At first glance, it was easy to miss the figure sheltering against the light pole along the fringes of the parking lot. Standing just at the edge of the light and bracing against the biting cold, the man nearly blended into the darkness.
Invisible to many on this cold January night, he was exactly the type of person Renee Duzan’s team was looking for.
Duzan and her group comprised the Aberdeen portion of Harford County’s annual Point-in-Time Homeless Count, an effort coordinated by county agencies, local homeless service providers, police, the faith community and other volunteers to provide the best possible snapshot of the area’s homeless population.
This year’s count revealed a total of 223 homeless persons in Harford County, including 106 adults and 87 children. It was a sharp uptick from the past few years, when similar efforts counted 178 individuals in 2012 and 166 in 2013; and the most since 2011, when 243 people were counted.
Temperatures at the 7 p.m. start of this year’s count hovered around 19 degrees, triggering an expanded version of the county’s freezing weather policy, which allows homeless individuals to be housed in shelters and area motels if they pass a background check and other prerequisites. Given the frigid climate, aid could also be rendered to those who might not pass the screening process but had nowhere else to go.
Nonetheless, teams swept across the Aberdeen, Bel Air, Edgewood, and Havre de Grace areas that night to attempt to count any individuals left behind. In addition to helping aid agencies connect with those in need, Duzan said the counting provides data which is reported to federal agencies to provide assistance funding in the first place.
“Funding is driven by numbers and statistics,” said Duzan, who is the assistant director of targeted case management with Alliance Inc., a disability and mental health service provider affiliated with the Shepard and Enoch Pratt Foundation. “If we want to continue to receive services, we need to show need.”
Among the partners involved in the overall counting effort were Anna’s House, Harford Family House, Alliance Inc., Homecoming Project Inc.; police agencies including the Harford County Sheriff’s Office, Havre de Grace Police Department, the Aberdeen Police Department, and the Bel Air Police Department, and a variety of local churches.
Joining Duzan’s group was Tiffany Robinson, community development manager with the county’s department of community services. Before hitting the streets, Robinson said she believed the cold temperatures would lead to both a more accurate count and few remaining people outside, with most homeless individuals having already sought aid and been counted.
“I will be surprised if we find anyone out tonight,” said Robinson. “Our partners have worked hard over the last few days to get people off the street.”
Along with two other volunteers, the final addition to the group was Aberdeen Police Officer Thaddeus Tomlinson. Each of the groups across the county was accompanied by a law enforcement officer who, in addition to providing an escort, provides additional knowledge about where homeless individuals may be camped out. Robinson emphasized that the officers’ role was not to roust anyone from their shelter but to assist in the count.
When a group encounters a homeless person in need, Duzan said volunteers will attempt to gain as much information as possible, including their name, any medical conditions, their veteran status, and the whereabouts of any local friends or family with whom they might be placed. The groups also carry aid packages including basic items, food, and blankets. The questions are voluntary and do not have to be answered to receive aid, she said, and some individuals are more forthcoming than others.
One such person in the latter group was encountered by the Aberdeen team during one of their first stops, the Grace United Methodist Church in downtown Aberdeen. Workers at the church’s weekly food assistance event pointed out the woman, a new face to the meal. After initially rebuffing the volunteers, who then departed the room, she accosted the group outside a short time later.
“You’re not helping anyone,” she shouted. “You don’t come in here and ask personal questions.”
Most of the remainder of the night was quiet, as the group stopped at one empty, windswept locale after another.
“It’s a cat and mouse game just trying to find them sometimes,” Tomlinson said, as he scanned a stand of woods at the end of a residential street with a flashlight. “These people are survivors by nature.”
As she drove down West Bel Air Avenue, Robinson said the recent declining counts had given the associated aid organizations hope, but pointed out that the cold temperatures could change that trend—a prescient observation, it would turn out.
“Harford County has followed the nationwide trend downward over the last few years,” she said. “But you get a few cold nights and data will show it’s not gone yet.”
The group decided to make one final stop that night, a pass through the far end of the Wal-Mart parking lot. Turning the corner from Old Philadelphia Road into the parking lot, Robinson brought her car to a sudden stop, spotting the bundled-up man standing in the slight lee of a utility pole.
A moment later, Robinson joined Duzan outside and the pair introduced themselves to the man, who called himself “Michael.” At his feet was a tattered cardboard sign reading, “Homeless—Please Help,” a backpack, and a large dog of indeterminate breed leashed to the post.
As he attempted to restrain his overly-friendly dog, the man explained that he had been homeless for about six months after losing his job and then his house. He alluded to having a brother who was elsewhere in the area, but his answers to questions at times seemed slow and disjointed, whether from the cold or for other reasons.
Eventually, he accepted a care package for both himself and his brother, and appeared to also agree to a room at a nearby motel for himself, his brother, and his dog. However, when “Michael” was offered a cab to the hotel, he began to pack up, saying that he had to first find his brother somewhere in the area. The women reluctantly let him leave, having no means to stop him from doing so, but asked him to return a short time later so they could call the cab and place him in a shelter for the night.
After waiting for a few minutes, and with their official route now complete, the two women decided to drop off their other volunteers at the Aberdeen Police Department. Robinson and Duzan returned to the now-vacant parking lot, and waited more than 30 minutes for a sign of “Michael,” to no avail.
The pair was likewise unable to spot him during a subsequent drive around the area and searches over the next few days. For those who sought to help him, the last trace of the man was a set of footsteps and pawprints leading across the snow, wandering from the light into the darkness.
From the Harford County Department of Community Services:
On Wednesday, January 29, 2014 Harford County local homeless service providers, community volunteers, local police agencies, and the Harford County Government joined together in a coordinated effort to conduct a one day count of homeless persons in Harford County.
During the annual Point-in-Time Homeless Count, donated hats, gloves, coats, blankets, personal care items, food, and bus vouchers were distributed to the homeless encountered, and the remaining donations were shared with community shelter providers, Anna’s House, Alliance, Inc., Harford Family House, and Homecoming Project, Inc. The Harford County Department of Community Services along with many volunteers conducted the count, along with officer escorts from the Harford County Sheriff’s Office, Havre de Grace Police Department, the Aberdeen Police Department, and the Bel Air Police Department.
Results from the Point-in-Time Homeless Count demonstrate a total of 223 homeless persons in Harford County. A breakdown of the numbers being served reveals that 106 adults and 87 children were sheltered and receiving comprehensive support services on the night of the count. 24 single adults were temporarily placed in motels through DSS and the Office on Mental Health due to an expanded Freezing Weather Policy, triggered by extreme weather conditions. 6 single adults were found living outside by our street outreach teams.
This countywide event allows Harford County to secure the federal, state, and local funding necessary to serve this most vulnerable population and may assist in gaining expansion grants. The data collected during the annual homeless count also allows the community to strategically plan for the future needs of citizens.
Each year, the Harford County Department of Community Services works with community and faith-based agencies to help families avoid homelessness. When tough times happen to families, the department works with partners to make sure funding can be accessed at various locations throughout the County. Through partnerships, homeless individuals and families are able to develop life skills and employment opportunities, and achieve self-sufficiency by obtaining safe, affordable housing. The Department also helps divert individuals with mental health issues away from the criminal justice system and into treatment, which reduces recidivism and increases stability.
Harford County currently has thirteen (13) emergency, transitional and permanent supportive shelters, offering a total of 228 beds for homeless adults, children and families. In fiscal year 2013, Harford County provided 90 families, including 597 people, with 37,852 emergency shelter or transitional housing bed nights, for an average stay of 63 nights per person. In 2013, the Harford County Department of Community Services provided more than a $1 million in homeless program funding, which assisted such organizations as Alliance, Inc., Faith Communities and Civic Agencies United, Inc. (FCCAU), Associated Catholic Charities Inc./Anna’s House, the Sexual Assault/Spouse Abuse Resource Center (SARC), Homecoming Project, Inc., and Harford Family House, Inc.
To learn more about homeless services in Harford County, visit http://www.harfordcountymd.gov/services/downloads.cfm?FormID=2342, or call the Department of Community Services at 410-638-3389.