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Homeless numbers difficult to estimate

September 19, 2009|By ERIN JULIUS

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- In Washington County, some homeless people live in the woods, others spend a night here and there in shelters. Some live in temporary housing provided by an agency.

Some hold full-time jobs, others work part time. Some are students.

No one knows for sure the extent of the homeless situation because part of that population is transient and many stay off the radar.

A report from the Community Action Council showed there were 201 families on the agency's waiting list for housing at some point between September 2008 and August 2009.

Another survey, intended to provide a snapshot of the homeless situation at a specific point in time, was conducted Jan. 28 by a number of local agencies that work with homeless people.

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That survey identified 93 homeless adults on that day. Of those, 55 were men, 36 were women and two did not list a gender. In addition, 46 children with an average age of 5 were identified on that day.

The Washington County Public Schools system had 244 homeless children during the 2008-09 school year, said Carol Costello, supervisor of alternative programs and student services. Of those, 103 were elementary students, 82 were middle school students and 59 were in high school, she said.

That was an increase over the number of homeless children in the system during the 2007-08 school year, when 148 children were identified as being homeless, Costello said.

"It's not one particular part of the county," Costello said. "There are folks in the rural areas experiencing a loss of housing, and in the more urban areas."

During the last school year, there were homeless children in 32 of the county's 46 school facilities, she said.

Figures were not yet available for the 2009-10 school year.

There are about 675,000 homeless people in the United States at any given time, according to figures provided by the National Alliance to End Homelessness. That's only part of the picture, however. Each year, between 2.5 million and 3.5 million people experience at least one night of homelessness, National Alliance figures show.

In 2008 in Maryland, 6,054 people received shelter through homeless assistance programs, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Housing. Included in that number were 3,209 households without children and 879 households with children.

In Hagerstown, REACH, a nonprofit faith-based organization, works to prevent homelessness by helping people pay rent and utilities and by offering a cold weather shelter, said Jodie Stock, REACH's executive director.

In fiscal year 2008, REACH served 1,800 people. By fiscal year 2009, the number had nearly tripled, to 5,300 served, Stock said.

Two groups

Hagerstown Police Chief Arthur Smith said there are two groups of homeless people in the area.

"Especially with the economy bad now, we have some people who would not be homeless, but have fallen on hard times," Smith said in April.

Those cases are pretty easy to handle, and help is available for them in Washington County, he said.

"They make a few phone calls, find out where to go, we don't see them," he said.

Smith describes those in the other group as "homeless by choice."

"They are homeless because they like to be homeless ... These people don't like rules," he said.

Smith includes in this group inmates recently released from prison, people who suffer from mental illness and those with substance abuse problems.

Smith estimated that during the winter months, there are at least 100 such people in Hagerstown. The number decreases slightly in the summer, he said.

"During the winter, we try to keep them from freezing to death," Smith said. Officers know where the shelters are and take people to them when necessary.

In December 2008, one man police described as homeless died of exposure. His body was found on an embankment about 30 yards from railroad tracks west of City Park.

Finding shelter

Some of those who live in the woods have elaborate setups.

They've built toilets, have solar showers and grills. Liquor bottles and beer cans litter a few of the sites. In others, empty water bottles are stashed in buckets and will be recycled. Some sites are nothing more than a pile of blankets over plastic garbage bags.

Some started camping in the woods after the REACH cold weather shelter closed in April.

The police department had been getting more calls than usual reporting homeless camps in the woods this summer, Smith said.

No violence or thefts had been associated recently with the homeless population, Smith said.

"We haven't had any really serious issues for more than a year," he said.

"Now, the complaints are more that they're close to a business or house," he said. "It's lowering the quality of life to have a homeless camp behind your house."

In such cases, officers ask the homeless to move along, Smith said.

Men also can stay at the Hagerstown Rescue Mission, although some choose not to because of rules they say the mission enforces, such as no drinking.

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