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Trying to find the cause

September 20, 2009|By ERIN JULIUS

HAGERSTOWN -- Those who work to feed, house and otherwise help the homeless have ideas about why people find themselves without permanent roofs over their heads.

Bruce Shank, executive director of the Hagerstown Rescue Mission, a shelter for men, points to addictions, a lack of a work ethic and mental illness as major causes.

Maj. Robert Lyle, commanding officer of The Salvation Army in Hagerstown, mentions drugs, the cost of living, unaffordable housing and domestic violence.

Justin Repp, pastor at Lifehouse West on Salem Avenue in Hagerstown, cites addictions and economic reasons as top causes of homelessness.

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Domestic violence and job loss were two of the most-cited reasons for homelessness listed by homeless people in Washington County who were surveyed Jan. 28 by agencies serving them.

A Washington County Community Action Council report from a different survey showed 201 families on the agency's waiting list for housing at some point between September 2008 and August 2009. Of those, more than half said they had been evicted, 64 by family, 58 because of failure to pay the rent and 10 for lease violations. Only one listed foreclosure as the reason for being homeless.

Seven families blamed domestic violence or abuse, and 11 said they were homeless because of divorce or separation, according to figures provided by Janet Cole of CAC.

Whatever the reason, it probably took awhile for someone to wind up on the streets, according to Michael Stoops, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Coalition for Homeless, an advocacy organization working to end homelessness.

"Someone doesn't become homeless overnight and someone doesn't get off the streets overnight," said Stoops.

The fundamental causes of homelessness are, in a sense, societal, Stoops said. Housing costs have increased and in some areas, affordable housing is scarce. Some people don't make living wages. Health crises can ruin others, he said.

"No matter who is president or who runs Congress, it seems like homelessness increases," he said.

Snapshot of the situation

A survey intended to take a snapshot of the homeless situation in Washington County at a specific point in time was conducted Jan. 28 by a number of agencies that work with homeless people.

That survey identified 93 homeless adults on that day. Of those, 41 said they were homeless for the first time, a Community Action Council report said.

Fifty-five were men, 36 were women and two did not list a gender. In addition, 46 children with an average age of 5 were identified as being homeless in Washington County.

Among the 93 adults, the most frequently cited primary reasons for homelessness were job loss, at 23, and domestic violence, at 13, the CAC report said. One blamed homelessness on a foreclosure.

Twenty people surveyed said they abused alcohol and 21 said they suffered from mental illness.

And 25 people, nearly 40 percent, said they served in the armed forces.

That's higher than the national figure, which lists 23 percent of the homeless population as having served in the military, said Scott Rose, president of Way Station Inc., a not-for-profit mental health organization.

Right now, the largest concentration of veterans going through the homeless program at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Martinsburg, W.Va., are probably from the Vietnam era, but Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom veterans make up a significant share, too, officials there said.

Some are from the Korean War era, and others served during the Persian Gulf conflict.

Factors that play a role

Statistics show that factors playing a role in Washington County's homeless situation are not unique to this area.

Stoops, of the National Coalition, said the lowest figure with which he was familiar showed that 30 percent of homeless people in this country have a mental health issue. He said other studies show the number of mentally ill and alcoholic homeless as high as 80 percent.

No one can quote exact figures because a lot of homeless people haven't been diagnosed or treated, and aren't taking medications, Stoops said. He said he believes that about 40 percent of homeless people have substance-abuse problems.

Of the homeless veterans in the 66-bed homeless program at the VA Medical Center in Martinsburg, the percentage who have mental health or substance abuse issues is greater than 50 percent, said Michelle Cooke, chief of the domiciliary there.

Carrie Tressler, coordinator for the homeless outreach program at Turning Point, is familiar with the mental health issues of the homeless population in Hagerstown. Her program is a state PATH program -- Projects Assisting the Transition of Homeless -- which is funded through the Office of Special Needs Populations through the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

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