Although Howard County remains one of the most affluent counties in the nation and has the lowest unemployment rate in the state, the number of homeless people has increased over the past year, prompting a push to increase assistance through the county's plan to end homelessness.
County Executive Ken Ulman included $366,500 in his $899 million budget to fight homelessness. If approved, this year would be the first in which the county has set aside money for the plan, which targets those who are chronically homeless — often because of a mental illness or substance-abuse problem — and others who are homeless because of job loss or other unforeseen circumstances.
"Certainly, with the economic downturn, we've had more homelessness and more need in the areas that cause homelessness," Ulman said. The money will contribute to "better coordinating services among the nonprofits," as well as flexible financial assistance, housing subsidies, and addiction treatment for those in need, he said.
The county's most recent count, which measures how many people happen to be in local shelters or counted outdoors by volunteers in a single night, identified 230 homeless. Those figures have increased from 2011, when 191 were counted. In 2010, Howard found 221 people without a place to live.
This year, the county counted 148 people at shelters and 82 living outdoors or in cars. The annual counts do not include homeless families who are staying with friends or family.
Lois Mikkila, director of the Department of Citizen Services, the county agency that works with nonprofits and other groups to provide need-based services, agreed that service organizations and the county could do a better job coordinating efforts.
"I don't think the way we function now is easy for people in crisis to find what they need. If they never needed the service before, they tend not to know the service exists. What we really want to do with this is help people who need help to get help," she said.
"It's always a challenge to get the word out for human services. Nobody in human services has a lot of money for marketing," Mikkila added. One of the strategies they will attempt to implement is making sure that groups with direct contact with homeless people have information on services provided by faith organizations, nonprofits, county departments and any other group that offers help to those in need.
Mikkila said a large chunk of the money would also "provide flexible financial assistance to prevent the loss of current housing," such a eviction prevention, or longer-term rental assistance for those who might not be eligible for existing programs.
"I think that there is a sense of frustration from people who need that assistance but don't fit neatly in the parameters of that criteria," causing their circumstances to worsen, Mikkila said.
She said it's important to make those in need aware of services available to them before their situation deteriorates.
"Each and every day we sit face to face with families who struggle and need assistance in order to prevent eviction and homelessness," said Bita Dayhoff, president of Community Action Council, which helps connect those in need to housing, food and energy assistance programs.
She said CAC has provided eviction prevention and first month's rental assistance to a growing number of people this year and will likely surpass last year's total of 430 families.
"The funds will certain be of tremendous assistance in addressing the need of the low-income population who can barely meet their ongoing rental monthly payment and as such always stand in the imminent threat of eviction," Dayhoff said.
The money would also provide more opportunities for those in need of addiction treatment, which is "one of the primary characteristics of people who are chronically homeless," said Jane O'Leary, chairwoman of the Howard County Committee to End Homelessness.
O'Leary, who also serves as the executive director of Bridges to Housing Stability Inc., said the funding would also contribute to more housing subsidies for those "stuck in shelter because there is no affordable housing for them," especially in Howard County, where housing and rental costs are higher than in surrounding areas.
Ulman's plan would also pay for the county to hire a new employee to help track those in need, the types of services they receive, and the outcome, which also helps fulfill data collection and reporting requirements of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, O'Leary said.
The money "adds to services that already exist but it also fills in some gaps," she said. "I'm just delighted that the county executive has demonstrated this commitment to ending homelessness."
The County Council has until June 1 to make cuts and approve an operating budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Residents can testify on the operating budget at a council hearing at 7:30 p.m. Monday at the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.