This year’s Community Resource Day, co-sponsored by the Charles County Homeless and Emergency Shelter Committee and United Way of Charles County, saw an uptick in the number of people seeking help finding housing, health services, employment and other services for struggling families.
Sandy Washington, executive director of the La Plata-based nonprofit LifeStyles Inc. of Maryland, said that 499 people walked through the front door of the Greater Waldorf Jaycees Community Center during the four-hour event last Wednesday — more than 180 in the first 45 minutes alone.
“That’s about 100 more people than last year,” Washington said.
Washington said that there was also an increase in the number of people seeking help finding a place to stay due to imminent eviction.
“We had 20 appointments for people looking for somewhere to stay,” Washington said. “That’s 20 families who would not have had a place to live when they walked out the door if we didn’t help them.”
Last year, Washington said, the number of families seeking immediate shelter was less than 10.
Michael Bellis, executive director of the United Way of Charles County, said that the number of people seeking services this year was “definitely a lot higher than previous years.”
“I think that speaks to the demand that exists in the community for these types of services, especially all under one roof,” Bellis said.
“There are hundreds of homeless individuals in our community, but there’s also thousands of folks who are one paycheck away from becoming homeless,” Bellis said. “We need to expand our services and bring more people in.”
The United Way has coined the acronym ALICE to describe people who are at risk of sliding into poverty. The term stands for “Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained, Employed.”
A report released last month by the United Way’s ALICE Project found that half of Charles County households whose heads are 65 years old or over had difficulty paying for basic needs in 2016, and 15 percent of those households fell below the federal poverty threshold.
Although the total number of households in Charles County that earned more than the federal poverty level but less than the basic cost of living during that time declined 5 percent, the number of county households with incomes at or below the federal poverty threshold increased by approximately 560 households, or an estimated 1,500 people.
Churches step up
A total of 44 local nonprofit organizations and county agencies participated in this year’s Community Resource Day, which was established six years ago as Homeless Resource Day. Twelve of those were participating for the first time.
The main hall of the Jaycees Center was filled with tables offering a wide range of services including homeless shelter referrals, health screenings, disease prevention, adult education, resume-writing assistance, services for disabled veterans and — new this year — help with loan applications for first-time homebuyers and expungement of criminal records.
In the back of the hall, hair stylists and barbers provided free haircuts. At the other end, volunteers served fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, and vegetables to anyone who wanted lunch. Volunteers dubbed “navigators” guided people to services and appointments throughout the day.
Also new this year was Threads of Hope, an outdoor shop featuring clothes, shoes, jewelry and purses donated by parishioners of seven churches from all over Charles County.
Threads of Hope was the first activity of Faith Leaders Impacting Needs Together, or FLINT, newly created by the United Way of Charles County as a way to help local churches coordinate their efforts caring for Charles County’s needy.
Mike Farar, a chaplain at Joint Base Andrews, helped recruit 48 active-duty enlisted personnel and officers to volunteer at Threads of Hope, on top of volunteers from the parishes participating in FLINT.
“Getting the pastors together has been a lot of fun,” said Farar’s wife Elizabeth, who works for the county United Way as an outreach specialist. “It ranges from Episcopalian to Pentecostal and everything in between. They all have a different flavor to their churches and their ministries, and when you bring that together, just look what you can create.”
Farar said that education is an important part of FLINT’s mission.
“A lot of people don’t realize that that the ALICE population is out there teetering on the edge,” Farar said. “People don’t know about how many households are one blown transmission, one huge medical bill away from falling into that category.”
“They’re sitting in your pews and they’re too proud to tell you, many of them, that they’re struggling,” Farar said.
“Churches in America have a responsibility to take care of people,” agreed Rob Rogalski, senior pastor at LifePoint Church in Waldorf. “It’s not the government’s responsibility necessarily, so we take that mission very seriously.”
Rogalski said that LifePoint partners with LifeStyles of Maryland to house homeless residents for a week every year during the winter, which includes offering them three meals a day and VanGO passes.
“Churches aren’t in competition with each other,” Rogalski said. “Churches can be working together, and [FLINT] is a great example of that.”
FLINT member parishes also stepped up financially to make up for an unexpected drop-off in state funding for this year’s Community Resource Day.
In the past, the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development provided a $5,000 grant to the United Way to allow it to purchase gas cards, VanGO passes and advertising.
However, Bellis said, due to a reallocation of priorities, the department provided only $1,000 this year. He said that the county government did not respond to his requests for help making up the difference.
“When [FLINT members] learned about this ... they said, ‘Well, that’s our job. We’ll fill that gap,’” Bellis said. “It’s incredibly humbling and I feel deeply indebted to the faith-based community of Charles County.”
Events like Community Resource Day are important because many people misunderstand the causes as well as the scope of homelessness and what it takes to overcome it, Bellis explained.
“People often think that other people who are down on their luck are victims of their own decisions, but unfortunately that’s just not the case for everyone,” Bellis said. “For a lot of folks, this is not a lifestyle of choice, this is a lifestyle of necessity.”
Bellis points out that while we might be willing to excuse adults who are couch-surfing or living with their parents or in-laws as simply going through a rough patch, that condition is a form of homelessness too.
“I think that truly building awareness is incredibly important,” Bellis said. “Not just awareness that homelessness exists in our community. We see that already. But also awareness of the fact that it’s so easy in our community to make the transition from almost homeless to literally homeless.”
That’s why it’s important for United Way and others to offer what Bellis describes as “hand-up services.”
“These are not handout services,” Bellis said. “Everyone here is offering a tangible service to help families and individuals better themselves and their circumstances.”