Homeless in Harford

April 09, 2002|By Lucie L. Snodgrass

IT'S SATURDAY night in northern Harford County. A diverse group of people share a meal and conversation around three long tables.

A 43-year-old trained chef compliments his hosts, an enthusiastic group of young men and women, on the shepherd's pie and chicken casserole they've prepared. At the other end of the table, an older woman who has worked as a nurse regales a fellow diner with stories about working in Saudi Arabia. A small group of men argue about sports.

It's an evening that could occur almost anywhere. But when it ends, after the dishes are washed and put away and a movie has been watched, most of the hosts leave while their guests prepare to stay for the night.

The hosts are congregants at Slate Ridge Presbyterian Church in Cardiff. Their guests, among them the chef and the nurse, are Harford County's homeless women and men. Their "home" is the basement of a church hall, where they will live for a week before moving to another church. And then another. And another. Last winter, they moved 14 times.

For three winters, from November through the end of March, Faith Communities and Civic Agencies United Inc. (FCCAU), a coalition of 42 churches and civic groups with participation from government agencies in Harford County, has provided free food, transportation and rotating shelter to the county's growing number of homeless.

This past winter, FCCAU provided 1,700 bed nights to 50 adults and eight children - more people served than in the last two years - and donated more than 10,000 volunteer hours to caring for the homeless. A Catholic church in Bel Air will run a summer shelter, just as it did last year.

Still, individuals and families are regularly left without a place to stay. Harford is the only county in the Baltimore region without a permanent homeless shelter.

Why? Because demand outstrips capacity and because there is no emergency and transitional housing facility in Harford County. Until now, the county has relied largely on volunteer efforts to address the growing, community-wide homeless issue.

FCCAU sprung up out of necessity and frustration with the government's lackluster attempts to address the needs of the homeless. Rural conservatism, deliberately restrictive zoning laws and reluctance by elected officials to publicly acknowledge the challenges have allowed homelessness to fester and grow. Volunteer efforts are stretched to capacity, and the county's aging and growing homeless population requires more, not less, resources. Something has to change.

The thousands of Harford County congregation members whose churches have participated in feeding and sheltering the homeless have learned a great deal.

They've seen for themselves that most homeless people look and act surprisingly like them: They usually work, have families that they love, struggle to meet their responsibilities and sometimes grapple with mental health and substance abuse issues. (Most homeless people work at minimum-wage jobs and, for a variety of reasons, cannot afford housing.) They've noticed in three years of running the rotating shelter that there hasn't been a single disturbance in the many communities in which the homeless have stayed.

The congregants also have recognized they have strength in numbers. They've expressed frustration with the extraordinary demands placed on them as volunteers, and they've told elected officials that the county needs a transitional housing shelter that is permanent. A recent presentation to the County Council spelled out the problem.

And, at last, it appears the problem is going to be addressed. Harford County Executive James M. Harkins has supported FCCAU's efforts and has provided badly needed resources to help meet the needs of the homeless population, and his administration has indicated support for a transitional housing facility in the county. Although it has not provided a permanent shelter, the county has invested $1.3 million in housing-related initiatives. These are positive signs.

But it's an election year. Mr. Harkins and all members of the County Council, who also sit as the Zoning Board of Appeals, are up for re-election. None of them wants a transitional housing shelter built in his or her neighborhood; in fact, most politicians blanch when the subject is mentioned.

The zoning board would have final jurisdiction on whether a homeless shelter could be built if a decision to build one were appealed.

Harford County will never build a transitional housing facility unless elected officials are prepared to look their constituents in the eye and publicly support the concept. When that happens, I hope Harford County residents will show they're ready to accept their own homeless men, women and children as more than just temporary neighbors.

Lucie L. Snodgrass was director of governmental and community relations for Harford County from 1998 to 2001. She is a free-lance writer who lives in Street.

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