Homelessness: What Baltimore County is doing to address the issue

A couple who panhandles with their dog in Woodlawn near the corner of Security Boulevard and Lord Baltimore Road, shopping cart of blankets, pet food and their belongings parked a few feet away, say they are trying to collect enough money to pay for their weekly stay at a nearby pet-friendly hotel.

Dressed in a hooded sweatshirt one cool morning, Tormerri Lawrence, 23, shared her struggles with finding herself without a permanent home—a situation she did not expect to be in at this time of her life. She stopped to share her story as she and her fiance Karrel Anderson panhandle with their dog on Security Boulevard for money to pay for their stay at a nearby pet-friendly hotel.

As a teen raised in Baltimore City in a two-parent household, Lawrence graduated from high school and enrolled in Coppin State University. She lived in campus housing with dreams of becoming a registered nurse or geriatric nurse. “Too much partying” cut that goal short.

After moving in with a boyfriend didn’t work out, and experiencing a series of “pitfalls, mistakes and bad decisions,” Lawrence found herself homeless at age 19.

“I should have stayed in school and listened to my parents,” she laments. “We’re trying to find a way to get our own place,” she says of Anderson. The couple lived with Anderson's mother. After the mother died, they could not maintain the $1,200 rent and utilities on her Greenmount home, and they were evicted. That misfortunate put them on the path of staying in a series of hotels in the city and county.

Lawrence acknowledges that staff from organizations such as Prologue, a transitional housing facility, have stopped by to check on them and give them a "street card" that list resources. Her fiancé has an interview and she hopes to obtain disability assistance.

It is their dog that helps get them though the troubling times, including bouts of depression, but she presents an issue when seeking a shelter stay.

“We’re trying to stay together. We’re not legally married yet and if we go to a shelter they’ll separate us,” Lawrence says. They’re trying to get the dog registered as a disability dog.

Baltimore County’s Approach to Homelessness
According to a state report, Baltimore County has the second highest number of homeless people.

Guided by a 10-year Plan to Prevent and Reduce Homelessness called “A Home For All”, Baltimore County is focusing on seven strategies: reconfigure the crisis response system, offer targeted prevention assistance to those most at risk, create a “rapid re-housing” approach that combines permanent housing with supportive services; increase connections to mainstream resources, create permanent housing units countywide, improve data and outcome measures, and align funding sources around housing, supportive services and other outcomes.

The plan, launched in 2014, was developed to bring the county’s service system into alignment with best practices and regulatory changes in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s homeless assistance programs and goals. It also coincides with state legislation that established a council to find solutions to homelessness.

Jason Burns is systems administrator for the Homeless Information Management System (HMIS), a client-tracking database into which homeless service providers enter data. 

According to the data provided by Baltimore County Department of Planning from HMIS, after experiencing a decrease of 300 people needing services for the homeless between 2014 and 2015, the number has remained steady at about 3,600 since then. Last year, slightly more women (51 percent) sought services than men. Twenty-four percent was under the age of 12 and 5 percent older than 62. Two thirds were African American, 64 percent White; and three percent were Latino/Hispanic.

Burns says, “If you prioritize and serve the most vulnerable first, it will eliminate and drastically reduce chronically homeless and those folks staying homeless the longest. And, it's much more cost effective to have someone in a permanent housing program than to have people going back into shelters, people going to emergency rooms, people going to jail.”

The face of homelessness varies, says Keenan Jones, homeless services administrator, under county's Department of Planning and Neighborhood Improvement. 

While many may not have seen evidence in the county of street encampments, such as clusters of tents that used to be located under the Jones Falls Expressway or on Mulberry Street at Martin Luther King Boulevard, reportedly, there is at least one in a wooded area in Dundalk. People will talk about a woman who camps outside of Giant in Milford Mill and a man who occasionally sleeps on a bench on Reisterstown Road in Pikesville.

The homeless could be a senior, family and children. "It could have been someone who was working and lost their job and all of a sudden they were not able to pay their bills. That person could have been evicted and ended up in a shelter," Jones said. But unaccompanied youth do not represent a significant segment of the population, he said. In March, the county did a count in the eastern section of the county of young people under age 25 who might be considered homeless.

Baltimore County has four year-round facilities that provide emergency shelter for people who are homeless, providing a total of 348 beds. They offer sleeping accommodations, meals, showers and linkages to case management and supportive services, such as counseling.

On the west side, the nonprofit Community Action Network operates the Westside Men’s Shelter, located in Catonsville on the grounds of Spring Grove State Hospital. It serves 110 men and provides meals, laundry and showers.

Sarah’s Hope at Hannah More, operated by St. Vincent de Paul of Baltimore, has 85 beds for women and families in need of short-term convalescent care. Night of Peace Overnight Family Shelter, located in Windsor Mill, provides overnight shelter for up to 28 persons. Each family gets a private cubicle, breakfast and dinner, as well as supportive services.

The county’s largest shelter, Eastside Family Shelter, is also operated by CAN, and provides 125 beds for women and families.

The county is constructing a $26 million Eastern Family Resource Shelter on the grounds of Franklin Square Medical Center in Essex to replace the cramped Eastside shelter. The three-floor, 80,000-square-foot facility will house three shelter operations for women and children, men and transitional 
housing and open this year.

The county also has shelters for domestic violence victims, transitional shelter, and permanent supportive housing. INNterim House provides transitional shelter for nine women and their children, with each family having their own room.

Statewide Homelessness Report
Maryland’s Interagency Council on Homelessness was established by 2014 legislation to examine statewide initiatives aimed at ending homelessness in the state. As part of its strategy, the council proposes solutions to increase access to affordable housing, add more low-barrier shelter options, support the Housing First approach and increase funding for supportive services.

The council’s 2016 fiscal year annual report prepared for the Governor and Maryland General Assembly notes a six percent increase in homelessness statewide over the previous year.

In 2016, the point-in-time count, which represents a snapshot of homelessness the last two weeks in January, was estimated at 7,352 persons experiencing homelessness in Maryland. The annualized number of sheltered and unsheltered indviduals from homeless services providers throughout the year is 29,670. On average, almost 9 percent of the homeless are veterans.

Of that statewide total, Baltimore City served the most clients in fiscal year 2016, 11,807 (39 percent); Baltimore County followed with 3,648 (12 percent), and Montgomery County was third, with just under 2,800. However, Baltimore County’s point-in-time number for last year, 763, was third behind the city and Montgomery County.

Lawrence wants people to understand that with homelessness, “There’s a whole spectrum that goes on. Sometimes you can’t control what happens.” 

“We pray together. We read the Bible together. We had a woman drop us off two Bibles. We try to keep each other uplifted. Even if you’re homeless you have to laugh, you still have to smile. You don’t know where you’re going to go. Sometimes people will see us laughing and joking sitting on the side of the street. They think we’re crazy.

“At this point in time, we’re tired of letting the devil win. I’ve made attempts 
on my life. He’s made attempts on his life. The devil has kicked us while we 
were down long enough. We definitely try to keep in mind that God has 
something better for us.”

What Should You Do When You See a Homeless Person?
•  Treat them as a human being with respect.
•  Engage them. Give them a street card. Ask if need help with resources.
•  Buy them a carryout meal, but most recommend not giving them money.

People seeking access to these services must be referred through the county’s coordinated intake system. If you are seeking these services for yourself or to aid another person in accessing services, call 410-853-3000, option 2.