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It’s all but impossible to know the true number of homeless people in the tri-county area, but it is certain that each person bears a unique experience and story.

For some, homelessness happened after a fall through financial hardship. For others, it was the result of self-described “bad choices” that resulted in a rut.

Some manage to break the cycle and get back on their feet while others find themselves stuck for years at a time. No matter the circumstance, the key word in the phrase “homeless people” is people.

Better than average

In the face of the Great Recession that began in December 2007, the Southern Maryland region and the state as a whole have fared exceptionally well. While 2010 U.S. Census Bureau data indicate the median national income was $51,914, Maryland’s was $70,647, and Charles, Calvert and St. Mary’s counties enjoyed median incomes of $88,825, $90,838 and $80,053, respectively.

Similarly, 13.8 percent of people nationally lived below the poverty line, while regional poverty rates ranged from 4.4 percent in Calvert to 7.1 percent in St. Mary’s.

According to a Point in Time survey conducted annually through the St. Mary’s County Department of Social Services, 351 people from 242 different households were homeless throughout the region, down from last year’s figure of 1,153 persons from 607 households.

However, the 2012 results failed to take into account the unsheltered population, which Don Kidwell, program specialist for data collection and management for homelessness and housing, admitted might skew the numbers some.

Kidwell also said many of the definitions of “sheltered” homeless people were altered from last year to this year, which also could account for the change.

As the region continues to prosper, however, the cost of living continues to soar. It becomes much harder for those making below the median income to afford even the bare necessities.

In the tent cityVincent Walker went into the woods, not to live deliberately as Henry David Thoreau suggested, but simply because he had no other option.

Walker, a New York native, is one of the residents of the informal “tent city” that occupies a small space in the woods adjacent to the Walmart in La Plata. Walker said he rarely goes by what he refers to as his “government name,” and instead insists on being called “Wise.”

The entrance to the tent city is not readily visible, but there is a path leading a few yards back into the woods. At the end of the path is a series of small clearings that goes unnoticed by many, but is the only home some have known for years.

The tent city is comprised of two main areas, with about five tents in both of its larger nodes. On the path between the two, there are a few tents here and there, most of which look as if they have been uninhabited for some time. It is not immediately clear which area Wise resides in, but he said he is a victim of past poor choices.

“I got stuck when I came out here,” Wise said. “I’d been involved in a robbery in New York when I was younger, and for that, I did 15 years in prison. When I got out, I had nowhere else to go.”

Wise first found himself in Southern Maryland in 2009, and has lived in the tents ever since, save for some time at the nonprofit LifeStyles of Maryland in La Plata. When asked what would improve his situation, his answer was simple.

“I need another job. Just one more job and I think I could get out of here,” Wise said. “I already work part time at the Christmas Tree Shop[s] in Waldorf, but that’s not enough. I can’t afford to be anywhere but here, and so I’m stuck. I need the increase in income.”

Wise said he has met with Charles County Department of Social Services personnel to discuss the encampment’s situation, though he could not remember with whom he spoke. He emphasized the importance of circumstance in these situations.

“Not everyone is homeless in the same way,” Wise said. “There’s a lot of people and organizations ... that like to just act like they help. You can’t help everyone. There’s drugs, there’s alcoholism. ... If you just grab everyone from here, you grab all their problems and bring those, too.”

On a day in May when a reporter visited the site, several people were drinking alcohol mid-day and empty beer cans and liquor bottles were in plain view.

Despite the less-than-ideal conditions, the residents of the tent city did not appear to be despondent or unfriendly. Upon walking back, the reporter was greeted warmly and asked to participate with those in the front camp in a prayer circle. One woman offered to show the reporter around, and chided those who did not wish to talk during the tour.

Sandy Washington, the executive director of LifeStyles, said the colony in La Plata is just one of many in the area, and has been there since the Waldorf MarketPlace was built and disrupted the colony that lived behind the Giant in Waldorf.

“It caused them to disperse,” Washington said. “Some moved west down Route 6, some went down 301, but a larger amount ended up at the La Plata camp.”

Since LifeStyles first began working with homeless people 12 years ago, Washington has observed among some of the group what she describes as “definite chronic homelessness.”

“Some like the freedom, that there’s no commitment. ... They make what they need to get by,” Washington said.

During the winter months, Washington said the group delivers more aid than in summer. Of late, the trend has been for homeless people to live in their cars rather than tents, which Washington said provides them with a greater feeling of safety, especially for families with children.

Washington said situations like Wise’s are not uncommon.

“If you work a minimum-wage job 15 to 20 hours a week, where in Charles County are you going to live?” Washington asked. “For us to say that there are no options is not an option. ... I see all these empty homes and all these tents, and I know something’s wrong with that.”

Echoes of changeIn Calvert County, a different sort of approach to the homeless problem exists.

Project ECHO provides 90 days for transitional housing, with assistance from social services. The program gives people a chance to find other housing, and a job.

“It’s not necessarily 90 days,” said Project ECHO Executive Director Trisha Gipson. “If people need time to deposit an extra two paychecks … if they’ve come that far, we’re not going to turn them away then.”

The average stay was around 43 days at its old location, but more and more stay the full 90 now. At the 90-day mark, people write an extension if they have to stay.

Between 25 and 50 percent of the population at the ECHO house are on their second time staying at the house. Those who stay more than twice must wait a year in between, and three times is the maximum.

Throughout the recession, the amount of people seeking shelter was not highly affected, Gipson said.

“The economy in Calvert County remained pretty strong, and so we didn’t notice that much of a change,” she said. “What we’ve noticed as the economy goes reflects in our funding. … People can only do what they have to do.”

Gipson said donations to the house are the first to go in times of economic downturn.

In the last 12 months, Project ECHO has provided about 12,500 bed-nights and served more than 18,000 meals, with the aid of 22 partner churches and civic groups.

Much of Project ECHO itself relies on the aid of the community to keep going.

Those helped by the shelter come from a variety of backgrounds.

“[They come from] broken relationships, substance abuse … burning bridges with friends and family,” Gipson said. “Most of the time people come to us from, say, a substance abuse program, and are sent over to us.”

While staying at the house, many residents must participate in drug and alcohol counseling, which goes on outside of the home. Some also go to outpatient care appointments, all of which the staff of Project ECHO makes sure are attended.

“We help motivate them to get a job, get their money together … meet their small goals,” Gipson said. “That’s what we do. We’re not the trained health care professionals in the community, but we encourage people here to help seek those.”

Since the economy took a downturn, Gipson said, it is hard to tell how the program has been affected. Although they have 40 beds, they have gone over in times of inclement weather.

Several times a year, Project ECHO staff brings in the various area organizations capable of helping out those in need who can provide services the ECHO staff cannot directly.

“If you’re a newly homeless person in the community … you have really no idea what’s out there,” Gipson said. “This is a way for people to figure out what’s available to them. We bring the resources here, and it’s really very effective. Some people, some of the agencies may have more foot time through there and may be able to help us depending on the logistics of the population. It’s cyclical, very cyclical. Everyone’s circumstances are different.”

Overall, Gipson observed the same effect created by a disparity in income between the lower and upper classes.

“The median income here is really high, and it looks attractive on paper, but when you look at it closely … how many people actually make that $90,000?” Gipson said. “The people who do make that, a lot of them simply live here, they don’t actually work here. It’s more of a bedroom community. It’s very transient. Most people, if they move here from out of the area and choose to settle here, it’s temporary. They’re only here for a federal job.”

Rungs on the ladder

Lanny Lancaster, the director of Three Oaks Center in Lexington Park, has seen all sorts of circumstances in his tenure as director.

“The people at the lowest rung of the ladder are experiencing more hardship, because with prosperity, primarily in the rental community,” Lancaster said, “the prices have soared, so people that have never had real difficulty maintaining their homes are finding it more and more difficult to maintain their place. The pressure of the economic success of the area is such that the cost of living has increased, and the people coming in are making good incomes but the people who were here and just getting by are having trouble keeping up because their incomes haven’t gone up.

“One of the things … across the country that’s gone up is the cost of utilities,” he said. “Things like oil, electric … you name it, and people’s incomes are not going up but these costs are. We’re seeing more and more people than you would expect in a region doing this well.”

Lancaster said Three Oaks has a daily caseload of 200 people, with 150 in its residential program. Annually, around 1,000 are served, although this does not represent everyone who comes in seeking help.

To qualify for residential programs, the individual has to be certified as homeless, for which he gets a referral from the county Department of Social Services, which checks his background prior to sending him to Three Oaks. The average stay for emergency housing is 60 days, with 30 to 90 available. For transitional housing, one can be there from 18 months to two years. As permanent housing goes, for those deeply in need and likely unable to live unassisted, there is no specific length.

Emergency housing is short term, and intended for those who need critical care, “for those who have had a traumatic event and need our immediate assistance,” Lancaster said.

Transitional is for people who are a bit more deeply entrenched.

“They’re stable but not stable enough … they need more assistance to reach the desired independence,” he said.

In St. Mary’s County, a variety of social service programs exist to help those in need, and Lancaster said the programs of that nature are all fairly intertwined in terms of working with one another, which helps provide connections and keep the system running efficiently. Resources, however, are limited.

Five fundraisers and donations from churches, businesses and individuals, along with grants, help sustain Three Oaks.

“We couldn’t do it without the support of the community,” Lancaster said. “It’s a huge part of our budget, and it’s sort of a two-way street that they contribute to our success and we are constantly telling our story. We hope we’re providing education so that they understand … and conquer that stereotypical view of what a homeless person is. It’s not the person on the street corner with the brown bag or the shopping cart.”

Lancaster said it used to be in the winter that one would see more people come in seeking service, but now there is no one particular time of year.

“It’s very steady,” he said.

Many of those served by Three Oaks are employed, but Lancaster said it is not sufficient work to afford the high cost of living.

“The thing I find is that people experiencing this life … after you’ve been in that rut awhile, it’s 10 times harder to find work,” he said.

Stories of those who lost their jobs and fell into the rut are not uncommon, and Lancaster said these situations can sometimes hold positive outcomes.

“People I would have told you would have never gotten anywhere … have proven me wrong and gotten successful at running their lives,” he said. “For a person with those issues, they do remarkably well.”

lrenner@somdnews.com