Poverty numbers rise

Requests for food stamps, medical aid and other assistance increase in Harford

August 31, 2008|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

Requests for food stamps, medical assistance, and help with utility bills, fuel and housing have all at least doubled at Harford County agencies and officials see no relief on the horizon.

According to a U.S. Census report, Harford has experienced a 2 percentage points jump in its poverty rate in the past year, the largest increase in the state.

The county's demographics planner attributes the rise to flawed data, but many local agencies that assist the needy continue to report drastic increases in demand for their services.

An average of 50 people a day are applying for some type of assistance at the Department of Social Services offices in Bel Air, said director Jerome Reyerson.

In 2000, 2,149 households were using food stamps. In April, that number exceeded 4,700 households.

"We are trying to provide a safety net to meet the needs of those suffering in this economy and having to change their way of life," Reyerson said. "The only good thing about the jump in food stamps is that the nutritional needs, especially of children and seniors, are being taken care of."

Kathy A. Kraft, director of community health improvement for Upper Chesapeake Health, helps run a clinic in Havre de Grace for the working poor and uninsured.

"People who never expected to ask for our services are coming to us," she said. "We have many patients in this community who are one paycheck away from this clinic."

William Henson, 47, spends his days at the county's homeless shelter and his nights in a tent. The former mover copes with severe back pain and can no longer work. He frequently visits the mobile health clinic.

Craig Grimmett, 37, is unemployed and homeless. A recent incarceration has most employers unwilling to hire him, he said. He, too, comes to the shelter and then "sleeps wherever no one will bother me."

"There are a lot more people who don't come to the shelter," Grimmett said.

Joyce Rill, a volunteer at the shelter in Edgewood, said she hears similar stories every day.

"We hear even worse stories in increasing numbers," Rill said, as she helped Henson fill out an application for housing assistance. "The cost of living and the cost of housing in Harford are so high, poor people have to wait years to get an apartment. At this shelter, sometimes there are so many people, it's standing room only."

Robert Meza, manager at the shelter, said the greatest increase has occurred since last July. He has a full house during the day and says many clients are camping in the surrounding woods at night.

"We are getting families from this immediate area who need help with rent, gas, food and utilities," he said. "The demographics and needs vary from single moms to seniors, and we don't turn anyone away."

According to census data, about 33,000 Harford residents out of a population of nearly 240,000 live at or below the federal poverty level. There was a 2 percentage points increase to 5.4 percent from 2006 to 2007, according to the American Community Survey, which takes a random sampling of households.

"The level is possibly higher due to the bad economy, but you have to be careful how you look at the data," said Dan Rooney, Harford's demographics planner. "A 5 percent level is a concern, but historically, that has been the number for the county."

He disputes the numbers. In 2005, 13,853 households were at or below the poverty level. The number dropped to 7,870 in 2006 and grew to 12,500 the next year.

"It would mean some 6,000 people moved out of the county and came back the next year," Rooney said. "This is either an aberration or a mistake. A three-year average would be a better indicator."

Still, demand for aid remains on the rise, particularly requests for medical assistance.

"Those numbers are not going down, not if you look at our patient load," said Vickie E. Bands, director of community outreach and occupational health for Upper Chesapeake Health.

The medical clinic is open weekdays at its location on Pulaski Highway and operates several mobile sites, including stops at homeless shelters. The clinic lowered its age limit from 40 to 19 in January and has seen a significant increase in patients, Bands said.

"We have always had a fair number of working poor, people who are usually sicker and need more time to treat," she said. "Now we have quite a few young people, nearly all uninsured and many with chronic conditions that no physician has managed. We are averaging about 200 patients a month, double what we had last year. By this time next year, we expect to double again."

"These are conditions that can happen to all of us, but this population has nowhere to go," Kraft said.

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