When Temps Plummet, Bethesda Cares Intensifies Search For Homeless
On nights like last Thursday, John Mendez will stop every dog walker he sees. The outreach director with Bethesda Cares said those who walk their furry friends around Bethesda are invaluable sources of information on homeless individuals who might be hanging out nearby on park benches or in parked cars. "They know the area better than anyone," Mendez said, "and they give great tips." As the wind chill dipped into the single digits last Thursday, Mendez stopped and asked a dog walker near Caroline Freeland Park if he had noticed any homeless people in the park. Mendez was roaming around downtown Bethesda on what he called a "welfare check," aggressively searching for any homeless person who might be sleeping in the elements on a frigid night. As opposed to the annual medical vulnerability surveys, in which a team of volunteers does thorough assessments of homeless individuals, Mendez was simply looking to make contact with as many homeless people as possible to warn them of the coming cold. In the best case scenario, he'd be able to convince people to find an overflow shelter. "I know the people who are not going to the shelter. They never will, or they went at one time and they won't go anymore," Mendez said. "If I find anyone new, I can give them the message." With sub-zero wind chills predicted Friday morning and even worse conditions forecasted for Saturday night, Mendez will again be out this week distributing wool socks, mylar blankets and sleeping bags. "You come bearing gifts and you have a message," Mendez said. "If you're out on nights like this, you're showing you have their back." Mendez started out last Thursday a little before 10 p.m., just as the bitter cold started settling in and downtown Bethesda businesses began closing. Local Starbucks locations, the Barnes & Noble at Bethesda Row and grocery stores are frequently places where homeless individuals will go for as long as possible when it gets cold. About five minutes in to his search, Mendez spotted a woman he hadn't yet met who had a number of suitcases. She was standing inside the La Madeleine restaurant on Old Georgetown Road. He had seen her earlier that day in a nearby Starbucks with the same suitcases and clothing, a sure sign she's living on the streets. Also in the La Madeleine was a homeless man who goes by Chuck, someone Mendez had spoken with many times before. He asked Chuck if he had enough warm gear for the night. Chuck told Mendez he had arranged to stay in a local church to get out of the cold. Mendez said last Thursday's blast of frigid weather was of particular concern because the temperature had hit an unseasonably warm 58 degrees the day before. "Those big changes catch people off guard. Maybe they shedded a blanket or two last night and need a new one tonight," Mendez said. "They could be in a dire situation." Bethesda Cares notifies its clients and people who come into their Woodmont Avenue office during the day of the severe weather forecasts. The nonprofit also posts the forecast at its clothing closet at the county's Regional Services Center. Homeless individuals, some who suffer from mental illness, may not get the message. At a minimum, Mendez warns individuals of the cold and advises them to get out of spots subject to lots of wind or hidden away from public view. Every year, there are a handful of situations in which he'll call the county's crisis team to evaluate a person showing signs of hypothermia. That crisis team may determine the person is a detriment to himself or herself, which could mean involuntary hospitalization. "People have rights," Mendez said. "The assessment teams, when they come down from Rockville, they can't violate those rights. So it's a fine line because sometimes people who aren't able to make the correct decisions for themselves and their personal well-being need to have someone looking out for them." Mendez and the county faced a similar situation with a homeless man who stayed near a Wisconsin Avenue construction site. Excavation at the site made the man's location unsafe, but county health officials couldn't legally move him unless they proved he was a danger to the safety of himself or others. At the county's urging, the man eventually moved from the spot and Mendez said he hasn't seen him since in downtown Bethesda. The importance of last week's search in the cold was apparent in another way: Mendez didn't mind if he appeared rude. He spotted a man at the Giant Food on Arlington Road who seemed to be living out of his car, which had a backseat full of papers and other items. Mendez asked the man if he was OK for the night, but said he didn't get a coherent response. He handed him his card and began looking again. Chuck, the homeless man Mendez had encountered earlier at La Madeleine, was setting up for the night in the pedestrian tunnel at the Bethesda Metro station, where there's venting that provides some heat. Mendez gave Chuck a sleeping bag and a blanket, then began making his pitch for why Chuck should seek out one of the county's various permanent assisted housing programs. On this night, Chuck was talkative and recognized he needed to "make a change" and get off the street. Mendez said it was the best talk he had with the man since first meeting him more than a year ago. He encouraged Chuck to come into the Bethesda Cares office, where the staff provides counseling and helps clients connect with housing programs. Bethesda Cares has led the charge when it comes to engaging the homeless on Bethesda's streets and lobbying county officials to provide more permanent supportive housing funding. Mendez estimated there are now fewer than 10 chronically homeless individuals who regularly stay in downtown Bethesda, down from 35-40 in 2010. He attributed the decrease to an uptick in permanent housing opportunities. The woman with the suitcases Mendez had spotted earlier in La Madeleine worried him. By the time he returned to check for her, she was gone. Mendez said she likely hopped on a bus, just to get some more warmth as the bus finished its route for the night.