Advocates for the poor renewed their call last night for more affordable housing to reduce the number of homeless people in the county.
"People are falling through the cracks," Linda Soule, executive director of Churches Concerned for the Homeless, told about two dozen people at a public forum on the homeless.
"We have a backlog of people waiting to get [federally subsidized] housing."
Each night, at least 90 people -- mostly children -- sleep in Howard's homeless shelters, according to the latest county figures released during the forum at the East Columbia Library senior center.
The county housed 481 people for at least one night in shelters last fiscal year, which ended June 30, and more than 300 others were turned away because the shelters were full.
"It's not the same problem as in the urban jurisdictions," said Robert Mulderig, co-chairman of the county board on the homeless.
"But if there's one homeless person in Howard County, it's one too many."
Last night's forum was the first public discussion of the county's homeless problem since County Executive Charles I. Ecker organized a summit on the homeless in October 1993 at which advocates called for more affordable housing.
Mr. Ecker, who did not attend last night's forum, organized the 1993 meeting at the prodding of social service providers who warned him of the growing number of homeless people.
In 1993, Howard's homeless -- about 700 people, according to the county's estimate -- crowded shelters and forced providers to seek more rooms than usual in local motels in which they house clients when their facilities are full.
The motel shelter program would have run out of money, but the county ordered shelter providers to reduce the number of rooms rented from 17 to eight.
Now when shelters are full and the maximum number of motel rooms are rented, homeless people are turned away.
"We have folks living in the shelter. We have folks living outside in the woods," Andrea Ingram, director of Grassroots Inc., one of the county's shelters, said during the forum.
Howard County, which has an estimated population of 211,800, has four organizations providing shelter for the homeless.
Three are non-profit: Grassroots, the Domestic Violence Center and Churches Concerned for the Homeless. The fourth is the county Department of Social Services, which is run by the state.
The homeless shelter programs in the county -- which offer 28 short-term beds and more than 60 long-term beds -- are not enough because people need a place to go after they leave the shelters, the social service providers said.
Ms. Ingram and others said the county needs more affordable housing to resolve the problem or others will also become homeless.
The county has more than 1,000 people on the waiting list for federally subsidized housing, and there's usually a three-year wait before housing is secured, according to Mr. Mulderig.
"We're not trying to characterize the problem as a particularly large problem or a small problem," Mr. Mulderig said. "I want to eliminate it all."
Mr. Mulderig said some temporary relief might come in the near future because of an announcement yesterday by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that $900 million will be available for short-term housing programs. He said the county is seeking some of that money, but he said he fears the current political climate could threaten such programs.
"That money might not be available in the future," Mr. Mulderig said.