The timing of the occasion was not lost on any of the nearly 50 people who stood shivering in a cold, drenching rain at the county courthouse to remember Harford's homeless, particularly the seven who died shelterless this year.
"This weather is a great metaphor for the occasion," said Louise Traherne, vice president of Health Care for the Homeless in Baltimore. "Imagine if this is what you had to go home to every night."
The few with umbrellas tried in vain to keep small candles burning during the brief vigil last Sunday observing National Homeless Persons' Memorial Day. The event is celebrated on or near Dec. 21, the shortest day and longest night of the year.
"For so many, it's not the holidays," Traherne said. "It's winter."
The rain pelted pastors intoning prayers, speakers offering encouragement and several homeless sharing their memories. The Rev. Mark Groover of New Hope Fellowship United Methodist Church in Edgewood reminded the crowd of those still living outside in the elements.
"They are sleeping on the Ma and Pa Trail or at the city pavilion in Aberdeen," he said. "You may not see them, but they are there. Thank you for standing shoulder to shoulder to remember these forgotten people."
The Rev. John McElwee of Grace Assembly of God in Bel Air, who helps run a day shelter, said many residents are unaware of the homeless in their midst.
"We pass them by without extending our hearts in help," he said.
Several shelter residents in the crowd praised the programs that are leading them to stability.
"I came to show my appreciation for the help I have been given and to mourn for those we have lost," said Linda Wing, 50, has lived in the county shelter for the past three months.
Benjamin Willis, 36, said he never expected to become one of the county's homeless. A lost job, foreclosure and a failed marriage sent him spiraling into despair.
"I want a functional life and to be part of society," he told the crowd. "The shelter is providing me with all I need to find direction and even making it possible for me to help others."
The need for both housing and rehabilitative programs continues to grow, officials said. Harford's 28-bed shelter in Belcamp is filled to capacity, and the county is paying to house at least that many people, including five families, in area motels.
"We know there are people who are glad they are in the shelter and not sleeping outside tonight," said Judy Merritt, who helps run the shelter for Faith Communities and Civic Agencies United. "But we know that people are sleeping in the woods and are in need of shelter. We need more shelters and more programs."
The most recent count of homeless persons in the county, taken nearly two years ago, showed a 20 percent increase over 2005, with more people choosing shelters or other programs over living on the streets, county social services officials say. The federally mandated count in late January 2007 tallied 145 homeless people countywide, including eight who declined to use the county's seasonal emergency shelter or other options. But, officials said, they are certain the numbers are much higher today.
"So many people are working two jobs but can't afford to live in Harford," said Pat Eiler, a member of the faith group. "They find such difficulties in getting permanent homes."
Ernie Heinze, 59, became homeless nearly two years ago after losing his job while caring for his wife, who was dying of cancer. He stayed on the streets for months, sleeping wherever he could, he said. Ultimately, he asked the county for help. The social services staff has linked him to the health care he needed for himself, helped him apply for Social Security benefits and get into a housing program.
"I was scared and didn't know what to do, but this shelter program helped me get my life back," he said. "Their doors are always open as long as you are honest. It's a blessing that I finally met them."