Officials hear from the `face of the homeless'

December 16, 2004|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Jan Hansen is a pleasant, articulate public speaker with a college degree. She is also homeless.

"There are lots and lots of people out there just one or two paychecks away from being right where I am," she said.

Once an advocate for the poor, Hansen, 59, has myriad medical problems and is living day to day in the county's cold-weather shelter, which moves among 14 churches from Nov. 15 through March 20.

"It's weird to be in that position. When you lose your job [and] you're not able to drive or pay for your apartment, something happens inside of you," she told elected county officials and advocates for the poor this week at the Association of Community Services legislative breakfast at Owen Brown Interfaith Center.

She sounded and looked like anyone in the crowd, wearing her hair in a neat ponytail and dressed in an attractive white blouse.

"It's just horrible. I can't even begin to tell you what that's like," she said, explaining that as someone in need, she lost her will to aggressively seek help. She became meek and realized she was depressed.

Several association members had known Hansen through the years, and she was invited to speak to show county officials the face of someone in need.

Pushing an agenda

The association, a collection of 140 human service agencies in Howard, used the breakfast to push members' agenda for help on a number of fronts - education, housing, health care, public transit, emergency shelter and drug treatment. Most of the county's 11 General Assembly and County Council members attended, along with County Executive James N. Robey.

Advocates for the poor worry that more state budget cuts to social programs could make it more difficult for their agencies to help people like Hansen. Howard County's federal rent subsidy list has been frozen for one year, and rents are rising.

"It's people like Jan who remind us" what being homeless means, said Anne Towne, the association's executive director. "I think any time we can help legislators see that these are their constituents, it's helpful," she said.

Hansen said she has been juggling temporary and part-time jobs for years, even as she earned a college degree in 1999 while sharing an Ellicott City apartment with a roommate.

Medical problems

She found several jobs but was laid off twice, surviving for the past three years on part-time work, help from family and her ability to drive.

But diabetes and worsening vision problems ended her driving, she said, and she has severe arthritis, a bone degenerative disorder in her feet, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. She also lost a lung to surgery in recent years. She has been a recovering alcoholic for the past 21 years, she said.

For 20 years, Hansen was a contract manager of housekeeping services at area hospitals, she said.

Her three grown children help her, but they are not able to fully support or house her, she said, and she entered the county's shelter program last month. She spent the summer months with friends after losing her apartment in May. She has received help from a number of agencies, getting everything from food stamps to medical care at a free clinic in Columbia.

Grim routine

Every day, she said, she must leave the church shelter by 7 a.m. and is dropped off at the county bus stop near The Mall in Columbia. There, she gets a Howard Transit bus to Howard Community College, where she works two hours a week and uses computers to search for jobs and help. Each day, she must be at a pickup point by 5:30 p.m. to get a ride to whichever church is sheltering people that night. Showers are spotty, though shelter workers help do residents' laundry.

"People think I'm not the face of the homeless, but I am," said Hansen, who has applied for federal and state disability benefits because she is physically unable to hold a full-time job, even if she could find one.

Andrea Ingram, director of the county's Grassroots Crisis Intervention program, said the church shelters have been full since they opened, and several families too large for the small overnight temporary spaces are in motels.

"We see so many people who have a health problem or an accident, and over three or four months lose their housing," said Ingram, who added that job-related disability benefits do not provide enough money for families on the edge financially.

"Once you are homeless, it's a whole lot harder to get back on your feet," she said.

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