Photo courtesy of Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless

In the cold darkness of several early November mornings, teams of volunteers and public servants combed the streets, woods and shelters of Montgomery County, MD.

They were on a special mission. They were seeking homeless men and women to interview using a survey instrument called the Vulnerability Index. The research-based tool was designed to find out about the health and medical vulnerability of the indigent men and women – to determine which of them, if they remained homeless, was at the greatest risk of dying.

The outreach work, which yielded interviews with 369 homeless people, was part of a larger national registry week effort led by the 100,000 Homes Campaign, an initiative geared toward understanding and ending homelessness across America. A total of 220 jurisdictions in the U.S. including the District of Columbia and Fairfax/Falls Church, Virginia are also involved in the campaign which emphasizes the importance of getting medically-fragile and chronically homeless people and families off the streets and into safe housing. The work is driven by the findings of studies that show that homeless people are far more likely to die prematurely than people with homes.

In their recent surveys, the Montgomery teams found 159 medically-fragile individuals, at risk of frostbite, suffering from chronic disease, mental illness, addiction or coping with old age. In the days since the findings were made public, the county quickly responded.

Officials now say they are set to invest $650,000 to house 15 homeless individuals “right away.”
Montgomery County Councilmember George Leventhal, who served on the registry week leadership team and who helped with the survey effort Nov. 4-6, said the county needs to unify its efforts around getting people into housing and off the streets.

“We’re going to keep the momentum going,” he said. A special appropriation from the county’s general fund reserve for this purpose, proposed by Leventhal together with Councilmembers Craig Rice and Nancy Navarro, was approved by the Council Dec. 10.

That money will enable those people to be housed for 18 months, together with necessary case work and staff support, according to the Montgomery County Coalition for Homeless (MCCH). Additional funds are anticipated in the coming years, officials said.

“This is wonderful; I’m pinching myself; this is a beginning,” MCCH Executive Director Susie Sinclair-Smith said in a telephone interview, reflecting upon the new revenue and county officials’ focus on the problem.

An annual count of the homeless in the county, conducted earlier this year, found a total of 1007 men, women and children. The 15 new housing placements come in addition to other ongoing emergency, transitional and safe housing efforts being undertaken in the affluent county where the average rent for a modest two-bedroom apartment tops $1,400.

Yet the most fragile of the homeless need special attention, said Sinclair-Smith.

“When you see there is this kind of poverty – encampments, right behind your house, you realize how vulnerable they are; you see there’s a sense of urgency,” Sinclair-Smith added.

“It’s a powerful motivator when you see this person is going to die.”

Compared to housed people, the chronically homeless face life expectancies that are shortened by 25 years, studies have shown. In addition to coping with exposure and chronic disease, many also have serious mental health issues. Without help, they often cycle through the jail system and emergency medical system, Sinclair-Smith added. The 369 people surveyed reported a total of 677 in-patient hospitalizations over the past year.