County's homeless are focus of survey

Questionnaire examines individuals' circumstances

Report is due next month

October 28, 2003|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Searching under highway bridges, in empty houses, at old motels and even in the closed Enchanted Forest's overgrown grounds, teams of Howard County officials sought the homeless this month - the start of a campaign to document and begin whittling away the chronic problem.

Though most of the public focus is on issues such as rising home prices and school crowding in wealthy Howard, "I think that a lot of people aren't aware that there is a homelessness problem," said Linda Zumbrun, assistant director for special projects of the county's Department of Social Services.

The search was the first official attempt to document the homeless in the county, which is now required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as part of a national effort to end chronic homelessness, Zumbrun said.

A report is being compiled that will include the count and the results of a questionnaire revealing more about the reasons and circumstances of individual situations, she said. It is expected to be released next month.

Zumbrun was out searching Oct. 6 in one of three teams of social workers, mental health professionals and plainclothes police officers who surveyed spots along U.S. 1 and U.S. 40, and in Columbia and Ellicott City.

"It's just a one-day snapshot. Obviously there are flaws to that," said Andrea Ingram, another team member who is director of Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center, where the county's principal homeless shelter is housed.

"My team was hitting motels along Route 1, looking for families living there that maybe nobody else knew about," Ingram said. Her team found 20 people, including nine or 10 children, plus one adult couple who have been living in a motel for three years, unable to save enough money for a permanent home.

Living in a temporary residence is considered homelessness, Ingram said, but a Howard County program to help such people move out of motels excludes families without children and short-term motel residents.

"For the most part, these are people who are working. They're definitely living on the edge," she said, explaining that most had lost homes or apartments after an illness or injury caused unemployment, or they had missed a rent payment.

The survey will also count jail inmates about to be released who have no place to go, Ingram said.

Don Phillips, a social worker with Laurel Advocacy and Referral Services, said homeless men who live under U.S. 1 along the Patuxent River on the Howard-Prince George's county line lost belongings during Tropical Storm Isabel, and nine men stayed at a temporary shelter his group opened during the storm. Last winter, he said, the group's shelter in Laurel housed 20 men nearly every night.

The Howard teams carried small packages containing bottled water, toothbrushes and toothpaste, socks, crackers, candy and a one-day bus pass on the Howard Transit system for those who needed immediate help.

Grassroots has 32 shelter beds, and Howard County pays for some families to live briefly in U.S. 1 motels. Ingram has said her shelter is forced to turn away dozens of people looking for help. An effort to expand the shelter into a combined county crisis center has been unproductive.

Zumbrun's team climbed through holes in the fence around the abandoned Enchanted Forest amusement park on U.S. 40 in Ellicott City and found empty cans and cups, but no signs that anyone is living there, she said. The play houses there are shelter from the weather, she added.

"A lot of teen-agers go back in there," said Rick Lepski, leader of a local group that tried several years ago to spur interest in reopening the park for children.

On Main Street in Ellicott City, Zumbrun said, her team chatted with several youths as they looked for leads and checked on several empty houses near the B&O Railroad Station Museum.

"We said, `We are looking for homeless people. Do you know anyone who is?' " Zumbrun said. The survey "will hopefully give us some direction" in attacking the problem.

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