by Hannah Klarner
Capital News Service
It was dark at 6 a.m. when volunteers started searching for homeless people in Prince George’s County, Maryland, and it was after 11 p.m. when they stopped.
Volunteers and Department of Social Services workers canvassed the county by breaking it into geographic sections as a part of the annual Point In Time Count for parts of Virginia and Maryland surrounding Washington, D.C.
One of the challenges in Prince George’s County is the invisible nature of suburban homelessness.
“It’s not what you stereotypically think of —a homeless person pushing a grocery cart or carrying a lot of bags,” said Katherine Carter, a volunteer from Brandywine, Maryland. “It’s more subtle here. I think it takes a little more time and outreach to … locate them.”
“When I was a kid, I thought all homeless people were the same. People who had been rejected by society,” said one formerly homeless teenager who requested that his name be withheld to protect his privacy.
This break from the stereotype of a homeless person is one of the main issues that the general public needs to understand, according to John Summerlot, an outreach and engagement manager from the county’s Department of Social Services.
“I think the main thing that people don’t understand about homelessness in Prince George’s County is that it exists. It is an issue,” he said.
Literal homelessness has been on the decline in Prince George’s County since 2013, when they counted 686 homeless people, according to the Point In Time Survey from that year. The numbers have been consistently declining, including 544 literally homeless in 2016, the most recent year with data.
In order to find people, volunteers and staff were divided into teams to load mini-vans with supplies, and sent to different regions of the county on Jan. 25. The donated supplies included hats, gloves and scarves, bottled water, sandwiches, chips and toiletries.
Driving slowly in the dark, Renee Pope, assistant director of community services, sat in the front seat of one van, eyes constantly scanning the roadside for signs of homeless people.
Before volunteers began canvassing, they were told some key indicators of homelessness: Look for people who appeared to be carrying everything they own, who may look unkempt.
Armed with the description, identifying the suburban homeless was still a challenge.
“Homelessness is a housing condition, not an identity.”
One man, repairing a car in an auto supply store parking lot did not stand out, but when asked, said he had been homeless for well over a decade.
As the sun set, the mild January day turned into a cold winter night, and volunteers bundled up and kept searching.
Volunteers were told they could ask panhandlers whether they were homeless, but to let those who may be sleeping be, and if any person did not want to be interviewed for the Point In Time Count, that would be respected.
The Point In Time Count includes a 21-question survey, conducted either on a smartphone or on paper printouts.
Questions include age, veteran status, health needs, and for the initials of a respondent, but not their full name. The questionnaire also asks for gender, with answers for male, female, transgender, or “does not identify as Male, Female or Transgender.”
Summerlot said that homelessness disproportionately impacts the LGBTQ community, especially younger members.
Homelessness is largely viewed negatively. Carter thinks that may have an impact on people’s willingness to find assistance.
“There is a stigma with homelessness. People are ashamed. They might not want it to be known. It leaves them not wanting to seek out housing or support services,” she said.
Pope said that one idea they try to repeat is that “Homelessness is a housing condition, not an identity.”
To that end, the team at Social Services categorizes people’s situations differently. “Unstably housed” is a lot like couch surfing, whereas “chronic homelessness” is defined as being continuously homeless for one year, or being homeless for the duration of one year during a three-year period.
Age may play into people’s perceptions of their own homelessness, too, according to Summerlot.
“If someone in their 30s or 40s is homeless, they’ve generally been homeless for longer,” he said. “And so they’ve figured out how to navigate their situation and maybe they’re not as reluctant to identify as homeless because they are sort of more profoundly homeless.”
The team pressed on through the night, visiting gas stations, libraries, strip malls, and Metro stations.
Tips come in for locations from police departments, community groups and churches, among others.
It’s not just a social services issue… it’s connected to a lot of other issues like affordable housing, living wage jobs, appropriate and affordable health and mental health services.
Emergency housing is just one aspect of help offered by the agency. By contacting the county’s homeless hotline, they secure emergency housing for the night, and case workers can begin the process of assessing the person’s individual needs.
Social Services can work to get identification, set up Social Security benefits, or find permanent or rapid housing.
Without street outreach programs, the only way for a person to get access some resources is through shelters, however some, like the formerly homeless youth, 18, are reluctant to go.
“I never really wanted to go,” he said. “I had a lot of anxiety about going there at first, but it was one of the best decisions of my life.”
Some places to find a homeless person are obvious, like near grocery stores, municipal buildings, public transportation and bathrooms. Others are less so, such as laundromats, where homeless people can find new clothing or replace some of their existing clothing from the discards. Homeless youth rely on basketball courts for low-cost social interaction with their peers, according to Summerlot.
The once-homeless teen is a youth ambassador with Social Services and a part of the newly formed Youth Advisory Board.
Reaching out to younger homeless people and providing them with a community, according to the 18-year-old, is one of the benefits outreach programs and shelters provide. “When I was homeless, I was super alone,” he said.
Summerlot thinks it is important for people to know, “it’s not just a social services issue… it’s connected to a lot of other issues,” like affordable housing, living wage jobs, appropriate and affordable health and mental health services. “There are a lot of ways that individuals can experience a crisis that ends up with them sleeping in a car or being unstably housed.”
For the homeless in suburban areas, their lack of visibility can work against those trying to help them. “We don’t need to make them more visible, we need to make them feel like they are not invisible,” the teen said.