Howard's Hidden Homeless HOWARD COUNTY

October 05, 1993

Homelessness and Howard County. The words don't seem to belong in the same sentence. Homelessness and the city? It's a given. But not in the super-affluent, intellectual, suburban nirvana of Howard County.

Yet, at least 700 individuals and families find themselves homeless over the course of a year in Howard County. The fact that they are largely invisible to most residents is testament to the charity shown by some people. But it is not enough.

Grassroots, a non-profit agency based in Columbia that runs the county's only homeless shelter, is having a financial crisis itself. Only three months into the current fiscal year, which began July 1, the agency has already spent close to half of its entire year's funds for placing the homeless in local hotels while they wait for beds at the shelter to open up.

That leaves only $32,000 for the agency to continue its efforts until June 30. That's a nearly impossible task considering that it costs about $1,400 for a hotel room for eight weeks, the average stay for most of the county's homeless.

County officials have advised Grassroots to cut back on the number of hotel rooms it uses for temporary shelter from 17 to eight. That means turning away some of the needy, which opens the possibility that county residents may begin seeing homeless people camped outside shopping centers, at village centers and wherever temporary havens can be found.

Ironically, a more visible homeless population might prompt the kind of philanthropic action that the current situation requires. As long as people don't see the problem, it is easier to ignore.

To avoid turning people into the streets, county government may come to the rescue, though perhaps not in a way sufficient to keep the hotel program continuing through the year, said Grassroots' director Andrea Ingram. The agency will also turn its attention to fund-raisers and other avenues to solicit donations.

All of these are good steps, but are by no means the solution. What is needed is a national focus on the problems of the mentally disabled and the need for low-income housing and jobs. Until then, we can hide our homeless in hotels only so long -- even in places like Howard County.

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