Howard County has the highest median household income in Maryland and third highest in the nation, but 6,478 county families collected 288,000 pounds of free food distributed through the nonprofit Community Action Council during the past fiscal year.
The average price of a new house in the county in October was $458,725, but the month before, about 460 people in Howard were homeless or on the verge of it, a survey estimated. Starting tomorrow, up to 20 homeless people can stay at night in the church-run cold-weather shelter that moves from place to place each winter.
"There are folks in this county who can be making over six figures, and they think they have a hard time surviving," said Roy Appletree, president of Associated Community Services, an umbrella group of human services agencies.
"How do we explain to others how it is to live in this county with a whole lot less money?"
Appletree's remarks came last week at a lunchtime discussion titled "Surviving/Thriving in Howard County" attended by about 60 people at the Meeting House Interfaith Center in Oakland Mills.
Community Action Council Director James B. Smith, a panelist at the luncheon, said later that his anti-poverty agency distributed $90,589 to help pay energy bills for needy people from July through October, compared with $32,387 for the corresponding period last year, mainly because of higher utility rates.
"If we continue on this trend, we'll be looking at a $25,000 deficit by June 30," he said.
He said he is working on ideas for raising more money from private donors.
In October last year, his agency gave $3,329 in rent money to seven families. The same month this year, it was $9,296 to 16 families, he said.
"There are families in Howard County who must decide whether to buy food, pay the rent, or pay the gas and electric bill," Smith said at the luncheon. And in the past year or two, the council also has been helping some families with nonfood items such as diapers and detergent.
A typical, self-sufficient family of three, he said, normally spends $373 to $494 a month for food, but the food given away in charity programs amounts to no more than $65 up to three times a year.
"We don't turn anyone away," Smith said about the food program.
Poor families struggle to stay in Howard for the same reasons rich ones come, he said. "What drives people to stay in the county is the educational system. They want their children to have access to the county's schools."
At the luncheon, Smith, Linda Zumbrun, an assistant director of county social services, Glenn E. Schneider, director of health policy and planning for the county Health Department, and Joe Willmott, a member of the county's Board on Homelessness, also described how the problems of obtaining affordable health care, housing, transportation and food are intertwined.
Families without an operable vehicle can lose jobs for lack of transportation, or from an illness, which can lead to eviction, panelists said.
"Is it harder to be poor in an affluent county, emotionally?" Del. Elizabeth Bobo asked at the luncheon.
That question was not answered directly, but Schneider said Howard officials often have trouble attracting money for the poor because of the county's reputation as the wealthiest in Maryland and among the top ones nationally.
"People say they don't give in Howard County" because of that reputation, said Lois Mikkila, deputy director of the county's Department of Citizen Services and the discussion moderator.
"When we talk about health care, we're not just talking about poor people," Schneider said. Middle-class people with incomes up to $60,000 can have "high co-pays, high deductibles and bad benefits."
A major illness can send almost any family on a downward financial track.
"It's the second-leading cause of bankruptcy in the United States," he said.
Meanwhile, hospital emergency rooms are jammed with uninsured people who do not have emergency needs but lack a family doctor.
"Any of us could potentially have that condition due to a sudden health problem," Mikkila said.
Willmott said the homelessness survey done in September found up to 50 people without shelter living along the U.S. 1 corridor. Information from county schools showed 67 children living in motels, 64 in emergency or transitional shelters such as the one run by Grassroots, four without shelter and 176 children living temporarily with relatives, neighbors and family friends.
Using a formula, the homelessness board estimated that 141 other family members might be in the same circumstances.
"It's not precise," Willmott acknowledged, but it provides a general picture.
He suggested that the county might have to loosen its tight restrictions on residential development to allow more than 1,800 new homes to be built annually, a move that could help provide more subsidized housing. But so far, he said, no comprehensive solution to the affordable-housing problem is available.
"There are no specific proposals on the table to overcome obstacles," he said.
Anyone who is homeless and wants to stay at the cold-weather shelter should call the Grassroots hot line at 410-531-6677.