A Growing Desperation

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By Mary Otto
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 25, 2008

Faith McHale sat on a mattress in a Laurel church hall, pondering a photograph of her toddler daughter. Her eyes welled up with tears. The mother ached for her child, whom she hadn't seen for a week. The girl is living with friends so she will not have to stay in a shelter.

McHale quit her real estate job after her daughter was born, but her husband, John, a carpenter, worked steadily. They were renting a house and hoping to buy. But then work got scarce, and they got behind on their bills. They lost their home.

"Things snowballed," Faith McHale said. Now it has come to this: a purse full of bus schedules and a bed in a church shelter for women. Her husband has been staying at a church with dozens of other homeless men.

Shelter providers and advocates for the indigent were busy yesterday conducting the eighth annual count of the Washington region's homeless, the first since the housing downturn began. They say they are hearing more stories like the McHales'.

Donny Phillips, who works with the homeless at Laurel Area Advocacy and Referral Services, said more people are citing the weak economy as the cause of their desperate situations.

Phillips spoke with clipboard in hand as he made his way through the woods near a Prince George's County campsite. Like others, he canvassed tent villages, shelters, soup kitchens, ministries and transitional housing in the District and the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, asking questions and filling out forms to measure the area's homeless population and learn more about the needs and issues surrounding homelessness.

Organizers at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, who expect to release results of the survey in June, said they will be studying the information for insights into the effects of the troubled housing market. Slowing construction has taken a toll on workers in service, building and landscape jobs. According to the Arlington County Department of Community Planning, Housing and Development, nearly 20 percent of all home loans in the region are high-cost subprime loans.

At the same time, dramatic increases in utility, gas and food costs are compounding the difficulties for residents trying to hold on to their homes.

"I am seeing more families with children," said Rose Powers, who runs Streetlight Community Outreach Ministries in Woodbridge. Many have turned to her in recent weeks for help paying for a motel room, she said, "because the shelters are full."

She is haunted by one family who came to her recently. The father, an electrician, told her that he had recently lost his job. The mother was afraid of sleeping in the car.

"They had three beautiful children," Powers said. "You could tell the oldest knew what was going on. You could see the fear in his eyes."

"The enumeration and its subsequent report will give us a sense of whether homelessness is growing or decreasing in the region," said Michael Ferrell, chairman of the Council of Government's Homeless Services Planning and Coordinating Committee.

Last year, researchers found 11,762 people, including more than 3,000 children, living in shelters or on the streets. The survey also found 4,696 people in permanent supportive housing facilities, receiving long-term medical and social services to address the problems that led them to homelessness.

Survey models have changed since the first was conducted in January 2001. Back then, people in permanent supportive housing programs were included in the count with those living in shelters and on the streets. The initial survey found 12,850 homeless people in settings ranging from squatters' camps to supportive housing programs. Over the years, the count has given researchers and planners insight not only into the numbers of homeless people, but also into the state of their mental and physical health, their work histories and the types of help they need.

At a wooded campsite in Prince William County, a bearded man who gave his name only as Mike took a soot-covered coffeepot from the fire with a long, iron poker and found a seat in his tent. He said he has struggled for years with depression, and when work is scarce, he falls behind on his medication. He said other homeless people are in the same kind of trouble.

"There are not enough shrinks . . . not enough psychologists," he said. "You could help people for a few hundred dollars. But they lose their jobs, lose their meds. By the time they are out in the bushes talking to squirrels, it takes thousands of dollars to get them back to the starting point," he said.

Mike serves as a volunteer cook at a weekly dinner for the needy provided by Streetlight Ministries. In return, he is on a list to get an apartment in a transitional housing program being started by the agency.

He said he is hopeful that the program will help him make a new start, but he is guarded.

"I'm not going to give all my camping gear away," he said. "What if it doesn't work out? I don't want to start from scratch again."

At the shelter at Oaklands Presbyterian Church in Laurel, Faith McHale said she is seeking restaurant work. Her husband is finding some jobs, but not the steady work he used to get. They contemplated the difficulties ahead.

"The economy has a lot to do with it," said John McHale, sitting at a table among other homeless men who listened to his story and nodded.

He said he feared that many other families might also soon be out on the streets.

"It's the beginning of the wave," he said.

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