The face of homelessness in Howard

December 14, 1993

"We do have a homeless problem in Howard County," County Executive Charles Ecker announced at a conference held last October.

Of course, his declaration didn't come as news to the 100 people who had gathered with Mr. Ecker for the county's first summit on the homelessness issue.

With its highly educated, affluent population and its exemplary school system, Howard County isn't the kind of place you associate with homelessness. If there's such a thing as the suburban utopia, this is it.

But there is clear evidence of a mounting problem. About 700 homeless people are estimated to be living in the county, 100 more than a year ago. The number of beds that the county maintains in shelters has more than tripled, to 100.

What's more, since early in the recession, the county has seen marked increases in such categories of woe as unemployed residents, recipients of Aid to Families with Dependent Children, residents on food stamps and General Public Assistance, and public school students eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

Abstract figures still don't tell the whole story. We must also look at the human faces behind them if we're to develop the understanding and the compassion that these problems warrant.

Consider the case of a single mother, Lynda Cohen, and her three young sons. Beset by financial and medical crises, the Columbia family faced eviction from their apartment until the John McDonough Builders company of Ellicott City raised $1,300 to help tide the Cohens over. Ms. Cohen has since found a job that should keep the family above water for now.

Lynda Cohen, who testified at the homelessness summit, graduated from college with a degree in broadcasting. She is not the type of person you would expect to have such difficulties, and she lives in a county where you expect not to find such hard-luck stories. But as a social services worker noted at the summit, "There are a lot of Lyndas out there."

The summit participants expect to draft a report that capsulizes their discussions, which included a strong call for more affordable housing in the county.

The report will be sent to Mr. Ecker. The executive ought to formulate actions that indicate he takes seriously his own warning about the existence of a homeless problem in Howard County.

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