Howard County's homeless are almost invisible if you don't know where to look, but they are out there - living in the woods, under bridges and in their cars.
"People say all the time, `I didn't realize there were homeless people in Howard County' because they aren't visible," said Kathie DiNoto, shelter coordinator for Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center. "In Baltimore and in other cities, you see people gather in front of soup kitchens. There is no place for them to be visible in Howard County."
Despite Howard's affluence, some people in Howard live paycheck to paycheck and make just enough to cover the basic costs of food, rent and transportation. But the cost of living is higher in Howard County than other areas of Maryland and with one economic misstep, these people trying to make ends meet could end up homeless.
Statistics aren't available for the exact number of homeless people in the county, but Grassroots, Howard's privately run homeless shelter, turned away more than 2,700 requests for shelter last year. In January alone, 217 of 227 requests were turned down because of lack of space. People stay on the shelter's waiting list, sometimes for months, to get a place in the 20-bed family shelter or the 12-bed men's shelter.
For those lucky enough to get a spot, Grassroots provides 24-hour crisis counseling and a vast array of support services to help residents make changes in their lives and find permanent housing.
"A lot of families live on the edge every day," said Andrea Ingram, executive director of Grassroots, adding that it doesn't take much to push them over.
Denise, one of two Grassroots residents who consented to an interview on the condition that they not be fully identified, should know. The 30-something mother of two has lived in the shelter with her husband and children for a couple of months.
"My life was normal before I came here," she said. "I was Susie homemaker, and my husband was working. We suffered a job loss and didn't have any savings."
The little bit of savings that they did have paid for the hotel where they lived before moving to the shelter. Grassroots gives them the opportunity to save money to get back on their feet.
"This place isn't like I thought it would be," Denise said. "Even I had this image - I thought that homeless people would be different. I thought people will steal my stuff, but you have your own room here, and you can lock it if you want to. All the residents get along pretty well."
The part that surprised her most was drug testing. "It made it seem more like a halfway house. I was surprised because we don't do those things, but it makes sense," she said.
Residents get tested before they are allowed to move in. If they test positive, they are subject to random testing while they live there. The center provides addiction counseling, but drugs and alcohol are prohibited on and off the premises.
Nine other children currently live at the shelter, which makes for lots of playmates for Denise's kids.
"The kids, especially the preschoolers, love it here because they are surrounded by children," Ingram said.
Grassroots also provides high school students who volunteer to befriend the children living in the shelter. "They love the special friends," Ingram said. "Anything that provides them stability."
Howard County offers transportation so children living at the shelter can continue to attend the same school. The continuity is important, Ingram said.
While the decline into homelessness was relatively quick for Denise's family, for some the process takes more time. It was a long succession of events that led Tom, 66, to Grassroots, where he has lived for three months.
The former accountant and liquor store owner hit rough spots with his family and his finances. His problem began 2 1/2 years ago when his wife died. He and his two children, now 16 and 13, moved to Columbia to live with his adult daughter.
"My kids love Columbia," he said. "They love the school, and when they got here, their grades improved dramatically."
Things did not go as well for Tom, however. His relationship with his daughter deteriorated to the point that she "threw me out of the house," he said, but his other children stayed with his daughter.
From his daughter's house, he moved into his vehicle. "Living in the car is actually not so bad. It is very comfortable to sleep in," he said. "The problem is with bathing and hygiene. You learn to be very creative and you go through a lot of deodorant living in the car."
Tricks of survival
He learned rather quickly not to drink a lot of water in order to reduce the need to use the bathroom. You also make sure your bedtime is consistent, he said, so you wake up before everyone else. Each morning, his first stop was the hospital.
"The hospital is a great place to do things because nobody knows who is there and who should be there," he said. "I did all my cosmetic things at the hospital, and I did it quite successfully for quite a number of months."