Finding the Right Strategy For Ending Homelessness In Bethesda
Behind a soon-to-be-redeveloped property a few blocks from the boutique shops and upscale eateries of Bethesda Row, John Mendez and his team of volunteers found nine homeless people trying to sleep through the rain early Tuesday morning. Most were likely chronically homeless. Some — depending on the results of the survey the volunteers performed — might be medically vulnerable, meaning they suffer from diabetes, hepatitis, kidney disease, alcoholism or one of a number of other disabilities common in the homeless population. The surest way to help them improve is to put a roof over their heads, says Mendez, outreach specialist at the homeless services nonprofit Bethesda Cares. But according to Mendez and Bethesda Cares Executive Director Susan Kirk, not everyone, including the Montgomery County government, has fully embraced the strategy. It's why they're thankful for the 100,000 Homes campaign, a nationwide initiative to document illnesses of the chronically homeless to help prioritize them for housing assistance. At 5 a.m., Mendez led four teams of volunteer medical students from the Uniformed Services University at Walter Reed to different spots where the most vulnerable homeless are known to rest for the night. They asked them to answer questions about their medical histories as a way to help make the case that they deserve housing assistance. This fiscal year, Mendez said the county has provided 25 housing slots for these people. Still, Kirk said government agencies and housing service providers give preference to families or individuals who have the support network and ability to overcome poverty more easily, who have a place to live other than the streets. "The way housing is given out now, the whole idea is, 'Who deserves a house,'" Kirk said. "It's like, 'How can I tell this young family with kids that they can't have housing when we're going to put someone in off the street.' There's this judgement that the person off the street isn't as deserving as that one." Their locations alone — between a batch of newspaper boxes by the Bethesda Metro escalators, tucked into a stairwell of a parking garage or in a shed behind locked gates of a prominent Bethesda landmark — demonstrate how desperately they need help. The problem is many homeless have physical or mental disabilities that prevent them from seeking it or sticking with substance abuse programs or shelters. Last September, before Bethesda Cares took part in their first 100,000 Homes survey in November, the group said not enough of the most chronically homeless were allowed into a new Bethesda permanent housing facility. Almost all of the residents moved in from shelters or other transitional housing. The Housing Opportunities Commission said they didn't have the resources to provide the counseling or support necessary to help the homeless right off the street. They also said neighbors of the new building were concerned about safety. "It's like trickle-down housing theory. Let's give to people who can apply first, then we can get to the people who really need it. That never works," Mendez said. "The people who really need it never get to apply. They don't even know where the office is." Tomorrow, Montgomery County Council Health and Human Services Committee Chair George Leventhal (D-At large) will accompany the volunteers on day two of the canvassing. Mendez said Bethesda Cares has consistently lobbied county policy makers to use the "Housing First" model of ending homelessness over the more established system of providing shelter or transitional services before permanent housing. "What the 100,000 Homes is about is if you're functioning enough to walk into my office, we don't want to see you," Kirk said. "The people who can advocate for themselves, who can get over to the shelters, who know how to work the system — they're great. They'll survive. They'll make it. These guys can't." Mendez typically goes out once a week, between 4:30 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. before many homeless blend in to rush hour or board the Metro to finish sleeping. He knows many of the estimated 72 chronically homeless people from Friendship Heights to the White Flint Metro station by name. Some have come into the Bethesda Cares offices on Woodmont Avenue for assistance. One, who a volunteer interviewed in Spanish on Tuesday morning, was disruptive enough that Mendez had to escort him out. The volunteer learned emotionally scarring details about the man's life Mendez never knew. "You learned more in 15 minutes than I knew in talking to the guy for one-and-a-half-years," Mendez said. Another man, 51, admitted he suffers from a daily battle against alcoholism. Mendez said the man is in the process of interviewing for a home with three other people, not an optimal situation but an increasingly necessary one. The man was friendly and open. He told the volunteers about his medical history, which included a recent loss of feeling in one of his legs. He lives with a female companion and joked about marrying her in the future, about "living another 51 years." Mendez told the volunteers the man could be in severe medical peril if he lives another five years on the streets. In Mendez's office are signed copies of keys from homeless clients who have been placed into new homes. A few were surveyed in last year's inaugural Bethesda 100,000 Homes campaign. Mendez claims the vast majority have been able to adjust, get into outpatient rehab programs if necessary and find other services once they are housed. This summer, Arlington County was one of 15 communities nationwide recognized by the National Alliance to End Homelessness for meeting a monthly benchmark for placing the chronically homeless in permanent housing programs. Since starting the 100,000 Homes program last October, Arlington homeless services nonprofit A-SPAN put 30 homeless people in federally-funded supported housing as of July. "It does actually cost the community a lot more to leave them homeless,” said A-SPAN Director of Development Jan-Michael Sacharko. “If you can keep people out of the emergency room, out of shelters, out of jails, you save a lot more money.” Kirk said the Housing First approach, which first gained traction in the 1990s, is gradually gaining acceptance in Montgomery County, but is held back by HOC policy to randomly select people for housing assistance due to fairness issues. "We're saying it's not fair," Kirk said. "These are people who might die." Mendez said he can sometimes stand in the middle of a still-dark Woodmont Avenue at about 5 a.m., between the American Tap Room and Jaleo tapas restaurant, and eye a homeless person sleeping on a nearby bench or under an overhang. "Montgomery County will always be more affluent than our neighbors," Mendez said. "But as the demographics change, as we grow more urban, we have to be ready, willing and capable to deal with the changes that might come with the population. "Poverty is everywhere."