Cecil County Homeless Count at 193 (Maybe), Health Dept. Says; Drug Deaths at 21 This Year

May 24, 2017

Homelessness in Cecil County is nearly as high as Harford County’s figures, although Cecil’s overall population is half that of its nearest neighbor. And county Sheriff’s Office data on drug overdose fatalities so far this year shows 21 deaths, well on the way to a record number, according to testimony to the Cecil County Council on Tuesday (5/23/2017).

Members of the County Council and County Executive Alan McCarthy met with Stephanie Garrity, the director of the local Health Department, as the county’s “Board of Health” to hear reports on the annual count of homeless people in the county, required by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development as part of federal grants programs to aid the homeless. Garrity said the one-time count, known as a “point in time” tally, found 193 homeless people in the county—an increase from the 167 counted last year.

Health officials attributed the increase to a change in methodology this year—actually visiting three areas where the homeless congregate.

Gwen Parrack, the health department’s “special populations” director and supervisor of the homeless people count, told the County Council that for the “first time” this year, the health department, using volunteers, made in-person contact with homeless people living in well-known encampments, such as behind the Acme market at the Big Elk Mall. But she said arrangements were made in advance for some people living in some encampments to meet with health department agents “off-site” so that the actual camps were not actually surveyed visually on the date of the official homeless count.

Health Department officials seemed to be patting themselves on the back for taking some steps, for the first time, to make direct contact with homeless people. But several members of the County Council rattled off locations that they were aware of, based on personal observation or complaints from local residents or business owners, and inquired if the health agency’s agents had visited such areas. The upshot was three well-known sites were surveyed this year, but many others were not.

For many years, the Health Department’s count of homeless people has been discounted by other county officials and advocates for the homeless because it relied only on statistics provided by private groups, such as the number of people showing up for a free dinner at the Paris Foundation in Elkton; people housed in the women’s and men’s shelters operated by the private non-profit Meeting Ground in Elkton; and a family shelter in Earleville operated by the Deep Roots organization established by the local patron saint of the homeless in Cecil County, the Rev. Carl Mazza. In addition, in the winter a coalition of churches operates a rotating shelter and the health department called them up on the designated date to ask how many people were being sheltered at that time.

The local Health Department is officially a state agency but Garrity is asking Cecil County taxpayers to provide $3.3 million in local funds to her department in the upcoming Fiscal 2018 budget.

Councilor George Patchell (R-4) asked for comparable numbers for neighboring Harford County and other area jurisdictions to see how Cecil County stacks up, especially against counties with much larger overall population.

Garrity produced numbers for Harford County showing its homeless count last year was just slightly larger than Cecil County’s, but she cautioned that she was uncertain what methodology Harford used so it might be an inappropriate, apples-and-oranges comparison.

In fact, state statistics and reports show both counties used the same definitions and methodology, under the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development’s “point in time” standard to count homeless people on a single day, thus confirming that Cecil County’s population-adjusted rate of homelessness is far higher than that of the adjacent and much larger Harford County.

According to the state Department of Planning, Harford County’s total population was estimated at 251,032 as of 7/1/2016, while Cecil County’s overall population was 102,603 on the same date, or less than half the total population of Harford. In addition, the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s website calculates the homeless population last year at 179 in Harford County and 167 in Cecil County on the same date—1/27/2016—using the same “point in time” survey definitions and methodology.

So with well over twice the total population, Harford County’s homeless numbers were only 12 people more than Cecil’s homeless count in 2016.

Statewide, the highest numbers of homeless people were in Baltimore City—with 2,388 counted—in 2016, while Montgomery County, the wealthiest county in the state and the most populous, with over 1 million residents, tallied 981 homeless people in 2016, according to state data.

Several County Council members pointed out that the county schools, which use a different standard to define and identify homeless students, have consistently counted from 700 to 800 homeless children for many years.

Kelly Keeton, spokeswoman for the Cecil County Public Schools (CCCPS), told Cecil Times that the schools’ current count of homeless students is 856 children. The schools use a counting standard set by federal law governing aid to homeless students, the McKinney-Vento Act, which classifies students as homeless if they “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 in school.

Councilor Bob Meffley (R-1) asked if the health department’s counters offered homeless people they met “homes where they could possibly go…like barracks.”

Parrack replied that they could not offer “something that does not exist” in the county but workers did hand out a “resource card” identifying services and shelter locations. She noted that the existing shelters are “usually full.”

The homeless count identified 17 percent as children under the age of 18; 6 percent were young adults aged 18 to 24; and 78 percent were adults aged 25 or older. Most of the homeless said they were from Cecil County (69 percent) while 16 percent said they were from another Maryland county and 15 percent were from another state. (One factor that could skew the out-of-county numbers is the fact that the Paris Foundation in Elkton offers a free dinner to all comers every evening and is known to draw some people from nearby Delaware, while the Health Department tally counts all those receiving the free meal as homeless.)

McCarthy reeled off a broader list of locations where the homeless gather and noted that local business owners often have to clean up the messes left behind, to the point of having to hire contractors with “HAZMAT suits” to clean up “Acme Acres” behind the Big Elk Mall. “This is something that deserves a lot more of our attention as a society,” McCarthy said.

Meanwhile, the Council and County Executive also were briefed on the latest drug overdose data. The Cecil County Sheriff’s Office recently hired a heroin co-ordinator, using a state grant, to track drug-related data, from arrests to drug overdoses, using information from all law enforcement, emergency and health agencies in the county.

Garrity cited the Sheriff’s Office data to report to the Council that from 1/1/2017 to 5/13/2017, there have been 21 drug overdose deaths in Cecil County. There were also 145 non-fatal drug overdose cases, including 95 cases in which Narcan was administered by law enforcement or emergency responders. Narcan is a medication that can reverse the effects of a potentially lethal drug overdose and the health agency has been distributing it to addicts and their family members as a way to prevent deaths.

State health officials have not yet released final drug overdose figures for calendar year 2016, but for the first nine months of that year Cecil County recorded 22 overdose deaths. So the 21 deaths so far this year indicates that the county may well be on the path to another record number of fatal overdoses in 2017. The Sheriff’s Office has noted an influx of fentanyl, a potent and deadly drug often mixed with heroin by drug dealers, into the area and a contributing factor in the rise in fatalities.

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2 Responses to Cecil County Homeless Count at 193 (Maybe), Health Dept. Says; Drug Deaths at 21 This Year

  1. scott carlson on May 24, 2017 at 7:17 pm

    Should the Paris Foundation be held legally liable for enabling squatters who result in clean up costs?

  2. kelly naill on June 4, 2017 at 6:48 pm

    In response to this article. Trying to raise the money from taxpayers that are already struggling is not the solution. There does not seem to be enough methods of public transportation to get people to jobs. There are people lost in the influx of technology. Many have no computer or hi tech phones nor do they no how to use it. It always seem like the taxpayer has to foot yet another increase. Our local government needs to make the budgets work better and find ways to implement new programs without taxing the already strapped working individuals.

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