Encampment created to help the homeless during health crisis

County agencies and other groups have helped organize an encampment at a park in Lexington Park for people who are homeless to find shelter, food and other resources during the pandemic.

Nearly four dozen people living in a homeless encampment at a park in Lexington Park, created during the COVID-19 pandemic, were provided with shelter and resources for the last two months. Although the encampment will close on July 1 rather than the tentative July 10 date, partners are working to continue providing services.

The encampment beginning April 10 was given 90 days to use space at a public park where the housing development Lexington Manor, formerly known as the Flattops, was located. The site, adjacent to John G. Lancaster Park, is currently being used as a passive park and contains a disc golf course.

Arthur Shepherd, director of the St. Mary’s department of recreation and parks, said Friday the site will be open to the public again starting July 4.

Jennifer Neff, assistant director of the department of social services, who has been leading the passive park project, told The Enterprise on Friday morning the location was chosen because of “the privacy it afforded the encampment and the individuals in the encampment and its proximity to Three Oaks Center,” which transitioned a part of its shelter facility to an eight-bed quarantine facility if someone was confirmed positive for the virus.

While the goal of the program was to “create a space in which those experiencing homelessness could live temporarily,” Neff said, daily activities and monitoring of the homeless at this site have been anchored by the Three Oaks Center. When asked if any resident at the encampment required isolation at the facility, Neff declined to answer.

Other components of the encampment included control of where tents are placed to effect social distancing; 24-hour sanitation facilities to include toilets and running water; enhanced trash management through placement of a dumpster; daily contact for health screening; monitoring of activities and two meals a day; daily transportation to and monitoring of showers, off site; and safety features such as placement of a light and a webcam for surveillance.

Although the department of social services took the initiative on the project, Neff said many groups have contributed to the effort, including Three Oaks Center, the sheriff’s office, the department of recreation and parks, the health department, the Housing Authority of St. Mary’s County, Walden Pyramid, Pathways and St. Mary’s Caring.

She said “as a part of preventing and containing COVID-19 among the street homeless, a homeless action team was created, using county resources” to help support the self contained encampment.

In addition, two full-time case managers from the department of social services were dedicated to the site to work with the homeless people and the health department provided a licensed clinical social worker volunteer through the Maryland Medical Reserve Corps to support case management.

At admission, 20 of 43 homeless people were without income, Neff shared, but “as of today, all residents have income … at discharge 100% of the participants will receive continuing case management services to ensure sustainability with housing.” She added all have been provided a permanent housing choice voucher or have “transitioned to treatment level of care to meet their behavioral health needs.”

In collaboration with Walden Pyramid and Pathways “participants have been linked to and receive behavioral health services on site through tele-health,” she shared. “At admission, upon assessment, 38 participants were identified as needing behavioral health services, while 13% of passive park participants were already receiving behavioral health services.” She said to date, 32 of those 38 participants are receiving the service.

“We must always remember the participants, and our community partners, for without them none of this would have been possible,” Neff said. “Through this initiative participants have broken the cycle of homelessness, and together we have helped them step up off the street into a permanent home.”

Based on the success of the project, partners have submitted a Community Development Block Grant, which will continue to support those experiencing homelessness in the county post July 1.

“The grant would support emergency housing and rental assistance funding with wrap around services … this grant would enable us to establish shelter housing units in which we would shelter those experiencing homelessness while wrapping participants with services, and rapidly housing them permanently,” Neff said.

With a project that has had so much partnership and in kind contributions, Neff claimed it would be difficult to provide an exact total cost. At a county commissioners’ meeting in April, Stephen Walker, director of the department of emergency services, said $48,000 would be dedicated to securing supplies for the encampment, including tents, access to 24-hour sanitation, health screenings and temperature checks.

Shepherd said last week, from his perspective, the project went well and “a lot of individuals received resources to live independently.”

Twitter: @MadisonEntNews

Twitter: @MadisonEntNews