Need for aid moves to suburbs

Increase in Baltimore County comes as most homeless people live outside cities

December 18, 2006|By Josh Mitchell | Josh Mitchell,Sun Reporter

The main hallway in Baltimore County's emergency shelter is a place where the hungry wait in line for food. A couple curse at each other. Children run around. Babies cry.

And when it is time for sleep, blue gym mats are placed on the floors, and dozens of people lie side by side, leaving barely enough room to walk.

The shelter, in a brick building near Franklin Square Hospital Center, wasn't always so crowded. But the number of people who have stayed there in the past year has increased drastically - as the number in Baltimore County seeking help with food, heating bills and other needs also has surged, according to county officials and advocates for the needy.

The rise in requests for help seems to be tied to increases in rent and other costs of living, exacerbated, some say, by the demolition of low-income housing units in the county. And it seems to follow a geographic shift in poverty from cities to suburbs that, according to a report released last week, is being seen across the country.

Advocates for the poor say the increased demand in Baltimore County - geographically, a likely first stop for poor people moving out of the city - is staggering. They worry that they might not be able to keep up with the requests.

"We apparently have hit the wall," Richard Doran, executive director of the Community Assistance Network, said of his charity's ability to handle requests for help. "We've always been able to take that next walk-in client and just deal with it. We just can't do it anymore, and it's a rude awakening for us."

Officials in Howard, Harford, Carroll, Anne Arundel and Montgomery counties also report rises in demand for services for the needy.

"We are seeing more evictions, more homeless people," said Marcia Kennai, social services director for Anne Arundel County. "The shelters tend to be full, especially in the cold weather."

One night this month, Carroll County's 30-bed emergency shelter was 29 people over capacity. And the quasi-governmental Community Action Council in Howard County reported this fall that it was spending money on eviction prevention at nearly twice the rate as the previous year.

Advocates for the poor in Baltimore County say the growing need for help in the county is reflected in the numbers.

In the 12 months ending in June, occupancy at the Rosedale shelter increased by 54 percent from the previous year. The average number of people staying at the shelter remained at 179 - or 29 above capacity - through the summer, prompting the county to open its winter shelter in Catonsville a month early. Since then, the Catonsville shelter has consistently been overflowing.

Also in the 12 months ending in June, the county social services department distributed $474,500 in emergency aid for rent, electricity bills and medical care - a 26 percent increase from the previous year. The county expects to spend a similar amount in emergency aid this year.

The Assistance Center of Towson Churches, made up of 44 churches, reported handing out food items to 6,586 people between January and October - 1,338 more people than in the same period last year. While the charity has not updated statistics in recent weeks, leaders say the number of people seeking help at the organization has not abated.

A smaller charity, the Perry Hall United Methodist Church, reported this fall that it was receiving twice the number of requests for food in the past year. The church was serving about 20 families per week, a church official said.

"The need for food has increased considerably," said Lida Diller, a church leader. "I just think, `Oh my gosh, the shelves are empty again.'"

Officials say they cannot be sure of what is causing the increased demands, but they point to higher rents and home prices, an increase in utility prices and other expenses that are outpacing wages.

At the same time, the landscape of poverty seems to be changing, according to a new study. For the first time, there are more homeless people living in the suburbs than in major cities, following a trend that began in the 1990s, the Brookings Institution reported in a study released this month.

The report, which covered 1999 to 2005, did not show a pronounced difference in the landscape of poverty in the suburbs of Washington or Baltimore. But Montgomery County officials say the number of people seeking financial assistance and shelter this year has increased significantly.

And advocates for the poor report an increasing number of people in poverty from Baltimore City moving into the region's suburbs, especially Baltimore County, and they say the effects have been most noticeable only in the past year and a half.

About 60 percent of the people who show up at the emergency shelters in Rosedale and Catonsville used to live in Baltimore, shelter managers say.

Many of the people come to the shelter after a disaster - such as a fire or unexpected illness - pushes them beyond their means.

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