On any given day, 550 men, women and children are living in one of Baltimore County's homeless shelters, officials say. Counselors receive an average of 40 calls daily from those asking for beds. Hundreds are living on county streets, sleeping in doorways or on steam grates. Nearly 2,000 homeless children attended county schools last year.
Kathy Martin, vice president of the Baltimore County Communities for the Homeless, a nonprofit that works with the county, delivered those and other dire statistics at three community meetings this week. Each time she gave a number, she added, "in this county of so much."
The community meetings in Catonsville, Towson and Essex begin a comprehensive effort by government, nonprofits, businesses and religious groups to end homelessness. The first two gatherings each drew about 50 participants — a few of them homeless.
The discussions lead up to a six-day planning session next month, funded through a $25,000 donation from United Way. The workshops were scheduled in response to a request from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development that asks jurisdictions across the country to develop long-range plans to minimize homelessness.
At the planning meeting, participants will draft a 10-year plan to "make the incidence of homelessness rare and brief, or nonexistent," said Mary L. Harvey, director of the county Office of Community Conservation.
Baltimore County's homeless count jumped by nearly 25 percent in the past year, according an annual county survey. Nearly 40 percent of the 890 people counted said they were homeless for the first time, with unemployment and evictions contributing to their dilemma.
Fred Weimert, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Towson, said he hopes planning will "engage citizens, faith and political leaders, and service providers and have them look deeply into this issue."
Stephanie Yancy, interim rector of Trinity Episcopal Church, which hosted the session in Towson, offered a compelling example of the problem. On a cold February morning, she arrived for her first Sunday service at the church on Alleghany Avenue in the heart of the county seat and found homeless men sleeping in the doorway.
"Help us to help others in their search for shelter," she said in a prayer offered at the community meeting Wednesday.
After presenting the statistics, organizers at the community sessions involved participants in two exercises. One had them dealing with budgeting limited funds and the other had them map a bus route to day care and a job miles from a shelter. Most were stymied by the financial and logistical hurdles.
"I felt like this was a chance to reflect, hands-on, on all the unknowns a homeless person faces," said Mandy Liberto, a volunteer participant.
Organizers were not surprised that most participants could not figure out a budget or a bus route.
'"The idea was not so much solving the problem as it was to feel the frustrations homeless people go through every day," said Diane Chotikul, housing specialist with the county.
She recalled the daily commute of one mother living at a shelter in Dundalk. The woman rose at 4:30 a.m., caught a bus to take one child to day care and another bus to take her older child to school. Then she took several more buses and a train to her job in Bethesda. It was a year before Chotikul, who frequently could schedule only late-evening meetings with the young mother, could secure a voucher to house the woman nearer to her job.
Sue Bull, the county's homeless coordinator, urged participants to return for the planning session, saying, "We need your voices."
The county has hired Heather Lyons, who develops long-range plans for the Corporation for Supportive Housing, a national nonprofit, to lead the planning effort next month.
"We will not end the economic crises people face," said Lyons, who spent Thursday touring the county's shelters. "But we can create a framework to respond to people's needs. The community must be held accountable for ending homelessness."
In January, volunteers working on the county's homeless survey checked shelters, libraries, soup kitchens and bus stops. They found homeless encampments, people living in their vehicles and nearly 300 children living in shelters but still did not find everyone. In 2009, the county served 5,000 individuals in its various programs to assist the homeless, including 1,400 children.
Jim Frye, 61, who has lived in a tent for three years and was among those counted in the survey, attended the meeting in Towson.
"As long as people keep talking, it's gotta help eventually," he said.