By Lyna Bentahar
Special to The Sentinel
ROCKVILLE – County officials and nonprofit groups gathered on Veterans Memorial Plaza for the third annual service to remember 31 homeless and formerly homeless individuals who died in the past year on July 11.
The name of each of the individuals who died was read aloud by nonprofit providers, such as Bethesda Cares, Catholic Charities and Coalition for the Homeless and Interfaith Works. Most of these individuals died due to complications that arose during their time in homelessness.
Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich and Councilmember Gabe Albornoz were two of several attendees that spoke during the service. Speakers focused on the way the aging community in the county was most impacted by homelessness, leading to premature death.
“It’s just hard, looking at people struggling on the streets every day,” said Elrich. “I think we have a moral imperative to try and deal with it.”
As of January 2019, in a survey conducted by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, 647 people were homeless in the county, including 85 families with children. That marks a 28% decrease since the first memorial service for homelessness, which memorialized 50 homeless individuals for that year.
“Every life is precious. Every person has a story,” said Albornoz, who is also the chair of the health and human services committee for the county. “We have the opportunity and obligation to address the needs and the challenges and the obstacles and barriers that lead to homelessness in our community.”
In December 2015, the county declared an end to veteran homelessness and now maintains a “functional zero,” where there are fewer veterans in homelessness than there are those finding housing each month. The county’s goal is now to end chronic homelessness overall.
“We need to…get to the point where homelessness is a temporary, brief span before we’re able to help you,” said Elrich, “not a condition that we accept as the normal thing for two-thirds of the year. That doesn’t cut it. We’ve got to do better.”
Montgomery County currently adopts and advocates for a Housing First model for dealing with homelessness. It focuses on getting homeless individuals and families out of shelters for good and into permanent homes.
In the past, policies regarding homelessness focused on warehousing people to shelters and finding them housing only when they were “housing ready,” said Susanne Sinclair-Smith, chief executive director of the Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless. These policies, however, did not protect them against reverting back to homelessness, as permanent homes were not guaranteed.
“(The Housing First model) turns that on its head,” said Sinclair-Smith.
“My life was fine before my husband got sick,” said Astou, a woman who was homeless for seven months last year after her husband had a stroke and could no longer provide an income. She found housing in October 2018 through the Housing First model at the National Center for Children and Families’ Greentree Shelter. Jamar Moore, a nonprofit organizer at Greentree, spoke in place of Astou, who could not attend the event.
“You can not be entirely comfortable at a homeless shelter, no matter how much you try, or how hard the staff works,” said Astou. “It is not like home.”
For Raymond Crowel, the new director of the Department of Health and Human Services, the biggest challenge was finding affordable housing in an expensive county. His second concern was finding preventative measures for homelessness, finding people who are at risk of losing their homes and helping them keep them.
“There’s often a story behind the homelessness that we don’t understand because we don’t take the time to learn it,” said Crowel. “That’s the piece that sets up us blaming homeless people for being homeless a lot of times.
“I have a simple goal,” Crowel said during his final remarks. “I want to have next year’s memorial service be much smaller than this one.”
At the end of the service, Crowel encouraged the audience to take a white flower from a bouquet set up on the plaza, to remember the names of the people who died during the past year and to remember that homelessness is still with the community.