Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless

Three consecutive bitter-cold November mornings spent walking  in the predawn darkness,  visiting homeless people in their wooded “camps” made a deep impression on officials in affluent Montgomery County, Md.

The experience deepened the resolve of  County Council Vice President George Leventhal, Council Chairman Craig Rice and Council member Roger Berliner to end the homelessness they found in some cases, almost literally in their back yards.

“Seeing it first-hand, seeing them setting up small cities; that brought it home,” Rice said. “Right around where I chopped (wood), right in the woods behind my neighborhood, were people camping out who needed my help.  It helped me understand the problem was worse than I thought, and we had to get a handle on it before it became an epidemic.”

The three councilmembers joined a team of  public officials and volunteers who interviewed local homeless people as part of the Montgomery County 100,000 Homes Campaign, part of a larger national campaign registry week effort aimed at  getting chronically homeless people into housing.

The county  group was able to complete 369 surveys using a  “vulnerability index”  designed to determine a homeless person’s risk of dying if he or she were to remain homeless. Nearly half of the men and women they interviewed  reported suffering from a serious health condition and nearly a quarter were classified as “tri-morbid” meaning they had a mental health diagnosis, a physical health problem and an active history of substance abuse. A total of 31 of the homeless individuals reported they were military veterans.

Rice said he met one man wearing a t-shirt in the cold, suffering from a severe cough.

“It is not OK for people to be living in the woods,” concluded the council chairman.

In the days after the surveys were completed, his fellow councilmember Leventhal mounted an effort to get additional  funding to address homelessness in the county. In an  unusual mid-term measure, the county council pushed through an extra $650,000 special appropriation to  fund 15 additional permanent supportive housing placements for vulnerable homeless adults.

The county’s permanent supportive housing program, which is now providing stable homes to more than 1,770 formerly homeless people,  is built upon  a Housing First model that gets chronically homeless people into safe  apartments, then helps them address the physical, mental and social issues that underly their homelessness. The same  model is being used in other local jurisdictions throughout the region and nationwide. In Washington DC  3,639 single men and women and 871 families were in permanent supportive housing earlier this year.

“With the proper support, they can live stably,” Susie Sinclair-Smith, executive director of the Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless, the non-profit administering the program, said in an interview.

Permanent supportive housing is being credited with helping reduce homelessness in Montgomery County by more than 11 percent over the past year, according to the newly-released 2014 Point-In-Time Count of Homeless Persons in the Metropolitan Area. The annual count, conducted in late January throughout the Washington region, found 890 homeless people in Montgomery County shelters, encampments, meal and transitional housing programs, down from 1,004 in 2013.

The county  total included 603 single people as well as 288 people living in families – 188 of them children. Among the families, more than half of the adults reported they were working.

Among the county’s homeless single people, 63 percent reported suffering from chronic substance abuse, serious mental health problems and other related issues, down from the previous year, thanks to increased outreach efforts, county officials said.

As in other places, Montgomery County permanent supportive housing residents get help from a case manager, a nurse, a behavioral health technician, and a psychiatrist and a case aide who assists them with getting to medical appointments, buying groceries and taking care of other daily living tasks.

Jasper Young, a former homeless man and a client of the Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless, is now living on his own through housing assistance given to him through the County.

“I thank God for the people behind me, and  because of the work they continue to do, what happened to me won’t happen to other people.” he said during an April 8 news conference announcing the county’s progress in its fight against homelessness.

In an interview, another beneficiary, Kenneth Hammond, 51, credited the program with helping him reclaim his life. He said he was working for a moving company several years ago when he was hospitalized with a rare blood disease.

He became disabled but his monthly disability checks did not stretch far enough to cover the cost of housing in Montgomery, where the average rent exceeds $1,000 a month. He said he was grateful to have received a safe home through the county initiative.

“If it weren’t for this facility (the apartment), it’s likely I’d be in prison now.”

Other Housing First participants said in interviews that the apartments they have received through the program have enabled them to focus on getting themselves and their lives together, staying free of drugs and alcohol, getting necessary medical and psychiatric treatment, and making a plan for what they will do when they are able to return to normal life.

In addition, supportive housing is cheaper to the county than maintaining homeless people in a cycle of hospitals, jails and emergency shelters, Sinclair-Smith said.  A study done by the University of Washington found that each homeless person cost one jurisdiction an average of  $4,066 per month in public service costs (corrections, shelter, substance abuse treatment and health care), compared with $2,500 per month for supportive housing.