Seeking out the city's homeless people

The Baltimore Sun

Until two months ago, Tammye Brooks had a job and a roof over her head in Brooklyn Park. But the 52-year-old woman lost them both and, desperate, moved to Baltimore, where she lives in a downtown shelter.

Brooks, a longtime Anne Arundel County resident, now counts herself among the city's homeless population. She's also one of hundreds - potentially thousands - of people who were expected to be counted and surveyed yesterday during Baltimore's biennial effort to tally its number of homeless people.

"It's not something I woke up and said, 'Yeah, I'm going to be homeless today.' No," said Brooks, who had worked as a server at a hotel near BWI-Marshall Airport. "But things change."

More than 100 volunteers crisscrossed downtown and central Baltimore yesterday, starting at 1 a.m., in search of homeless people sleeping outdoors or visiting day shelters for food and services, as part of the city's census of the fragile population.

With a faltering economy and mortgage foreclosures contributing to the displacement of renters, census organizers said they are concerned that the city's homeless population will swell past the tally of roughly 3,000 men, women and children recorded two years ago.

The 17-hour effort was the result of a collaboration between Baltimore Homeless Services, the Johns Hopkins and Morgan State universities, and other not-for-profit agencies. Organizers said the census is useful for determining how to apportion financial assistance and services to the city's network of providers who help the homeless.

The organizers behind this year's census were also taking new steps to better track the homeless population. Students and professors from Morgan's architecture and planning department intend to use global positioning systems to map where homeless people congregate.

And researchers from the Center for Adolescent Health at Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health were conducting a parallel study of how many homeless people were ages 10 to 24. Nan Astone, an associate professor at the center, said many at-risk youths don't fit into the definition of homelessness set by the federal government's Housing and Urban Development agency.

That's because youths will stay with relatives and friends, in foster care settings, and in detention centers, though they lack a stable home or adult presence in their lives. Most in such circumstances will hardly ever visit shelters overnight or during the day.

"They don't tend to see themselves as homeless," Astone said. "We expanded the definition of homelessness."

The center did a pilot survey two years ago that found 272 people ages 10 to 24 who fit the expanded definition of homelessness. Under the stricter definition, the homeless census that year counted only 30 such young people.

Gloria Townsend, a manager at the not-for-profit Baltimore Homeless Services, which was coordinating the census, said volunteers who hit the streets from 1 a.m. to 6 a.m. yesterday did not find many people sleeping outside. That was a good sign, she said, indicating that many had probably found housing at one of the city's 13 overnight shelters.

"The shelters were full," she said.

A batch of surveys were dropped off at My Sister's Place, a women-only day shelter across the street from the Enoch Pratt Free Library on Cathedral Street, where Tammye Brooks happened to visit yesterday morning. A staff member helped Brooks fill out the survey.

Brooks, who has been working part-time as a waitress at the Park Avenue Grill in downtown Baltimore, said she doesn't earn enough to rent an apartment. After spending nearly two months sleeping at Karis House, a downtown overnight shelter for women, her last day at the shelter is Tuesday - unless she is lucky enough to get her third extension.

She still doesn't know where she'll be sleeping Tuesday night.

"So far, considering the situation, I'm OK. I'm OK," Brooks said. "I thank God every day because it could be a lot worse. It's not something I wish on anyone, though. But it's something people should be aware of because it can happen to them. It could happen to you."

An article in yesterday's editions about a survey of homeless people inaccurately characterized Baltimore Homeless Services as a nonprofit organization. The agency is a part of the mayor's office.The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.
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