- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Undeterred by the snow and bitter cold Wednesday, men and women from across Charles County set out to help those most vulnerable to the weather’s effects.
About noon, the day after snow blanketed the area and temperatures dropped to well below freezing, volunteers from all walks of life met up at the LifeStyles of Maryland offices in La Plata before heading out to conduct the annual Point in Time survey, a national initiative that counts homeless people in an area.
A more accurate count means a better shot at providing adequate services for those without the most basic of needs: consistent shelter. Volunteers taking part this year’s count were urged to pay special attention to homeless veterans for the purpose of getting housing vouchers for them from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The 2013 Point in Time survey found 856 homeless men, women and children living in Charles County, both sheltered and unsheltered, according to a report from the Charles County Department of Health. As of Thursday, Charles County Public Schools reported 506 homeless children in the system.
LifeStyles Executive Director Sandy O. Washington said Thursday morning that preliminary numbers for Charles County indicated volunteers had done surveys for roughly 350 unsheltered people. The sheltered count was not factored in yet.
“Our numbers are going to be incredible,” Washington said. “It’s been a lot of energy going toward this. Any time you can take one person out of the bitter cold, it’s significant. And our volunteers are awesome. ... Just the fact that they’re out there looking. How many people get up in the morning and say that they’re going to go out and look for someone in that situation so they can help them out?”
Before heading out Wednesday, the volunteers met in one room to get fired up for the busy day ahead. The Rev. Latonya Jimerson of Springs of Living Water Church of Restoration led the group in a benediction, praising the efforts of the group “to be the light in dark places ... to be sustenance where people have need,” while also giving special attention to Washington’s efforts to organize the event in the county.
“It excites me when I see what LifeStyles is doing under [Washington’s] leadership,” Jimerson told the crowd. “This is God’s house, and these are God’s people.”
“It goes without saying that your mission is a holy mission today,” Charles County commissioners’ President Candice Quinn Kelly (D) told the volunteers. “Why is this so important? We have to have an accurate count of our veterans. We need to make sure they aren’t forgotten. ... No child should go to bed hungry, sleeping in a tent or in a car. We need to take care of the least among us. Every bit of our energy comes together in a way that makes a difference. Homelessness doesn’t take liberal leave. It’s still there.”
“If you look downstairs, we have people taking showers and washing clothes. ... They expect us to be here,” Washington said. “When you go out today ... you might go through the mall and notice someone who’s been in the food court a long time, not really eating. You’re getting a chance to find folks where they are. They won’t look like people sleeping on a park bench. They might not ‘look homeless.’ When we finish, we go home. They don’t.”
Armed with surveys and information, the groups received their assigned areas and loaded into vehicles and drove off in search of the affected population. A reporter rode for a shift with the Rev. John Lewis of Servants of Christ Ministries, Charles County Department of Social Services employees Renee Curry and Keith Davis, officer Steve Duley of the Charles County Sheriff’s Office and Flora Arabo of the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development. They were aided by Barrett Matthews, one of Charles County’s many homeless residents. With Matthews’ guidance, the group drove to areas where he knew homeless people are living.
“I got here because of bad choices that I made,” said Matthews, an affable man who told the story of his journey freely. After the deaths of his parents, Matthews said he turned to alcohol and smoking to cope with his problems. From there, his situation devolved.
“I remember I’d see people on the street, and I never thought I’d end up in that situation,” he said. “It’s been real tough. A lot of guys need education, and the job thing is kind of hard on us. A lot of us take rejection down through a bottle. ... When it’s cold like this, a lot go and ride VanGO all day to keep warm and then go to the church at night.”
Right now, Matthews said he most fears April 15, when Safe Nights — a homeless shelter program that rotates among county churches — will close for the season, and he will no longer have somewhere to sleep indoors at night. Although he said those fortunate enough to receive shelter are grateful for the chance, he sees many get “jittery” nonetheless. Despite receiving food and shelter from area churches, Matthews said there is little they can do to solve the critical issue of employment.
“Even McDonald’s is hard to get into anymore,” he said.
Matthews showed the group the small tent camp he said he occupies with two other people. The tent he sleeps in had seen its frame collapse under the weight of the snow. A pair of boots he kept outside the tent were snow-filled. The rest of the camp consisted of other, smaller tents and a camp shower, along with other random odds and ends. While there, Matthews took the time to straighten up his domicile, as so many others do with their own residences, before heading back out with the group.
“A lot of people feel like they can’t come into shelters because they have to protect their things,” Curry said when asked why so many homeless men and women opt out of staying in shelters at night. “They’d rather stay out.”
In a mobile home court in the county, some men and women were classified as homeless because their shelters are classified as uninhabitable, meaning they don’t have adequate heat or electricity or protection from the elements. Indeed, one had a massive hole in the roof covered by trash bags. Some families in the area said they have not had heat for some time, and another woman surveyed said she had “absolutely no food” on her shelves.
“Sometimes when you do this line of work it makes you much more thankful,” Davis said on the way back to LifeStyles to load up on supplies, getting a chorus of agreement from the men and women in the van.
“Like seriously, that was like a payday for me,” Curry said of seeing a girl’s happiness when she gave her a pair of gloves. “It’s not much of a surprise, but it’s still very humbling to see. ... We know that homelessness exists, and that you’ve got to try and see the positive, too. That’s the win today.”