Michael A. Sawyers
CUMBERLAND — A house that provides a roof over the heads of 14 homeless women and children is always full.
The same goes for the 60 beds at the Union Rescue Mission of Western Maryland.
Cumberland police officers sometimes find people sleeping in the stairwells of parking facilities or in downtown parklets.
“It’s the worst I’ve ever seen it,” said Deanna Clark, speaking of homelessness in Allegany County.
Clark’s comment is backed by 15 years of experience as the director of housing opportunity for the Allegany County Human Resources Development Commission.
“We have a transitional housing facility with six bedrooms that serves homeless women with children,” Clark said. “It has been full and will be full. Our waiting list includes 31 adults and 30 children. The waiting time is about six months.”
In the past, according to Clark, mental health issues and addictions were the most common reasons for homelessness.
“Currently, it is the status of the economy, with few part-time jobs,” she said.
Also figuring prominently into the mix is the reduction or elimination of federal grants that subsidized low-income housing, according to Clark.
“Homelessness and hunger go hand-in-hand,” Clark said. “There are a lot of hungry people in our community.”
The Rev. Dan Taylor could not agree more.
“Here at the Union Rescue Mission, anybody who wanted lunch, whether they were staying here or not, could have it. Now we offer three meals a day to anybody and everybody, no questions asked.”
“I don’t know whether homelessness is increasing or not, but I know we are full,” Taylor said. “We (provide shelter for) 300 men, women and children a year. Same number year after year, but the faces are different.”
The mission doesn’t put a time limit on length of stay.
“Some of the people are local, especially young men because there is no work for them,” Taylor said. “They are usually in their 20s and have been staying with their parents, but leave that setting and have no place to go until they find work.
“The young women with children have no education and nothing to offer an employer. They usually end up on subsistence help. We keep them until they can find a more permanent situation.”
Some of the homeless who find their ways to the mission for meals come from a tent city, according to Taylor, who describes it as being in a wooded area near the C&O Canal Towpath — a hop, skip and jump from downtown and the Canal Place complex.
Canal Place is frequented, especially during warm weather, by tourists, including riders of the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad.
Taylor said mission residents come from all walks of life and are of varying ages.
“Some are veterans,” he said. “We don’t have many young veterans yet. Most are Vietnam era.”
Homelessness can result after a house fire or a natural disaster, said Taylor. “Or from domestic problems. The husband gets kicked out and doesn’t have a job.”
HRDC’s Clark said a program exists in cooperation with the Allegany County Board of Education that allows school-aged children who are being sheltered to attend their home schools.
“Let’s say the child is from Georges Creek,” Clark said. “A school bus will take the student (from Cumberland) to Frostburg where another form of transportation is used to reach the home-base school. Homelessness is traumatic enough by itself so this allows the child to have a normal part of the day.”
After 15 years of finding shelter for the homeless, what is the toughest part of Clark’s job?
“Having to say, ‘Sorry, we’re full,’” she said.
According to the most recent statistics from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, there were about 643,000 sheltered and unsheltered homeless people nationwide.
About two-thirds of those stayed in emergency shelters or used transitional housing programs, with the remaining living on the street in abandoned buildings or other areas not meant for human habitation.
Cumberland Police Capt. Greg Leake believes the city’s homeless population is somewhat hidden, in that many move from place to place, staying with friends and relatives for various periods.
“For the most part, when we deal with individuals they will almost always supply us with an address, whether they live there or not is unknown, but they receive their mail there,” Leake said in an email.
Having an address is important, according to Leake, because it allows someone who has been charged to receive court papers and trial notices.
The stability of an address may factor positively into decisions made by court commissioners and judges concerning bond amounts, Leak indicated.
Downtown parklets are posted with signs showing they are off limits from 11 p.m. until 7 a.m.
“We attempt to check them throughout the night to discourage (sleeping), however we know that this is dependent upon calls for service,” Leake said.
Leake said he personally believes that the homeless population had grown and was more out in the open two years ago and required more police response than now.
Leake said a state law enacted in 2012 that restricts public solicitation of donations seems to have lessened panhandling.
Until that law was enacted, for example, it was common to see a person with a sign seeking donations at the stop sign at the bottom of Interstate 68’s eastbound Exit 43B at Industrial Boulevard.
Another roadside panhandling hotspot was at the intersection of Vocke and Winchester roads.
At the Allegany County Department of Social Services, Director Dick Paulson and his staff have a working definition of homelessness: “The unseen population who lacks their own permanent address, residence, or bed or are at risk of becoming homeless.”
An average of 25 to 30 people a month walk into the DSS office at 1 Frederick St. saying they are homeless and need help, according to Kimberly Truly.
“There are more in the summer because that’s when we have the transient population,” said Heidi Hager of the DSS Resource Management Team.
Hager agrees with Leake that many of the homeless spend a few nights here and there at the houses of friends and relatives and are euphemistically known as couch surfers.
On the other hand, Hager said she knows of two dozen people she sees who sleep outside. “Under a bridge. In the woods,” she said.
Each January, all of the organizations and agencies who deal with homeless people in the county collaborate to quantify the problem.
In 2012, 133 homeless were counted. In 2013, the number is 153.
Paulson said he has heard from his staff that homeless transients are well connected via mobile devices and share knowledge about locations where help exists from government and churches.
Cumberland is apparently targeted, he said.
“Many homeless who come in here have hopped trains to reach Cumberland,” Truly said.
Contact Michael A. Sawyers at firstname.lastname@example.org.