Pastor seeks housing for men living in Montgomery County woods

Latino day laborers shy away from shelters, gather in camps

March 08, 2010|By Darryl Fears | The Washington Post

Valentin Del Cid lived and died in the cold woods of Rockville's Aspen Hill Park. He was drinking one night a year ago when he slipped on a patch of ice, hit his head hard and froze to death overnight.

"I was one of the ones who found him," said Carlos Fernandez, a pastor who has brought food and read Scripture to the homeless Latino day laborers in ragged camps like the one where Del Cid, 40, died.

Now Fernandez is proposing to help the men by converting an abandoned house to a rehabilitation center and residence for the laborers, many of whom are alcoholics. Fernandez and other activists have asked Montgomery County officials to select an abandoned house and provide him a grant to renovate it. He hopes to house as many as five adult men there at one time.

"Where are they going to go at night?" Fernandez asked. "They go to the woods. They stay in tents with their friends. They start drinking to socialize and stay warm. They become alcoholics."

Fernandez, 52, has founded a new group, the Human Restoration Project, but for now it is little more than a name. Fernandez acknowledges he has no money, church, staff, office or infrastructure that typically mark even the smallest nonprofit human service organizations.

Montgomery County officials say that without such basics, they cannot give him a county-owned house.

"The county has decided to continue working with the resources we have available," said Mary Anderson, a county spokeswoman.

But officials concede that Fernandez is trying to address an issue they've yet to resolve: what to do with Spanish-speaking campers who shy away from shelters and substance-abuse rehabilitation centers where mostly English is spoken.

The number of Latinos living in the suburban woods is unknown; the county doesn't categorize homeless people by race and ethnicity.

But when the county's Department of Health and Human Services conducted an informal count last year in June, it found 52 homeless camps with a total of 642 homeless people in Rockville, Gaithersburg, Germantown, Silver Spring and Wheaton.

The county's summer count was much higher than the regional Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments' one-day homeless census in January 2009. In general, more homeless people camp in the summer than winter. The council's count found a total of 1,238 individuals without shelter in the entire D.C. area. About 10 percent - 123 - were in Montgomery County.

Luis Romero, executive director of United Salvadoran Communities of the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Area, which participated in the count, said the county census is a more accurate reflection of unsheltered Latinos. But Anderson, a spokeswoman for the county's Department of Health and Human Services, said the count is regarded only "as a snapshot" of the homeless population. Some people might have been counted twice, she said.

Homeless campers are welcome to sleep in shelters, especially during winter, when more emergency beds are available. But some choose to stay outdoors.

Some are mentally ill; others avoid shelters because they prohibit alcohol.

Fernandez said the key is to get them to stop drinking.

One day recently, Fernandez, Romero and Boris Pallominy, a Montgomery County police officer who acts as a liaison to the Latino community, visited the men in Aspen Hill Park after a blizzard. Fernandez carried a whole chicken to help feed their stomachs and a Bible to feed their souls.

"I walked over to talk to them," he said. "I asked them, 'How do you live?' That weekend, we took them some food ... and we would preach to them."

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