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Monday, May 16, 2016

Faces of homelessness in Howard County

      If you have been a follower of this blog you know that I frequently return to topics that I feel are important to our community.  Homelessness is one of those topics.  In defining homelessness in Howard County our image of single adults living on the street or in the woods is often unrepresentative of homeless in our County.  While we certainly have individuals living in the woods in our County we have many more that are what I would call "unstably housed."  This would include people living in their cars, with friends or relatives or in a motel.
     In the title of this blog I deliberately used the word "faces" because there is no one single face for homeless persons in Howard County.  Some are working poor making minimum wages in our service industry.  The person delivering your pizza or waiting on you at a local restaurant might fit this profile. They might be one illness, one job loss or one car breaking down from being homeless.  They might be a single mother who struggles to provide for her family juggling jobs and the costs of raising a family in Howard County.  They might be a person who lived a middle class life who had a health problem, lost their job and health insurance and then lost their housing.  They might be a young person who aged out of foster care or was kicked out of their home.  It is not unusual that homeless persons come from families that have been homeless for more than one generation.  This is common with those who have grown up in foster care.
    For many of these unstably housed individuals and families a housing voucher would be a good solution to being able to live in Howard County.  Unfortunately the funding for housing vouchers from the federal government has been dramatically declining since the 1980's.   A Republican led Congress has more recently targeted affordable housing vouchers for significant cuts.  Republican Presidential candidates this year have frequently listed HUD as a federal department for elimination (even as some can't remember all the departments they want to eliminate!).  All of this has been occurring during the last few years as a major recession and the resulting unemployment has pushed more families toward being homeless.
     Today we hear about affordable housing being developed for persons making 30-80% of median income.  For Howard County that would translate into an annual income of $32,000 to $86,000.  A minimum wage worker in Howard County would have to hold two full time jobs to make $32,000. When we hear our local discussions of building affordable housing it is primarily for those residents making closer to the $86,000 than to the $32,000.  Very few of these units will go to those minimum wage workers in our County.  Without a recognition and commitment to low income affordable housing at all levels of government the persons experiencing housing instability will continue to experience homelessness.
     The development of homeless housing in Jessup that has the support of the County Council and County Executive is a valuable resource for chronically homeless persons in our County, many living in the Route 1 corridor.  However temporarily homeless families in our County are not the targeted group for this resource and we will still need more vouchers for those experiencing temporary homelessness. The County has a County funded voucher program that has recently added 12 vouchers to its program but the waiting list for County vouchers is eight years long and is presently closed to new applicants.
    Last week I blogged on an effort by the Kittamaqundi Community Church and other churches to address this need for affordable housing.  This effort is a good example how the development of affordable housing has to be addressed by a combined commitment from the public sector, private development and the general community.  It would be unfair and simplistic to just say that low income workers shouldn't expect to be able to live in Howard County.  I would point out, as was recently pointed out to me, if all the minimum wage workers in Howard County were to go on strike our community would shut down!  To enjoy the services provided to all of us every day by these workers and not care about whether they can live here seems exploitative to me.

   Howard County has a "Plan to End Homelessness."


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