Faces of homelessness offer a reality check at Howard Community College

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.

"If you hear someone talking about being in trouble or in need, you should let them know there are resources available," she told the audience.

Tony Simmons is an ex-Marine who became unemployed after a workplace accident. He said he was deserted by his wife and kids after he took a job transporting illegal goods and was arrested. He told the audience that he has been homeless since 2010 yet has refused housing.

"How should I go home when disabled, children and elderly are on the streets?" he asked. "When their journey home begins, then I will go home."

Simmons, who distributes pamphlets on resources to homeless people, said he planned to participate in a "Sleep Out" that was scheduled for Saturday at Baltimore City Hall. The focus of the event is to advocate for housing justice and protest a City Council bill proposing stiffer penalties for panhandling.

Another speaker, Sean-Christopher Riley, asked the audience "to take 10 minutes of their time" to see what it's like to live outside on the street.

"Being on the streets is trauma, and it makes it hard to get back into society," he said. "We have the resources to end homelessness. It doesn't have to happen."

Chadha also challenged students to donate time and money to help make a difference. He offered a closing prayer: "May all be happy, may all be healthy, may all enjoy prosperity, may none suffer."

After the program, Sharie Mae David, whose immediate family is working to help extended family members in the typhoon-ravaged Philippines, said the speakers' message moved her.

"Their stories gave me a realization how fortunate I am to be under a roof and to have basic necessities," said the sophomore, who came to Columbia 10 years ago and is enrolled in the Rouse Scholars Program.

"Their story ties into my family's story," she said. "Whether people are homeless for financial reasons or due to a natural disaster, they're in a very hard situation and deserve help."

Susana Jimenez, also a sophomore Rouse Scholar, said she made a mental note of the idea that homeless people are constantly directed to stand in line to receive food, clothing or other assistance.

"I'm trying to think of a project that I could do to increase awareness and fundraising that I could name, 'Follow the Line,' " she said, repeating a speaker's catchphrase.

After the session, Garrett said, "I usually cry every time we do this program. It's something that really hits my heart.

"Some students are choosing between eating and paying their tuition," she said, revealing that youths often confide in her when they're experiencing a housing crisis and don't know where to turn.

"When I think about this country of ours and how many people can't afford a warm place to sleep, I feel great empathy," she said.

To contact the Community Action Council, call 410-313-6440 or go to cac-hc.org. To contact the Baltimore Faces of Homelessness Speakers Bureau, go to facesofhomelessnessbmore.blogspot.com.

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