Montgomery County grapples with chronic homelessness

March 4, 2012

On the streets of Bethesda, the hard-core homeless live mostly in the shadows. Many of them steer clear of the main thoroughfares. Few venture into shelters.

But amid a downturn that has cut social-services spending and forced officials to make the most of government funds, Montgomery County says it is focusing more of its homelessness efforts on the people with some of the most complicated needs.

The chronically homeless are often on the streets for at least a year and face not only economic hardships but also problems such as mental illness and addiction that can make housing them a significant challenge. County officials began targeting such people last year, setting aside housing vouchers to get them a roof over their heads before grappling with underlying issues.

Out of more than 200 such vouchers, county officials have been setting aside 25 for the chronically homeless. If the county receives additional federal funding this year, it could provide 14 more vouchers. At Bethesda’s Cordell Place, where the county subsidizes 24 bedrooms, officials have prioritized housing the chronically homeless in eight of the units.

“The need is tremendous,” said Nadim A. Khan, the county’s head of special-needs housing. “But the resources are limited.”

County officials and community activists are worried that the homeless population, though apparently down this year, could grow as the county becomes poorer and the cost of living continues to rise.

Social services, long a source of pride for Montgomery, have been hit hard in recent years as the economic downturn left the county with a lot of the same tough budget decisions that have confronted local governments across the country.

County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) is expected to announce his proposed fiscal 2013 operating budget in less than two weeks. The county faces a $135 million shortfall and the possibility of an even bigger fiscal hole down the road if state legislators endorse the governor’s proposal to shift some responsibility for teacher pensions to the counties.

Leggett wrote in a memo Wednesday that protecting the homeless is a “practical and moral necessity.” He also has said he wants to keep a “status quo budget,” in which none of his departments sustains a significant cut. He has made more than $2.5 billion in cuts since 2006, and he has eliminated the low-hanging fruit, he said.

The county's homeless support staff and partnering nonprofits have seen their funding fluctuate. County spending on homeless services peaked in fiscal 2009 at about $7.7 million. In fiscal 2011, the county spent about $5.7 million, with about $545,000 from outside sources. Uma Ahluwalia, the county’s health and human services director, declined to say how much she expects for homeless services in the 2013 budget.

Meanwhile, talks in Annapolis this year are causing county budget directors to cringe. The state might demand that local governments help cover expanding teacher-retirement costs and might tweak the state’s 28-year-old “maintenance of effort” law, which governs school financing in the counties. Both changes could lead to a larger hole in the county’s fiscal 2013 budget — and increased pressure to cut programs.

Other large counties in the region, such as Fairfax and Prince George’s, face fiscal pressures as well. But over the last several years, they have not seen the rise in homelessness that Montgomery experienced through 2011.

From 2005 to 2011, the period for which regional data is available, total homelessness numbers dropped in Prince George’s and Fairfax but increased in Montgomery. Over that same same period, the population of chronically homeless in Montgomery has more than doubled, to 344 in 2011. In Fairfax, there has been no net change, at 258, and in Prince George’s, the population dropped by nearly a third, to 134.

Montgomery officials do not know why the rise in homelessness occurred, but they point to a couple of possible reasons: improved reporting and the economic downturn.

However, county officials think things have been getting better and provided The Washington Post with preliminary numbers for the 2012 count that showed a sharp drop. The total homeless population fell to 979 from 1,132 in 2011, according to the unverified totals. Meanwhile, the chronically homeless population plummeted about 40 percent to 200. Final numbers will be released in May, and preliminary numbers from other counties were not available.

In Bethesda, home is where the heat is: The 24/7 Tastee Diner on Woodmont Avenue. The escalators leading to the Bethesda Metro station. A tiny bench shielded from the wind by glass.

Montgomery works with more than a dozen outside agencies to provide prevention services, overnight shelters, transitional housing and permanent housing to the homeless, according to county officials. But they started targeting the chronically homeless last year with the housing vouchers, getting them indoors before trying to work on problems with addiction, mental illness and employment. It is a method that community activists say has shown to be effective at helping the chronically homeless.

Some county legislators, including George L. Leventhal (D-At Large), are also pushing for greater support.

“The old paradigm is you get people in the shelter, but being in a shelter doesn’t get you anything,” Leventhal said at a public meeting in December.

On March 22, Leventhal and other legislators are scheduled to meet and discuss support for the chronically homeless.

Phillip Jerome Thompson misses wearing suits, which he said he liked to splurge on when he received paychecks from working as a janitor and later as a construction worker. Now he is chronically homeless, according to a caseworker who has seen him. Three months ago, he says, someone robbed him of his clean shirt and shoes. Around that time, he said, he resorted to eating from a trash can for the first time.

But he says he’s optimistic he’ll bounce back. All he needs, he says, is housing. He’s going to look elsewhere, though, perhaps California or Florida. It’s too expensive in Montgomery, or even in the Washington area. He says he’ll get a job in construction, and he’ll be able to start wearing those suits again — without the government’s help.

“Nobody is going to do nothing for me,” he said. “I gotta do it myself.”

Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Local