Shelter providers, religious leaders and government officials yesterday called on the county to streamline services for the needy and establish programs to help people avoid becoming homeless.
"We do have a homeless problem in Howard County," County Executive Charles I. Ecker told the group of more than 100 people, gathered for the county's first summit for the homeless.
"It appears that we are not doing enough," Mr. Ecker said. "We need to work together to solve this problem."
At the prodding of homeless shelter operators, Mr. Ecker, who left the discussion early, organized the summit to encourage government and community support to combat what officials say is a growing problem.
In groups of about 10 people, participants proposed that the county establish a centralized agency to coordinate all homeless services.
"A lot of us are doing the same things," said Bob Cremen, director of the Caring for the Needy Ministry, which operates five food pantries in the county.
"There needs to be a one-place entry system," Mr. Cremen said.
Howard has four organizations providing shelter for the homeless: Grassroots, the Domestic Violence Center, Churches Concerned for the Homeless and the Howard County Department of Social Services.
The county maintains 100 beds in the shelters, which includes 20 in the county motel program, 27 in emergency shelters and 53 long-term beds, more than triple the 31 beds available in 1989.
That total doesn't include the motel shelter program run by the Department of Social Services, which last year provided temporary shelter for 350 people.
Currently, the county estimates that there are more than 700 homeless people, more than 100 more than were estimated last year.
The key to solving the problem in Howard, shelter providers say, is providing prevention programs and low-income housing.
"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure; it all goes back to that," said County Council Chairwoman Shane Pendergrass.
Lynda Cohen of Columbia, one of two residents to testify yesterday, said such prevention assistance could save her family from becoming homeless.
After waiting three years for low-income housing through the federally funded Section 8 housing program, Ms. Cohen said she is now No. 42 on the waiting list of 600 to 1,000 applicants.
Recipients of Section 8 certificates pay 30 percent of their gross adjusted income toward rent, with the rest paid by the federal government.
A single mother with three sons, ages 13, 11 and 9, Ms. Cohen said she is facing eviction because she can't maintain the payments on her rent without assistance.
"A series of financial and medical crises led to my problem," she told the summit participants. "I am just unable to afford rent, and the basic necessities it takes to raise a family at this time.
"I have contacted many agencies around the county and basically was told that until the judge issues you a court order and you are about to be put on the street, their agency cannot help," she said.
Social service officials said Ms. Cohen's testimony, which was given in the closing moments of the summit, helped put a face on the summit's discussions.
"There are a lot of Lyndas out there," said Dorothy Moore, director of the Community Action Council, which provides eviction prevention assistance.
"Until we as a community at large realize there is a need for more low-income housing . . . we're going to be creating more homelessness," said Leonard Vaughan, director of the Howard County Department of Housing and Community Development.
Mr. Ecker said he would review the findings at the summit when a final report is drafted.
Causes of homelessness
Informal eviction .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .33%
Domestic violence .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .26%
Formal eviction .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ...17%
Family conflict .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .6%
Disaster (flood, fire, etc.) .. .. .. ...4%
Transient .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .3%
Institutional discharge .. .. .. .. .. ..2%
Substance abuse .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .2%
Mental health .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ...1%
Other .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..6%