Just six months ago, Peter Atkinson lived a comfortable lifestyle, complete with a home, car, job and money to spend. But after spiraling into drug addiction, Atkinson said, he lost everything and became homeless.
On Thursday, he was one of more than 500 homeless Montgomery County residents who flocked to Bohrer Park in Gaithersburg to attend Homeless Resource Day.
Homeless individuals and families were given free medical screenings, legal services, financial and health counseling, employment help and tax assistance. Free haircuts, manicures, massages and sandwiches from Subway also were offered.
Atkinson said he came to the event to learn how to sign up for health insurance since his medical coverage was taken away when he lost his job. He currently lives in a treatment facility in Rockville.
“One of the biggest problems I had in the midst of my addiction was reaching out for help because there is such a stigma with drug addiction,” he said.
Montgomery County Council Vice President Craig Rice (D-Dist. 2) of Germantown said the event was a starting point for homeless people to seek help and direction to better their lives.
“This is all about stepping stones,” he said. “This is the first step to getting their lives back on track.”
For the first time, Montgomery County has linked with the 100,000 Homes Campaign, a national movement of more than 200 communities that works to find permanent homes for chronic and medically vulnerable homeless people.
Volunteers canvassed the county Nov. 4 through 6 to survey homeless people and learn about their needs. They gathered data to identify the most vulnerable people and help get them into permanent housing with support services, like counseling.
While the number of homeless in Gaithersburg fluctuates, resources for and acknowledgement of the homeless population has improved, according to Jimmy Frazier-Bey, a homeless advocate who works for the city.
“We had the whole economic crisis, which increases homelessness,” he said. “So we’ve had more homeless people, but at the same time, there’s also been more of a response to homelessness.”
Pointing to Wells/Robertson House, DeSellum House and Community Services, Frazier-Bey said the city’s eagerness to help and its compassion for the homeless keep more Gaithersburg residents off the streets.
Robert Mazurick, a resident of the Rockville Safe Haven shelter, said he came to Homeless Resource Day for a haircut from Gaithersburg High School cosmetology students to prepare for an upcoming job interview at Home Depot in Aspen Hill.
Lisa Henderson said she attended to pick up some warm winter clothing and information on housing, so she can begin the process of owning her own home. She currently lives in the Wilkins Avenue Women’s Assessment Center in Rockville.
In conjuction with the 100,000 Homes Campaign, Frazier-Bey said, more than 10 teams of volunteers combed through the Gaithersburg area to look for homeless people.
Frazier-Bey’s team, which consisted of him and two others, was assigned to search for the homeless near Walnut Hill and Quince Orchard Plaza in Gaithersburg. The team found eight homeless people; three of them agreed to complete surveys as part of the national campaign.
A full report of the findings from the county’s three-day count will be released Wednesday at 11 a.m. at the county’s Council Office Building in Rockville.
Frazier-Bey said it can sometimes be difficult to connect with homeless people and ensure that they receive services they need.
“We are trying to reach out to a population that is often veiled by substance abuse, mental health issues and stigma,” he said. “It really takes innovative strategies.”