A Metro article Saturday about a new program for the homeless in Montgomery County incorrectly described the funding source for Mobile Medical Care. The article should have said that Care on the Streets, a project of Mobile Medical Care Inc., is a federally funded program. (Published 8/1/90)

It's 7:30 p.m. and Steve Coffin and Eileen Parish slowly drive their van through Gaithersburg Square, past the gleaming storefronts and neat landscaping of the suburban mall. They are about to leave when Coffin spots a boot-clad foot barely visible behind some trees.

Coffin scrambles up the knoll where he discovers an empty milk carton, two heads of cabbage and a homeless man fast asleep, clad in dirty jeans and a tattered shirt.

On the road for barely a month, the van is the first attempt to bring basic health care directly to the thousands of homeless people in Montgomery County, rather than requiring them to come to clinics.

"Who would've thought to look there for homeless people?" Coffin said. Parish, a physician, examined the man, who would identify himself only as George, for a possible broken collarbone.

But as Coffin and the two doctors who staff the medical van are discovering, their first task in providing medical services to the homeless is to find them.

Montgomery County's homeless congregate under freeway overpasses and sleep in city parks such as the Armory in Silver Spring. Others carve out secluded hideaways behind shopping malls. Their seeming invisibility belies their existence.

"I have so many people who ask me: 'Are there really homeless in Montgomery County?' " said program coordinator Edith Beavan.

According to the Maryland Department of Human Resources, 4,475 homeless people stayed in shelters in Montgomery during 1989, the third largest homeless population in the state behind Baltimore and Prince George's County.

Mark Anglais, director of Community Clinic Inc., a separate program that also provides health care for the homeless, said he thinks the figure is higher: almost 7,000. The state's figures do not include those who do not go to shelters or who are turned away because a shelter is full, he said.

Anglais said the health care needs of the homeless are "no different from the general population, only more exaggerated." Minor ailments such as a cold or flu often escalate into major medical crises because many homeless people avoid mainstream health institutions out of distrust or frustration.

By taking health care -- combined with a large dose of compassion -- to the streets, Mobile Medical Care, a federally funded program, is trying to break through the barriers that keep many homeless people from seeking help. The van is equipped with minimal supplies such as aspirin, antibiotics and Band-Aids, allowing the staff to provide only basic medical services and referrals.

"Right now, we're on a fact-finding mission, to find out where everything is," said Parish as she and Coffin drove through the suburbs.

She and Coffin stopped at the Diamond Street overpass in Gaithersburg, a well-known hangout for transients, to pass out sandwiches and tea to the several men who gathered around the van. Coffin called an ambulance for a man who said he had been stabbed the night before.

Coffin said many people are wary of the van at first because they think the program is connected with the police department. "It's new to them as much as it is for us," he said, adding that they would never force medical treatment or social services on anyone.

"Gaining their trust is the moment that counts the most," Coffin said. "You may not be able to do anything for them at that particular time, but you can always come back."