Cecil County Homeless: Health Dept., Schools Differ on Numbers; Charities See Faces of Homeless, Govt. Focuses on Grants

September 9, 2015

Cecil County health officials count 191 homeless people in Cecil County— a count achieved without anyone from the agency going to the tent encampments where many homeless people live— while Cecil County Public Schools (CCPS) count 720 students who are considered homeless.

The discrepancies stem, at least in part, from the health and CCPS officials using different definitions under different federal laws. But advocates for the homeless say the numbers are closer to the schools’ assessment and more needs to be done to help.

During a meeting of the county Board of Health— consisting of the County Council, County Executive Tari Moore and Stephanie Garrity, the county Health Officer— on Tuesday, county government officials from health, social services and housing agencies outlined their count of the homeless and various federally-funded programs with grants to those agencies totaling about $290,000 a year. In addition Mike Brandon, a pastor who operates the Paris Foundation that provides meals and supplies to the homeless at an Elkton location on Bridge Street, described the circumstances and problems that lead people to become homeless.

Churches and private non-profit groups provide the bulk of direct care for the homeless in Cecil County. Meeting Ground operates a day center in Elkton where people can shower, obtain counseling and referrals to needed services. There are also two small shelters- one for men, one for women– that help homeless people get back on their feet. The Rev . Carl Mazza operates the Clairvaux Farms facility for homeless families in Earleville. And a rotating emergency shelter system is operated by a coalition of churches during the winter to provide transients with temporary overnight shelter at church buildings.

The county operates a “Help Center,” which provides a food pantry and clothing as well as referrals but not overnight housing. Most of the local government’s focus, through what are actually state health and social service departments, is on linking up individuals or families with government programs such as food stamps, Medicaid, rental assistance programs, utility bill aid and help with security deposits needed to obtain private housing.

Gwen Parrack, of the county health department, said last January the agency conducted a 24-hour “point in time” survey and counted 191 homeless people in the county. The count was derived from a tally of the numbers of people housed in shelters, including the temporary church operations, as well as information from the Paris Foundation’s evening meal program. Under questioning from County Council members, Parrack said no one from the agency went out to areas, such as under bridges in Elkton or the woods behind the Big Elk Mall, where homeless people congregate to try to include them in the count.

In recent years, the US Census Bureau has tried to expanded outreach to homeless people as part of the national population count conducted every ten years, with census-takers visiting parks and woods where homeless people congregate around the nation.

“I just thought that the numbers look really low,” County Councilor Joyce Bowlsbey (R-2) said of the local Health Dept. tally.

County Councilor Dan Schneckenburger (R-3) observed, “The schools keep telling us there are 300 to 400 homeless kids” in the county.

In fact, CCPS officials told Cecil Times on Tuesday that the current count of homeless students in county schools is 720. CCPD follows the definition in the federal law governing aid to homeless students, the McKinney-Vento Act, which classifies as homeless “individuals who lack a fixed ,regular and adequate nighttime residence.” Teachers and the school administration interact directly with students and are usually aware if a student has no fixed mailing address or is currently not living at the location from which they were previously enrolled.

Parrack said the health agency uses federal HUD definitions that differ from the CCPS standards.

Moore noted that the number of homeless people is linked to the amount of federal aid available and questioned if the local officials could use “other tools” to review their count. The staffers replied they used “management information tools” but that some homeless people were unwilling to give personal information and so were not included in the “management information” database.

One tool the health employees might consider is a map to the woods and bridges in Elkton, or a phone call to local law enforcement officials who are very aware of where to find, and count, homeless people. One police source recently recounted the plight of a woman and her dog, who were living in her car while she awaited her first few paychecks from a new job so she could accumulate enough money for security deposits on an apartment. While her situation was hoped to be temporary, police say they routinely encounter people living in cars because they have no permanent home.

Brandon, of the Paris Foundation, said that as many as 100 people can show up for the evening meal served at the group’s facility. “The folks we serve are real people; they are not statistics,” he said. However, he acknowledged that many of the people showing up for meals and clothing come from nearby Delaware and are not just local people. But he said the homeless are by nature a “transient” population and move around a lot.

“Poverty doesn’t take a day off,” he said. “Hunger doesn’t quit.” Brandon also thought the health officials counts were way too low and underestimated the problems.

A county housing official, Earl Grey, said there are about 600 housing vouchers available in the county—providing federal rent subsidies to the poor—and there is now a three year waiting list for aid. However, about 95 vouchers are set aside for homeless veterans who have been referred by the Veterans Administration and not all are in use. He said a homeless vet could be moved into a subsidized apartment within a week.

Councilor George Patchell (R-4) said that showed the county was meeting the needs of local veterans and a controversial proposal for a veterans housing complex on the grounds of the Perry Point VA hospital was not needed for local vets.

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4 Responses to Cecil County Homeless: Health Dept., Schools Differ on Numbers; Charities See Faces of Homeless, Govt. Focuses on Grants

  1. F G Moody III on September 9, 2015 at 1:25 pm

    I hope I am reading this wrong: “some homeless people were unwilling to give personal information and so were not included in the ‘management information’ database”. It almost sounds like the official is saying, “if they refuse to be in our statistics, they do not exist as our problem.”

    As a county, we need to spend more effort getting our arms around this issue, and then providing cost effective assistance programs. As an example of what I mean by cost effective: we need to center the programs in North East or westward so we do not make it easy for Delaware people to tap into the Cecil County resources. Let’s limit our problem to take care of our own.

  2. Elkton Mom on September 9, 2015 at 4:30 pm

    What an outrage– these health department officials, who get a big state salary and full health and pension benefits, are too lazy to get up off their comfortable indoor office seats to actually look for homeless people where they really are. So our county does not get the aid we are entitled to because we don’t have the real numbers on the homeless.

    Why does our county executive let these people get away with such laziness? They claim state employee status and benefits but they keep asking Cecil County taxpayers to give them more money, even though they don’t really answer to us taxpayers.

  3. checker on September 15, 2015 at 7:31 am

    Govt officials have been advised by law enforcement not to enter the camps.

    • Jeannette H on September 17, 2015 at 11:22 am

      Really, since when has that stopped any county or state department to follow the law to the letter?

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