Poor health conditions and repeat emergency room visits are plaguing the homeless population throughout Montgomery County, according to results from the county’s 100,000 Homes Campaign survey.
As part of its participation in the national campaign, the county just completed Registry Week, with volunteers surveying 369 homeless people living in places such as parking garages, outdoor stairwells, wooded encampments and shelters. The three-day count took place each day from 4 to 7 a.m. Nov. 4 through 6. The purpose of the count is to identify the most medically vulnerable homeless people and move them into permanent housing with supportive services.
“Now we have a prioritized list of people according to their vulnerability,” said Susanne Sinclair-Smith, executive director of the Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless. “We can use that priority list to place people into permanent housing.”
Findings revealed that 40 percent of people surveyed reported they had at least one serious health condition, such as kidney disease, asthma or diabetes, and 74 percent of that group were medically vulnerable, meaning that they have a higher likelihood of dying in a state of homelessness because of their health issues.
The results also showed that the 369 individuals reported a total of 677 in-patient hospitalizations in the past year. Twenty-two percent of respondents said they received in-patient emergency room treatment at least three times last year.
By moving these people into permanent housing with services such as case management and nurse care, high costs to the health system and the county can be reduced, and homeless individuals can increase their quality of health, according to Sinclair-Smith.
“We will have those immediate health care services to help them with the medical conditions they have,” she said. “Case managers will continue to work with them in permanent housing and connect them with a primary doctor.”
Montgomery County Councilman George Leventhal (D-At large), who serves on the executive committee of the Montgomery County 100,000 Homes campaign, said the results show that the county needs to prioritize housing placement for the most vulnerable homeless people.
Along with Council Vice President Craig Rice (D-Dist. 2), Leventhal said he will introduce a supplemental appropriation Tuesday for just under $700,000 to place 15 homeless individuals in housing by February 2014. The money would provide for housing with supportive services for a year and a half.
While the county government is heavily involved with this issue, religious and philanthropic support is still needed, according to Leventhal.
“We’re going to do a lot, but the county has to work with private, nonprofit and religious partners to solve the problem,” he said.
County volunteers encountered 62 homeless individuals who declined to participate in the survey, but according to Sinclair-Smith, their lack of response still made an important statement about the homeless situation in the county. From her experiences talking with homeless people in Silver Spring during the count, she said, many of those who chose not to participate were so mentally ill, specifically dealing with paranoia, that they were unable to be engaged to complete the survey.
“I feel very responsible toward that number because I think it represents the most vulnerable people living outside,” she said.
This is the first time the county has conducted a homeless count on its own. At the beginning of each year, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments counts homeless individuals and households in and around Washington in its Point-In-Time homeless count. In January, the council reported 1,004 homeless people, including families, living in Montgomery County. The county’s own three-day count included only individuals, as homeless families typically have more access to county government services. Sinclair-Smith said the county’s count and survey were more thorough than the council’s because the volunteers reached the most vulnerable people during a three-day stint, as opposed to just one day.
“This is the first step of the campaign,” Sinclair-Smith said. “I think the county government, nonprofits and members of the community have really rolled up their sleeves and worked together in an incredibly effective way. Going forward, we are really going to be able to work together to identify where gaps are and how to fill them.”