Montgomery County has set what it considers a very doable goal of providing housing for its 242 chronic homeless people and is committed to ending chronic homelessness within its borders by the end of this year.
In a community memorial service held outdoors in the Circuit Court Plaza on June 7, the new initiative called Inside, Not Outside, was announced.
County Administrative Officer Chuck Short explained that since the County’s homeless veterans have now been placed, it is time to focus on the chronically homeless, people who have been homeless for at least one year or have had at least four episodes of homelessness during the previous three years and have some problem or disability that needs a specific intervention, such as drug or alcohol addiction or illness.
Those who aren’t considered the chronic homeless have a specific, short-term, problem that forced them into the streets for a few months, including job loss or high medical bills.
Even if the County does provide housing — not just space in a shelter — there always will be new people ending up on the street or in a car, said Council member George Leventhal.
“We have to keep working on it every year,” he said. “People’s situations change all the time.”
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Ending homelessness is a major priority for the County, he said. “These are human beings. They are our constituents. I work for these people.”
The Rev. Mansfield Kaseman, interfaith community liaison, stressed the importance of remembering a person’s name and recognizing they each have potential, which will go a long way in solving the homelessness crisis, he said.
“The truth is, in a place as rich as Montgomery County, no one should ever be homeless,” Kaseman said.
During the ceremony, an attempt was made to humanize those no longer living. The names of the 61 homeless people who died in 2016 and 2017 were read aloud, along with a couple of sentences about each person.
They were veterans, musicians, cooks, parents and grandparents, teachers and nurses, according to the short statements read by representatives of the nonprofits in the County that deal with the homeless.
Only a few of those 61 people were homeless at the time of their death, but all had been homeless at some point during their lives.
Andre Barnhart knows several of those whose names were read. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that he was sharing meals and storage facility space with them when he was homeless himself.
He told the crowd of about 200 that “These streets will beat you up. They will run you through the mill.”
He had jobs and raised three daughters before losing his home during the housing and banking crisis.
“I didn’t want to tell nobody. I wanted to keep it quiet. I was living in a storage unit,” which was very rough during the cold winter, he said. For five years prior to that, he had been living in his car.
Since February, he has been living in his own apartment. “I love the fact I can walk 10 feet and take a shower. I can walk 12 feet and cook me something to eat. I don’t have to stand in lines,” he said.
“Homelessness is hard. It takes a toll on the body and mind,” said Amanda Harris, who heads the County’s Special Needs Housing.
The homeless have a life expectancy that is 30 years less than the average American. They often only live to be 40 or 50 years old, she said.
They are also more likely to commit suicide or be killed in a traffic accident, she said.
In the past, Montgomery County, like most governments, would not offer housing to anyone until they were off drugs and alcohol. This is no longer the case as research has shown “Housing itself is healthcare,” Harris said.