Howard County's homeless population decreased this year to 203, according to a Point-In-Time survey conducted in January by the county government.
However, Andrea Ingram, executive director of the Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center in Columbia, said the number of homeless is higher than the survey indicates.
"This is a snapshot of one day," she said. "We're counting people who we can get our hands on."
Ingram said the crisis counselors at Grassroots received 150 to 160 calls or walk-ins a month from people who are homeless or about to be homeless.
This year's survey, taken Jan. 23, included 65 people living unsheltered, such as outdoors or in cars. Last year's survey counted 230 homeless individuals, including 82 living unsheltered.
The majority of homeless surveyed this year are staying in North Laurel and Savage area, according to Vidia Dhanraj, coordinator of community partnerships with the Department of Citizen Services.
The Point-In-Time survey, which has not fluctuated greatly in the county over the past four years, is required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to determine grant funding.
County officials who work with the homeless said that finding affordable housing is the biggest challenge.
"When you come right down to it, it's about housing," Ingram said.
Howard County still is searching for a location for an apartment building for the chronically homeless.
"Even the cheapest apartment in Howard County is outside their [the homeless] financial reach," said Melinda Becker, manager of the Day Resource Center on Route 1 in Jessup.
The Day Resource Center sees about 75 guests a day on the three days a week it is open, according to Becker.
Guests are typically dealing with a mental health or addiction issue and once they make the commitment to go to rehabilitation, they have nowhere to go once they are out, Becker said.
"They come back to living in a tent, car or truck bed," she said. "They're right back into the drug-using community they had left."
The county had planned to build a 33- to 50-unit apartment building at the site of the Beechcrest Mobile Home Park. However, Howard County Executive Ken Ulman has told the Housing Commission to suspend planning for the site, according to Tom Carbo, executive director of the Howard County Housing Commission.
Carbo said he and Ulman still believe Beechcrest is an appropriate site, but also understand the concerns of the community.
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The commission had acquired the 5.5-acre mobile home park, located north of Whiskey Bottom Road along Route 1, in September from Atapco Properties. The county planned on closing the park Nov. 15 while providing relocation assistance to residents that equaled at least 10 months' rent.
But residents at the 38-unit mobile home park complained that they were being unfairly forced out, and nearby residents expressed concern that a homeless shelter would bring crime and drug use to the area.
The commission is looking for another site along the Route 1 corridor, but if an alternative can't be found, the commission will look again at Beechcrest, Carbo said.
He said there is no time frame on securing an alternative site.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced March 13 that Howard would receive $864,000 for housing and local services for the homeless.
Dhanraj said this funding will be used for permanent supportive housing for chronically homeless individuals and families with disabilities.
The county spends about $2.5 million annually on homeless services, including food, shelter and crisis intervention programs run by Grassroots and the Community Action Council, Dhanraj said.