Although the problem of homelessness in Harford County was recognized nearly a dozen years ago, officials are still struggling to establish a permanent shelter for a population that numbers in the hundreds.
Harford is the largest jurisdiction in the state without a long-term facility, said Rob Hess, president of the Baltimore-based Center for Poverty Solutions. As a result, those who find themselves without a home rely on temporary motel vouchers from the county or a rotating winter shelter run by 13 area churches - or are subject to the vagaries of street life.
"I didn't have anybody else to turn to," said Ronald Lucas, 36, a recovering alcoholic who is living in the church shelter. "It's hard for a single man to get help."
In the fall, a coalition of Harford residents and clergy approached County Executive James M. Harkins, asking for help in addressing homelessness.
"Is it moving fast enough? The answer is no," said Hess, who works with the group. "Is it picking up momentum now? Yes."
The group, Faith Communities and Civic Agencies United, is exploring using surplus property, housing at Aberdeen Proving Ground or the Veterans Affairs Medical Center at Perry Point in Cecil County for a shelter. A similar venture at Fort Meade - Sarah's House, run by Catholic Charities - has proved successful.
"The drawback is, this process takes three to five years to work out," said the Rev. Stephen Gosnell, pastor of Prince of Peace Roman Catholic Church in Edgewood and a member of the group. "That is frustrating."
Harkins echoes that frustration. "The county has been working collaboratively on a number of projects," he said. "It's a work in progress. We can't advocate a time frame."
No one seems to know how many homeless people live in Harford.
"It's difficult," said Mary Chance, director of the county Department of Community Services. "Unfortunately, it's one of the things we need to deal with. We have to ask groups to be more re sponsible in reporting numbers."
She said 809 homeless clients were served in fiscal 2000, but that number might include duplications because clients might use a variety of shelters.
The county refers people in need to transitional shelters in the county as Anna's House, which offers lodging to women with children; Holy Family House, for families and women with children; and SARC (Sexual Assault/Spouse Abuse Resource Center Inc.) for battered women and their children.
"We're seeing the tip of the iceberg," said Jerome Reyerson, director of the county Department of Social Services. "Many of the homeless are not coming forward."
Suburbs not immune
Harkins said many people believe that the suburbs are immune to the woes of homelessness.
"The perception of the homeless in the suburban area is more difficult than in an urban area where it is more visible," he said. "We have our share."
The homeless are more likely to live in cities, according to a recent study by the Washington-based Urban Institute.
Urban homeless people account for 71 percent of those using assistance programs, while those from suburban areas account for 21 percent and rural areas 9 percent.
To help those in need of shelter in Harford County, 13 local churches organized a stopgap measure for the colder months. The program, called Hospitality House, is in its second year and opened its doors to the homeless this year on Dec. 4.
The program is run by volunteers who feed, provide clothing for and do laundry for the residents through the end of March. Each church opens its doors to the homeless for a week at a time.
"It is by no means the best situation," Gosnell said. "No one church can surrender that amount of space" for a long-term shelter.
This winter, an average of 15 people have been given shelter each night in the lobbies, hallways and community rooms of participating churches.
A van, provided by the county, takes the residents to the county Department of Social Services office in Bel Air each weekday morning, where they seek assistance, look for jobs or go to work. On weekends, they are dropped off at a local shopping center to fill the hours as best they can.
They are returned to the church each evening. The residents - mostly men but sometimes families and single mothers with children - sleep on cots, which are packed up at the end of the week and moved to another church.
Continuing the aid
Last year, when the winter shelter ended in March, St. Margaret Roman Catholic Church in Bel Air stepped in to care for the homeless. "The rotation ended. The homeless didn't," said the Rev. Francis Callahan, pastor of the church. "We decided to try to shelter them ourselves."
For seven months, the parishioners of St. Margaret fed and transported the homeless. "People don't realize how much work it is," said Karen Saccenti, St. Margaret's assistant pastor. "It was a learning experience for me."