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Cold, Recession, Leave Shelters in Prince George's Struggling to Meet Need

CNS photo by Hannah Kim
A volunteer at the Winter Haven shelter program helps to pack men's lunches for the next day. (Maryland Newsline photo by Hannah Kim)

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By Hannah Kim
Maryland Newsline
Friday, Jan. 30, 2009

LAUREL, Md. -- The windows of the Holy Trinity Lutheran Church were lit, giving it a soft glow against a cold, quiet winter night.  Once inside, the warmth of the church and the hospitality of its members welcomed homeless men seeking refuge from the cold.  

About a dozen volunteers bustled about the kitchen, serving the men a home-cooked dinner of chicken dumpling stew, biscuits, salad, green beans and brownies. Those who were not in the kitchen helped the men sign in and attended to their other needs, bringing them towels or double-checking the thermostat for them.

“This is all the men we can hold,” volunteer Don Ausherman said as he gestured to an open floor where mattresses, sleeping bags and personal belongings were strewn, barely leaving enough room for walking space. “You can see how small it is.”

With temperatures freezing and the economy flagging, the number of homeless people in Prince George’s County who are seeking shelter is climbing, causing overcrowding, shelter directors said.

Some facilities are running beyond maximum capacity. Others have had to turn people away. 

Thirty-two men signed in at the Lutheran Church Monday night, two more than is normally allowed. The church is part of the Winter Haven shelter program, in which  faith-based organizations take turns during winter months providing overnight shelter for homeless men and women. It’s run entirely by volunteers. This week, while the Lutheran Church hosted men, the nearby Oseh Shalom synagogue hosted 12 homeless women.

Jenny W. Smith, who co-founded the Winter Haven program in 1991, said she has had to turn people away in recent weeks, rejecting referrals from hospitals and different agencies. 

"As the weather gets colder, we've had a lot more people coming in," Smith said, adding that there are also less job opportunities for men who work as day laborers when the weather gets extremely cold.    

Timothy Jansen, executive director of Community Crisis Services Inc., a nonprofit organization that serves as a one-stop calling center for the homeless in Prince George’s County, said he’s experiencing crowding at the organization’s hypothermia shelter program, Warm Nights. With this program, too, two faith-based organizations take turns each week during winter months  sheltering homeless people overnight and providing breakfast and dinner. 

Jansen said Warm Nights is running over its 50-person capacity this year, with 60 to 65 people coming each night. Whole families have been coming to the shelter, with members doubling up on cots and some sleeping on the floor, he said. 

“We’ve never had to turn anyone away,” Jansen said. “But it’s been tough to handle the situation.”

Three permanent shelters and three temporary shelters operate in winter in the county, said Thomas Buckley, deputy director at Community Crisis Services. The shelters are currently full, he said. The organization tries to avoid overcrowding and waiting lists by assisting the homeless to stay at an alternate place, such as a relative’s home.

The homeless population in Prince George’s County has been steadily rising over the past few years. Patricia Joralemon, a program analyst in Maryland’s Office of Transitional Services, said there were 2,033 homeless people tallied in 2005, 2,362 in 2006 and 2,598 in 2007, a two-year increase of 27.8 percent. Homeless population figures for 2008 have not been reported. 

Prince George’s County reported a total of 796 available shelter beds last year, according to the state's Annual Report on Homelessness Services, leaving hundreds of people to sleep on the street or find help elsewhere.

The increase in the county’s homeless population reflects a bigger statewide trend. In a report released this month by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, 7,995 homeless people lived in Maryland in 2005 and 9,626 in 2007, a two-year increase of 20.4 percent. As of 2007, the highest concentration of Maryland’s homeless were in Baltimore City, followed by Charles, Calvert and St. Mary’s counties, which were grouped as one community.

Prince George’s County, where Holy Trinity Lutheran Church is based, had the third highest concentration of homeless people.

Holy Trinity has volunteered in the Winter Haven program since it was founded 18 years ago. Volunteers Theta Ramsey and Diane Plott couldn’t imagine their church not participating.

"We could be one paycheck away from being homeless ourselves," Ramsey said as she served dinner, adding that volunteering is a labor of love and a way to pass it forward.

Her husband, Alan Ramsey, said helping at the shelter helps him to get to know those in need by name and face. "You see them at a store, and there's a connection; they're a part of the community."

Jansen said the best way to help out is to work with a local church or congregation that can participate in providing the shelter. Monetary donations are always helpful, he added.

Smith agrees but is looking for a permanent solution.

"While getting more congregations involved is always a positive thing, we need to have a whole new way of thinking of how to shelter these people." Smith said. "They need shelter all year long."

Copyright 2009 University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism

Banner graphic by Hortense Barber and Diego Mantilla. Banner photos of homeless person's cart and homeless man sitting are courtesy of Greg Sileo.

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