Rural homelessness is becoming an acknowledged problem.
Homelessness today increasingly involves entire families. An example is Harford County, where 498 families requested assistance from social service authorities last year, either because they were homeless or were about to be evicted.
"We are seeing families who are living in their cars -- and thfather has a job," says Joan Philippe, director of Harford's Department of Community Services. "We are seeing an increasing number of families who cannot afford the everyday cost of living."
Harford County is not alone in witnessing this sudden growth ithe number of actual or potentially homeless people. Statewide, that number increased significantly last year. Families accounted for one-half of the homeless. Even more ominously, one-third of all people in emergency shelters in Maryland on a given night are under age 19. Deteriorating economic conditions make it likely that homelessness will worsen in the spring, when outstanding obligations, such as overdue rent and utility bills, finally must be paid.
Like many other formerly rural counties, Harford is trying to get a handle on a phenomenon that previously was not regarded as a serious problem. The county has hired a coordinator for the homeless to sharpen the focus of governmental agencies. Volunteer organizations, such as the Ecumenical Committee of Harford County, are pitching in.
ECHCO House, Harford's first facility offering transitional housing, recently opened its doors. It is a result of cooperation between the ecumenical body and the county government. But its capacity -- providing transitional housing for up to eight women and children -- is woefully inadequate.
Harford officials say that three things are needed to deal with the emerging homelessness problem. Among them are the establishment of a temporary emergency shelter and a transitional program to help families encountering homelessness get their lives reorganized. The No. 1 long-term priority, however, should be creating more affordable rental housing.
That is a tall order for a county facing budgetary problems. But unless the problem of homelessness is addressed, Harford and other counties in the same predicament will have to confront considerable societal costs when family lives fall apart.