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Tuesday, February 10, 2015

A tale of two Howard County realities

      We are used to having Howard County recognized for our high quality of living.  We are fortunate to be positioned to take advantage of being between two metropolitan areas that attract a highly educated affluent population   But this also has a down side.  The high cost of living in Howard County means that low income minimum wage workers in our County live with the reality that one bump in the road could lead them to become homeless.   An illness, loss of a job or even reduced work hours could spell the difference between having secure housing or becoming homeless.  The recent approval of the County Council to approve a transfer of land for construction of housing for the homeless in Jessup shows how in spite of our high median income we still face many of the same issues of how to handle the homeless population that our more urban areas struggle with.  The County Executive and County Council should be commended for their support in addressing the homeless issue in our County.
      To understand the homeless population you have to realize that there are distinctly different groups of the homeless population.   The first and probably most recognized group are those individuals we see on the streets of Baltimore either wandering around with all their possessions or begging on a street corner.  Mental illness and addictions has made this population chronically homeless.  In Howard County this chronically homeless population may not be as visible but exist in many parts of our Route 1 corridor.  Living in wooded areas, in shelters or in other temporary housing situations is a long term way of life.   The second group of homeless in our County are those individuals who I would describe as "unstably housed."  Depending on their financial situation they maybe renters at times, living with relatives or friends at times or using shelters . Many of this group. are the low income, minimum wage workers in our fast food or hospitality establishments.
      Addressing the needs of our homeless population need to recognize the differences in these two groups.   For the first more chronically homeless population addressing the mental health, health care and addiction issues are essential to addressing their homelessness.   Addressing the needs of this population is like a "chicken or egg" situation.   How do you address the mental health issues when a person has housing instability issues?  The day to day survival of this population makes it difficult to effectively deal with the mental health issues.   This fact makes the case for the homeless center being proposed in Jessup.  Other communities have had success in using this housing model to address the needs of this population.
     The other homeless population, described as "episodically" homeless, calls for different interventions.  This population often needs preventative assistance to prevent eviction or utility turnoff.  Many times temporary support keeps the person or family from losing their housing. Often a coordinated support plan using the supports and resources of a variety of local service providers can effectively manage these situations. In Howard County this need is managed through a  Coordinated System of Homeless Services (CSHS). The CSHS includes:
"• A single point of entry at Grassroots Crisis Intervention Services, where crisis counselors 
attempt to divert callers from becoming homeless and refer those cases where diversion 
is unsuccessful to the CSHS.
• Assigning every client in the CSHS a case manager who conducts an in-depth 
assessment, connects clients to needed services, and is accountable with the client for 
achieving housing stability.
• Dedicated resources for addiction treatment, administered by the Health Department, to 
provide rapid access to addictions treatment on request of the homeless in the CSHS.
• Flexible Financial Assistance to help households retain their housing or secure new 
housing, can be accessed during the attempt at diversion as well as by the case 
• Housing Stability Subsidy Program, administered by the County’s Housing Commission,
to provide local subsidies to make housing affordable for the most vulnerable homeless 
• A Service Coordinator to monitor client progress, data and resource needs."

   With funding from the County, State and the local United Way this coordinated system has had success in preventing many families in Howard County from becoming homeless.   A central intake at Grassroots has been able to identify and access local resources in a coordinated manner to maximize the effectiveness of the interventions.  Additionally, ongoing case management services have worked to address the ongoing long term issues that are important for establishing future housing stability.

    I would be remiss if I didn't highlight one subgroup of the homeless population for special mention.  That group is youth aging out of foster care.   This population is especially vulnerable because of their often lack of a family or community support system.   We may wonder how someone could have no resource to prevent them from becoming homeless.  Most of us can identify family or friends we could lean on if we found ourselves homeless but for youth in foster care the system is often unsuccessful in establishing these supports during the youth's stay in foster care.  It is not hard to understand the life disruption that being in 10, 20 or more foster care placements can be for a foster youth aging out of the system.  Combine this fact with educational and vocational deficits and mental health issues caused by abuse and you can see how this population makes up a disproportionate percentage of our homeless population.
    In Howard County the Fostering Futures program is working to address the needs of youth aging out of foster care.   They are worthy of your support.

P.S. 1
   Latest copy of the Homeless Gazette.  Produced by Howard County homeless.

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