Out in the Cold
- Friday, 10 February 2012 14:32
A few weeks ago, I wore jeans to work. Not “nice” jeans, but jeans that were worn and comfortable. I also put on my work boots, barn coat, gloves, and hat.
I wasn’t spending the day in the office – I was spending the day as one of thousands of volunteers across America counting individuals in their community who are experiencing homelessness on streets and in shelters during the last ten days in January. Called a point-in-time count, because the count takes place over a 24 hour period, the data collected will be aggregated and released by the Department of Housing and Urban Development later this year. With this data, nonprofits and funders like the Community Foundation can measure what works to address the needs of people who are newly homeless and those who are chronically homeless.
Upon arriving at the Frederick Community Action Agency at 8 a.m., I was one of 20+ volunteers affiliated with the Frederick County Coalition for the Homeless. Todd, the coordinator of the count, reviewed the purpose of the day and gave basic instructions. Each of us was assigned to one of four teams that quickly set about our assigned routes to find individuals who did not have a place to stay.
Thank goodness the weather was cold but sunny, with no rain in sight. Volunteers who helped with the count last year told stories of being chilled to the bone from torrential rain and low temperatures. Even though I was only going to be outside for half the day, it made me wonder how persons without a home dry their belongings after a rainy day? How do they stay dry when the rain penetrates their homemade shelter? I was told that Second Street and Hope (a nonprofit in Frederick County whose mission is to feed, cloth, shelter and provide spiritual guidance for the homeless, addicted, and working poor) will wash and dry individuals’ laundry but not all are able to take advantage of this.
Our first stop was in a wooded area by a public park. We walked into the patch of trees where it was reported that a man had been known to live. A bag of trash was on the ground, which could have blown there from anywhere, but there were no signs of anyone living there. We had been told the man would stash his sleeping bag up in the trees for the day if he was leaving his camp. We didn’t see any personal belongings, except for a dirty sock, so it appeared that the man was no longer living there. The park was a mile or two from a business area. How would someone living here get back and forth to services or even to the grocery store? The answer was travelling by bicycle, or walking. I was told some people who are homeless own cars, breaking a myth in my head that all homeless people have no means of transportation.
Next we went to the back of a strip mall, located by a stream and near a highway. A woman was known to live there, but there was no evidence of her that day, so it was assumed she must have moved to another area. One of the volunteers from the Community Action Agency was concerned about her. I learned that staff and volunteers often are familiar with the people who turn to their organization for help, and they worry when they don’t see them for awhile. I found out that sometimes the end of the story is a good one, where they find permanent, stable housing. And, regretfully, sometimes the end of the story has dire results with severe illness from prolonged exposure to the elements, not taking needed medications, or being victimized by others.
Our team then stopped by another known camp in a wooded area a little further north. After walking along a path through a field, we found a camp with a brand new tent which still had the creases from being folded in its original box, which was lying a few feet away. Blankets were airing on tree limbs, a few bicycles were leaning against trees, a stream bubbled close by, but no individuals were at the camp. I asked one of the Homeless Coalition members where he thought the camp’s residents were. He explained that the nice weather probably encouraged people to get out a little bit, because people who are homeless need to socialize, be with other people, and prevent “cabin fever,” even if their cabin is really a tent in a cluster of trees at the end of a field. It made me realize that people without permanent housing are not much different than me and my family – everyone needs other human contact.
Our last stop of the morning was near the Golden Mile, an area that I pass every day. Behind overgrown bushes and trees, we found two distinct camps. One was known by the Homeless Coalition members to have two brothers living in a tent. They were not there. The other camp had a plywood shelter with its lone resident at “home” when we came calling. In talking with the fellow, we learned that he was an honorably discharged military veteran who has been living outside for eight years. He works day jobs, distrusts many, and chooses to be by himself. The craftsmanship on his plywood shelter was remarkable. The angles were plumb and the edges were straight. It was obvious that he planned his shelter well.
While the point in time study continued for 24 hours, my four hour volunteer shift was now completed.
It’s now two weeks later as I write this and the images and questions are still swirling around my head. What can we do to better serve people who are homeless? How can I better lead the Community Foundation to address homelessness for persons who are not choosing to be homeless, but want a stable, clean and decent place to live? And how do we reach the people who fly under the radar – those individuals and families who are “doubled-up” (a new HUD* term) or sleeping in their cars?
Over the next couple of months, I plan to delve into these issues a little deeper, get some answers to my questions, and continue the conversation with the service providers. Stay tuned to future blogs on my progress and the Community Foundation’s efforts to assist those who are homeless and those who are precariously housed in ways that are For Good. Forever. For Frederick County.
*U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
- 312 East Church Street
- Frederick, MD 21701
- phone: 301-695-7660
- fax: 301-695-7775
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