Howard County will receive nearly $700,000 in federal funds to house 25 disabled homeless residents over three years -- part of an effort to focus on permanent housing for the homeless instead of short-term shelters in one of the state's wealthiest counties.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development grant, one of the largest contributions to Howard County's programs to help the homeless, comes after bitter disputes over the severity of Howard's homeless problem.
Most homeless advocates concede that the situation isn't as severe as in more urban areas of the state. Howard is estimated to have, at most, 800 homeless among its 218,000 residents, and the county's poverty level is less than half the 7 percent statewide average.
Even so, advocates argue that the county's homeless services are needed to help a hidden population of poor people and to help domestic violence victims, who make up about a third of the county's homeless.
"We don't see people on the street, but that doesn't mean we don't have homeless people," said Anne Wicke, coordinator of the county's Office of Disabilities Services. "We know that there are many people who are homeless who have chronic mental illness."
The HUD grant will help house those with long-term or permanent physical or mental disabilities. To qualify, the person or family must be living on the street, in a homeless shelter or be facing discharge from a hospital or institution and have no place to live.
This week, the Office of Disabilities Services began seeking applications for the first 10 rental subsidies. It will seek applications for the remaining 15 in the fall.
Andrea Ingram, executive director of Grassroots Inc., one of the county's primary homeless shelters, said about 40 percent of the shelter's clients fit both the disability and homelessness criteria.
Grassroots serves about 100 clients every three months. But the nonprofit group also turns away 40 to 50 clients during that same period for lack of space.
Countywide, there are 92 beds available for homeless people. Based on its own homeless tracking system, the county estimates there are 700 to 800 homeless people who require the $1.5 to $2 million worth of shelter programs each year.
Critics have argued that the estimate of the county's homeless population is too high. If the county had 800 homeless people, they say, people would be sleeping on the streets or on park benches.
Advocates concede that it is difficult to get an accurate tally of the total number of homeless people but say the county does have a problem. They note that the county serves 400 to 500 people in its shelters each year and turns away many others when the shelters are full.
"There's no precise way to be completely accurate about the number of homeless," said Manus O'Donnell, director of Citizen Services, the agency that oversees the county's social programs. "You can't do that."
All sides, however, agree that Howard's chronic lack of affordable housing is at the root of the problem. The three-year wait list for federally subsidized housing -- known as Section 8 -- in Howard is evidence of the need for more affordable housing, homeless advocates say.
The solution, they say, is more money for permanent housing for the homeless, rather than quick fixes in overnight shelters. Federal and state governments take a similar view.
Advocates say the new grant program for the disabled will help reduce the number of people waiting for Section 8 certificates.
"Many people who have disabilities have jobs and they have income," Ms. Wicke said. "They just don't have enough, and it takes a long time to get to the top of the Section 8 wait list."
Information on how to get an application for a rent subsidy through the HUD program can be obtained by calling the Office of Disabilities Services at 313-6402 or, for TTY service, 313-6401.