County homeless come into focus with study Ecker, providers organize summit

THE BALTIMORE SUN

For the first time, Howard County officials believe they have a snapshot of the county's homeless.

Three out of five homeless people are either victims of domestic violence or once stayed with friends or relatives who could no longer provide housing for them, according to Manus O'Donnell, director of the county Department of Citizens Services.

Mr. O'Donnell found that 33 percent of the county's roughly 700 homeless people were forced to leave the home of a relative or friend, 26 percent were domestic violence victims, and 17 percent were formally evicted from their homes.

"The homeless issue is not just a government problem but a community problem as well," he said.

On Tuesday, Mr. O'Donnell plans to present these findings at the county's first summit on homelessness. At the request of shelter providers at the Domestic Violence Center, in Columbia County Executive Charles I. Ecker organized the summit as part of a plea for more government and community assistance to combat what the county has called a growing homelessness problem.

The statistics don't surprise Stephanie Sites, the center's executive director.

"Homeless is not just the man on the street corner," she said. "A battered woman is counted in the same category. [Battered women] are homeless because their home is not a safe place.

"We think of a man very bedraggled, on the street," she said. "It could be anyone."

But one community worker wonders how the county defines homelessness and whether people evicted by friends or family members should be included in those statistics.

"Howard County is unique in regards to what is perceived as homelessness," said Dorothy Moore, director of the Community Action Council, which provides eviction-prevention assistance. "That homelessness is not the traditional homelessness."

Shelter providers to speak

Tuesday's summit, which runs from 8:30 a.m. to noon at the Interfaith Center in the Village of Oakland Mills, will open with a presentation by local shelter providers. Organizers plan to divide the general meeting into small groups for discussion of ways the community and the government can resolve Howard's immediate and long-term homeless problems.

The discussion groups will report back to the general meeting the ideas they generated.

In preparation for the summit, Mr. O'Donnell analyzed forms submitted to the Howard County Department of Citizens Services, which primarily oversees county shelters. The agency began using a new tracking system in January.

Citizens Services now records on a Homeless Tracking Form the names, social security numbers and last permanent addresses of homeless people who seek shelter. The form also describes how the person became homeless.

Before the tracking system, Citizens Services estimated the number of homeless people by adding the number housed in shelters and the number turned away because shelters were full. However, the same individual could be turned away from more than one shelter, which often resulted in counting a homeless person more than once.

Last year, Citizens Services estimated, there were 600 homeless people in the county, Mr. O'Donnell said. This year, there were an estimated 100 more.

But Ms. Moore believes the homeless problem is not as bad as the county has made it out to be.

If there were 700 homeless, "they should be stretched out in the lobby of my condominium," Ms. Moore said. "I don't think we've done our homework when it comes to this summit. The general public needs to be informed before it gives more. The community is already doing a lot."

25% of homeless

Ms. Moore doesn't argue, however, with the need for shelter for women and their children, who make up a quarter of the county's homeless.

The Domestic Violence Center, which serves their needs, operates on an $405,000 annual budget and has eight short-term, emergency beds for month-long stays in its Columbia shelter and 28 beds in long-term shelters.

Anne, a 33-year-old mother of two who did not want to give her full name, lived in one of the center's long-term shelters for two years.

Anne sought help from the center after living for eight years with a husband who frightened her, and verbally abused her because the house was never clean enough for him, she said.

"We had pets flying through the house," Anne said. "You know, the cat gets in his way, and he would kick the cat."

The longer she stayed, she said, the worse it became.

"He said, 'If you walk out of here, you're going to die,' " she said. "It was kind of like walking on eggshells all the time."

In September, Anne -- with her 6- and 7-year-old children -- left her husband while he was away for his monthly weekend duty in the Army Reserves. A friend persuaded her to seek help at the Domestic Violence Center.

She said she had nowhere else to go. Although she had been working, her husband had run up their credit card bills too high for her to pay them. With her credit ruined, she said, she could not rent an apartment.

Anne's two years at the center helped her reorganize her finances. She left the center in June and moved into her own apartment.

Gail Mackey, 42, found the same type of help in managing her money from the Grassroots motel shelter program. But unlike Anne, she didn't leave her husband. On March 28, 1989, he left her -- three days before the couple was scheduled to move from their home in Randallstown to Columbia.

The Randallstown home had already been sold. Ms. Mackey, her 13-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son had nowhere else to go but the house in Columbia, which carried a monthly mortgage and utilities cost of about $1,000.

Working 3 jobs to pay bills

For a month and a half, she worked three jobs, trying to keep up the payments on the house and to pay the bills she and her husband created during the 17 years they were together.

"I was kind of like on auto pilot," she said.

Then she collapsed.

"It dawned on me. He's gone," Ms. Mackey said.

It was at that time she began to realize she could not maintain the lifestyle her husband helped her have.

Ms. Mackey's son moved in with his father, while she and her daughter moved into an apartment. Still saddled with more bills then she could pay, she began living in her car after a year.

On occasion, friends provided room in their homes or a landlord would let her rent an apartment, but she had grown sick by then.

Last July, she moved into the Grassroots motel shelter program to pull her life back together.

"You do it for the children," Ms. Mackey said. "They didn't ask to come into this world."

Crowding at Grassroots

Ms. Mackey is out of the shelter, having moved out last month, and will speak at Tuesday's summit. But Grassroots is now serving 58 other clients in the motel shelter program, which was funded only for 24.

The program provides emergency housing in two area hotels when the group's emergency shelter in Columbia is filled.

Mr. Ecker has proposed that an additional $30,000 be allocated for the program, which will run out of money by the end of this year without extra funds. He will present the proposal to the County Council next month.

Grassroots also maintains 20 emergency beds and 12 long-term beds in transitional shelters.

Churches Concerned for the Homeless, a group of 29 churches, also provides shelter for homeless people in Howard. The group is currently housing 17 members of four families and two single men in Columbia.

The single men's program began last month.

All of the shelters in the county are filled to capacity.

Grassroots officials say they'll still need more money than the $30,000 Mr. Ecker has proposed because the number of homeless people continues to increase.

Shelter providers blamed a lack of low-income housing for part of the homelessness problem.

Leonard Vaughan, director of the Department of Housing and Community Development, said the waiting list for low-income housing contains 600 to 1,000 people.

The wait can be as long as two years, he said.

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