Commissioners’ President Reuben B. Collins II and his fellow commissioners deserve a round of applause for opening the door to the homeless last week when they approved making a change to the zoning code to allow homeless shelters to operate in the current general industrial zones. And that clears the way for Lifestyles of Maryland Inc., the La Plata organization that has championed the needs of a growing homeless population in Charles County for a long time, to begin work to transform a building in White Plains into a permanent homeless shelter.
At the swearing-in ceremony for the current board of commissioners last Dec. 4, Collins said, after listing other priorities, “we’d also like to make it a priority to address the homelessness issue here in Charles County.” The move last week is a step in that direction, and we hope it’s only the first step. As we reported in last Friday’s edition with the good news about the homeless shelter getting a green light, there are, at last count, more than 700 homeless children enrolled in the county’s public school system. That number needs to be reduced to zero by getting them — and their parents — in homes and stable environments. Actually, the number of homeless, children or not, needs to be reduced to as close to zero as possible. Getting everyone off the street or out of homeless encampments isn’t realistic, but as a society we can do much better in taking care of our fellow humans.
A related issue is affordable housing, something of which Charles has too little. It’s ever more difficult to get individuals and families off the street when there is little if any low-cost housing available, especially when they have to compete with a larger workforce needing the same thing — an affordable place to live. A homeless shelter should be a temporary spot for those that need help getting back on their feet, through job training, mental health services and a host of private and public aid. At some point, they’re going to need a place to call home, and most are unlikely to have a high-income job or enough financial support to pay the market rates in Charles which can exceed $900 a month for a small apartment and run well into the thousands for something bigger. And much of the lower-cost options are located in rural parts of the county that may have less access to VanGo for transportation, meaning the costs of owning and driving a car are further complications to escaping a life in the rough.
“At the end of the day, the commitment begins and ends with local government,” Collins told a crowd at an affordable housing forum at the College of Southern Maryland on Dec. 6. “People are afraid to address and define affordable housing which is something that actually impacts the poorest of poor in our community. It’s political will, starting with the board of county commissioners, and showing our commitment that this is something we take seriously.”
With the step they took last week, there’s reason to believe the commissioners plan to deliver that political will on homelessness and affordable housing. And while applauding the positive steps they along the way, those interested in working on those twin problems should keep the discussion going and, as the Rev. Kate Heichler of Christ Church in La Plata said at the National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day service back in late December, the “call to action is not to rest until every person, every teacher and nurse and police officer and store clerk and secretary who works in Southern Maryland can afford to live in Southern Maryland.”