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.