Despite optimistic talk of how more and more homeless people were moving into permanent housing, the tenor of Monday night’s community dialogue on homelessness changed when about 15 homeless people entered the meeting in the Silver Spring Civic Building and disputed how well the County is handling its homeless population.
“Morally it’s wrong to say you have compassion, and you don’t,” said Sharetha Wilson, who recently moved into her own place after four years living on the street.
“You say you have compassion, but you pass us on your way,” she told the packed meeting room. “If you see us on the streets, if you see us in church, why not say, ‘How can I help you?’” she asked. “You all snub your noses.”
Council member George Leventhal, who hosted the meeting, praised Wilson’s comments, while pointing out that there are so many challenges involved with getting a person off the streets and emergency shelters and into their own house.
“These are hard, very complex issues,” said Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services Director Uma Ahluwalia. “We are doing many things right, but not everything.”
Ahluwalia promised to investigate many of the concerns expressed at the meeting, noting, “This community is very empathetic.”
In 2007, there were 1,139 homeless people in the County, according to the annual one-night point-in-time count conducted throughout the County. Last year, there were 894.
The County is on track to end chronic homelessness by April, Ahluwalia said, referring to those living on the streets for more than a year and having at least one chronic medical problem. As of 2017, there were 158 chronic homeless persons here.
The goal is to help the most vulnerable first, Leventhal said.
“We don’t want people in a shelter. We want people in [permanent] housing,” he said, noting that two homeless people died during the recent brutally cold nights.
During the recent cold spell, emergency shelters were filled, and people had to “sleep in closets, in the computer lab, on every chair we have.” said Christine Hong, Director of Homeless Services at Interfaith Works.
Representatives of the County’s Health and Human Services Department, Bethesda Cares, Interfaith Works, Shepherd’s Table and the Coalition for the Homeless used the two-hour meeting to explain their efforts to end homelessness in Montgomery County.
Using federal and County funds, the County stresses outreach and getting each homeless person to trust the services them. When necessary, there is money for quick fixes – like assistance with paying a security deposit or utility bill – in addition to the free meals, clothing and counseling offered by the County to those in need.
Still, there is a need for more affordable housing because the County’s housing stock is so expensive, said Bethesda Cares Executive Director John Mendez.
“I feel like we are seeing some real successes,” he said. “We believe, and we know, that if you can build relationships with people, they begin to trust you.”
Amanda Harris, chief of services to end and prevent homelessness in the County’s HHS Department, noted that
the majority of Montgomery County’s homeless population have problems that are short-term and, with a bit of help, can often find housing on their own.
“About 30 percent of the people that we see are employed,” she said. “They are working,”
Getting homeless persons into their own housing, Mendez explained, allows them to better keep track of medications and to not spend their days looking for a bathroom or a place to sleep.
“We have to have more housing stock,” he said, noting that the practice of moving the homeless from one encampment to the next is not a solution.
“They don’t deserve it,” he said. “They are human beings.”