Montgomery County leaders and homeless prevention nonprofits on Wednesday announced a push for 300 volunteers to help document and survey chronically homeless people sleeping on the streets.
Montgomery is now officially taking part in the 100,000 Homes campaign, a nationwide initiative to document illnesses of the chronically homeless to help prioritize them for housing assistance. Locally, the nonprofit Bethesda Cares conducted the survey in 2011 and 2012.
Last October, Bethesda Cares enlisted the help of medical students at the Uniformed Services University at Walter Reed to ask homeless people sleeping near the metro, between newspaper boxes and in sheds around downtown Bethesda about their medical conditions.
The Montgomery County Coalition For The Homeless (MCCH), a nonprofit that provides emergency housing, transitional shelters and permanent housing and care, is hoping to get groups of volunteers from other similar organizations — other nonprofits, schools, corporations, religious institutions — to go out during surveying Nov. 5-7, find homeless people and conduct questionnaires.
“Talking to these people, whether they were sitting in McDonald’s, standing in a cold breezeway of a strip mall, squatting in the woods off of Rockville Pike, I felt like our work mattered. And I hope it felt to them like they mattered,” said Chuck Hanson, who volunteered on the surveys with Bethesda Cares after hearing about the effort through his church. “I learned firsthand, that the people on the streets are just that — they’re people. They may be struggling with issues that you and I are not, but they’re just folks, like us.”
Wednesday’s event was held in front of the MCCH’s emergency homeless shelter in Rockville and included an impassioned plea from Councilmember George Leventhal (D-At large) to volunteer. Leventhal, Chair of the Council’s Housing Committee, has gone with Bethesda Cares outreach workers on the surveys, which start around 5 a.m. and include a volunteer training session.
“We’re a wealthy county, but for some individuals who fall on hard times, who perhaps haven’t made decisions in their own best interest, who have had things occur in their life out of their control that have led to an unlucky crisis situation, we may never be able to eliminate homelessness,” Leventhal said. “But for each person that we place in permanent, stable housing, for that individual his or her homelessness has ended.”
County Executive Isiah Leggett and Councilmember Craig Rice also spoke at the event. So did John Kaine, a client of MCCH who is now in permanent housing after a substance abuse problem led him in and out of homelessness.
Kaine, a former Ride On bus driver, spoke about waking up on one of the White Flint bus benches he used to stop at to drop off and pick up passengers.
The number of formerly homeless individuals living in permanent supportive housing in Montgomery is 641, a 140-percent increase since the county adopted the Housing First method in 2008, according to a county press release. Montgomery expanded its program with 25 subsidies to serve medically vulnerable individuals and has 80 supportive housing vouchers for homeless veterans.
Last year, surveys by Bethesda Cares and its volunteers found 125 individuals experiencing homelessness on the streets of Bethesda, White Flint, Friendship Heights and North Bethesda. Of those, 88 agreed to participate in the assessment, according to outreach specialist John Mendez.
Bethesda Cares found that 46 participants indicated they were medically vulnerable and that they had spent an average of 7.47 years living on the street – nearly two years longer than the national average of 5.71 years, according to 100,000 Homes data.
About 20 percent were not enrolled in the county’s Homeless Management Information System. More than half had little or no transaction history in the Homeless Management Information System. Individuals reported a collective 89 trips to the emergency room in the previous three months and 65 total inpatient hospitalizations in the past year.
Montgomery hopes more volunteers to document their conditions will lead to a quicker path to permanent housing.
“Given our resources, given our commitment, if we in Montgomery County can not make a significant dent in this problem, then there are very few communities around this country that in fact can,” Leggett said. “Given what we have to offer, I think we are in a good position to really, really get to the heart of this problem.”
For information on how to volunteer, visit MCCH’s website.