(Aug. 16, 2019) Homelessness is a complicated issue. It intertwines with poverty, mental illness, domestic violence, criminal justice, substance abuse and even inheritance.
To tackle homelessness in Worcester County, several agencies in the region teamed up last year to form the Worcester County Homeless Outreach Team (HOT), a group that seeks to lend a hand to the homeless in their communities.
Members of HOT include the Worcester County Health Department, Department of Social Services, Local Behavioral Health Authority, Local Management Board, County Board of Education, OCPD and Fire/EMS, OC Crisis Coalition, Atlantic General Hospital, Diakonia and Supportive Services for Veterans and Families.
Partners include OC Faith Based Community, Open Kettle, Atlantic Club, Samaritan Shelter in Pocomoke, Lower Shore Health Insurance Program, Coastal Hospice, Dr. Pam Zorn, local law enforcement, Life Crisis and 211.
“To provide access to basic needs and resources for those who are chronically homeless, homeless or at risk of homelessness by eliminating barriers and reducing stigma,” HOT’s mission statement.
Members of HOT presented to the Police Commission on Monday data they have collected from a year’s worth of outreach and work.
“Three and a half percent of Worcester County children are homeless,” said Sara Howell of the Worcester County Health Department. “We are way above the state average (1.5 percent).”
In addition, 42 percent of children in the county were eligible for free and reduced- price meals, while 16.10 percent of families were considered below the federal poverty level.
Every two weeks, members of HOT go on outreach outings to provide homeless people with information and resources, such as referrals to shelters, food pantries, soup kitchens and health services.
One of the first services the team provides, however, is attempting to get a homeless person government identification, which is often a time consuming process.
“In order to get an ID, you have to have a birth certificate, a social security card and two forms of mail,” Howell said. “Well, that’s hard when someone is homeless and they don’t have a fixed address.”
The team has been able to make 14 referrals for government identification this year, and consider that a huge success.
As with everything, however, there’s a cost to the work the team does, and it’s staggering.
“One of our guys actually has been to the emergency room 62 times this year, so he is costing us $85,000 between ER visits and EMS transport,” Howell said.
To house the homeless at the cold weather shelter during the winter, it cost $11,806.01.
Another obstacle is the rising cost of housing in Worcester County. Howell said that regardless if a homeless person wants to get off the streets, it means nothing if they can’t afford even a subsidized home.
“We need help,” Howell said. “We’ve done this project with absolutely zero funding.”
However, despite these obstacles, the team saw many victories as well.
The team has had a 60 percent success rate in finding housing for members of the homeless community.
This year, the Maryland Department of Health Employees awarded the group its Recognition Award for Exceptional Performance for its community efforts.
“The whole goal of HOT is not to enable homelessness … but it is to reduce the barriers …to get them stable,” said Christen Barbierri of Worcester County Local Management Board. “We’ve had a lot of success on building trust, getting that first connection made and then moving them off the street.”