Census puts face on the homeless

Volunteers canvass streets for data on Baltimore's street population

January 27, 2007|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,Sun Reporter

Alice Jackson could tell that the woman was depressed. With some gentle questioning, Jackson found out that she was 42 years old, the mother of three grown children and homeless.

"Where did you spend last night?" Jackson asked.

"At a friend's house," the woman responded. "A place I don't want to be - a crack house."

Jackson noted the woman's response on a survey form and told her that there was a shelter nearby, a place that Jackson had also visited when she was a homeless drug addict.

One of about 100 volunteers who worked Baltimore's biennial census of homeless people yesterday, Jackson conducted interviews at a health clinic, a shelter for women and a church. But she also waded back into a world she left four months ago, when she joined a recovery program. The census, she said, was a way to remind her of how far she has come.

"This is an experience that is sentimental to me," Jackson said. "It's only been four months, but it's been a good four months."

The federal government requires cities that receive funding for homeless programs to perform a census every two years.

Baltimore's count started at 5 a.m. yesterday and was expected to wrap up at 9 p.m. Organizers said the bitter cold - daytime temperatures hovered around 30 degrees, but the wind made it feel much colder - made counting more difficult because people were inside. Volunteers also called shelters and soup kitchens in an effort to get an accurate count.

"In some ways, [the cold] was fitting," said Madeleine Shea, acting director of Baltimore Homeless Services, which provides funding to nonprofit groups that serve homeless people. "It's good to be reminded of the conditions in which homeless people live."

The city's 2003 census recorded about 2,600 homeless people. Two years later, about 3,000 people reported that they did not have a regular place to stay. The final total of this year's census won't be known until the spring, but Shea said there's reason to believe that homelessness has continued to increase.

"The cost of housing is going up, and that influences homelessness," she said.

Census volunteers came prepared for toe-numbing temperatures.

Nicole Lacoste, who took the day off from her job as a real estate attorney, wore extra thick socks and swore that her feet were the warmest part of her body.

A Baltimore resident, Lacoste said she often sees homeless people while walking from her home to her downtown office. She said she wanted to do something besides making a charitable donation.

"I just thought this was a great opportunity to get out on the street and actually help," said Lacoste, 36, who works at Ballard Spahr.

She said that she was also surprised by some of the responses she got from the homeless people she interviewed. When she asked a man what he needed, he didn't say food or a house - he told her he wanted his daughter.

"That was the thing he wanted most," said Lacoste. "I just wanted to run out and find her for him."

Also participating in the census were staff members of the Downtown Partnership, city Police Department and Health Care for the Homeless, a nonprofit group that provides medical services.

Adam Schneider, community relations associate at HCH, spent about 20 minutes with Marie Thomas, 33, at Christ Lutheran Place, a shelter on South Charles Street that caters to women and children. Schneider asked Thomas about her past living situations - she said she left her home because her husband was abusive - and education.

When Thomas told Schneider that she was a trained day care worker, he offered to connect her with local groups that might be able to find her a job.

Thomas, who earns $8 an hour as a part-time receptionist at a medical clinic, said she'd welcome a career change, as well as a slightly larger paycheck that might enable her to find a place of her own.

Said the young woman: "I've been here for eight months, and I am getting tired of being here."

lynn.anderson@baltsun.com

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