A glimpse of life on the fringes

Homeless: The shelters and private providers can only help a few of those in need.

November 02, 2003|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

Aberdeen police Officer First Class Onas "Butch" Jansen III pulled up beside the woods near the U.S. 40 Wal-Mart, just as a man emerged from the trees carrying a construction hard hat and a lunch cooler.

When the man saw Jansen's patrol car, he walked quickly away. Jansen got out and ducked into the trees, searching for the new squatter site he had heard about.

"Look at this," Jansen said with surprise, pointing to a dirty tent with a mattress on a metal frame inside. It was a step up from some of the tattered-blanket beds and an excrement-fouled shed he had checked on the way here.

From woods on the fringes of Aberdeen and Edgewood to the Ma and Pa Trail in Bel Air, homeless people live under makeshift tarps or in raggedy recliner chairs parked in the woods. Some live under the Hatem Bridge in Havre de Grace, beside rural creeks or even in farmers' barns.

About 250 men, women and children are without shelter on a given day in Harford, according to the county's Department of Community Services. But the county can offer little help to them.

A handful of shelters and an underground, word-of-mouth network of private providers can house only a fraction of those in need. Some homeless men and women, referred to shelters as far away as Delaware, choose not to go and melt away instead into the woods of communities close to the county's three towns.

"People don't see the homeless," said Wayne Krauch, a supervisor with the Harford County Department of Social Services. "They're out there."

Those seeking a warm bed and food must first pass careful screening to land in a rotating shelter run by churches and the nonprofit group Faith Communities and Civic Agencies United. The churches take about 18 to 20 men and women, which they house in Sunday school classrooms or fellowship halls. Women with children or whole families can find help from a few other small shelters such as Anna's House in Bel Air or Holy Family in Aberdeen.

State and county agencies can offer motel vouchers, but with tight funding this year, they say they don't know how long their vouchers will last.

The homeless are often on a first-name basis with the police and social workers who deal with their cases, and with the shopkeepers who watch them panhandle.

There's Shirley, who is rumored to be in rehab in Bel Air after living in the woods behind a liquor store in Aberdeen; Virgil, who hasn't turned up lately to hit people up for change at Edgewater Shopping Center in Edgewood; and Clarence, who lived in the woods with Shirley until he died unexpectedly last winter.

"They come and they go," Krauch said. "Sometimes if they get sick they might go to the hospital for a while and we don't see them."

Jansen said someone usually dies over the winter from exposure or illness.

Some suddenly without a place to stay might rent motel rooms, but with rates running about $40 a night, most can't scrape together enough to stay for long.

That's what Teresa did, until her work at a temporary agency dried up. The 42-year-old Harford resident, who asked that her last name not be used, was sleeping on benches and in the woods around Aberdeen before she went to stay at the rotating shelter.

"It's hard to adjust to," she said, although she would try to find a bench to sleep on because she was afraid animals would crawl over her on the ground. "When I was by myself, I always felt like someone would be coming up on me."

Teresa stayed in the woods sometimes with a group of men and women. One night, she said, another woman in the group was robbed. "Maybe she didn't know she shouldn't carry a purse," she said.

Some of the homeless have been pushed out of rental housing, are between jobs or have bills they can't pay. Others have substance abuse problems or mental illnesses.

Lynn Kirylo, a social worker on the psychiatric ward at Harford Memorial Hospital in Havre de Grace, said she has kept handwritten records for the past five years of those coming in to seek help.

The need seems to be increasing, Kirylo said, adding that she regularly refers Harford's homeless to Delaware, Cecil County and Baltimore City shelters because the county runs out of open beds quickly. For many local homeless residents, the prospect of traveling to the city for help "scares them to death," she said.

Sometimes, she said, they simply won't go.

She said adding shelter facilities could help more people get back on their feet. "If someone can stay someplace for a year or more," she said, "they may be able to get hooked up to services and stick with them."

Some clergy, spurred by the lack of resources, take people in on their own, not by official referrals, but by knocks at their doors.

The Rev. Paul Moser, rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Bel Air, is among them. Sometimes they stay in the boiler room, dubbed "the warm place," by parishioners and the men who stay there, or in a cottage on the church property next door to the rectory.

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