if you only have a telephone to access and complete the online form, and when you are in the middle of a crisis.

Take immediate measures to mitigate affordable housing issues: Due to the extreme lack of affordable housing in the county, hundreds of families are either facing eviction or living day to day in the local motels. Many of these families have been living in these rooms for years. Here are some steps that should be taken to address this:

  • Cities and towns should offer one-time, need-based emergency housing vouchers to assist with a security deposit or one-time assistance for first month’s rent.
  • Let people donate travel points to pay for housing vouchers as a strategy to get families out of motels.
  • The county must return a percentage of hotel tax funds back to the towns and Edgewood, where it was collected to create a matching emergency fund to help qualifying families.
  • Identify projects and programs to attract investment in affordable housing projects, such as tax credits.

We must make mental health services and housing a priority.

Wini Roche, Aberdeen

Roche is the founder of the We Coalition of Maryland.

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