The vehicle pulled slowly into the bumpy parking lot, a black plastic trash bag taped across one window, doing the best it could to keep the cold winter air at bay.
After parking, a young couple stepped out to find LifeStyles of Maryland Assistant Director Corae Young waiting for them beside the large white passenger van bearing the LifeStyles logo.
She’d been expecting them.
On Wednesday, Young joined Homeless Services Manager Jean Bazile and Client Advocate Supervisor Shavonna Butler, making their rounds across Charles County, engaging with the local homeless population and offering food, water and essentials.
This is a typical part of the organization’s weekly homeless outreach, but on this day, the team had the added task of conducting the annual Point-in-Time Count, a national effort that each year attempts to estimate the number of unsheltered adults and children living in our communities.
The couple had emailed Young earlier in the day, and she asked to meet them that evening at the Bryans Road Shopping Center, the final outreach stop of the day.
They’d stayed in a hotel the night before, but most nights recently, they’ve been staying in that SUV with their two children and the trash bag over the window as the January temperatures regularly dropped into the 20s.
COUNTING AND SERVING
The Point-in-Time Count is conducted each January, as required by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Most years, LifeStyles deployed teams of volunteers from 12pm until midnight, canvassing the county and visiting known homeless encampments or anywhere else they can go to get the most accurate count of unsheltered individuals.
As it has for most everything else, the pandemic changed things this year.
“The goal is to count the number of people who are living on our streets, but our goal is to also make sure that we serve them at the same time,” Young said. “This year it’s different because of COVID, so we have had to limit how many people can do outreach. Normally we have more than 100 volunteers helping with either street outreach or gathering supplies. So it’s more limited this year, but we actually have a week to do the survey.”
On the first day of the count, the LifeStyles team had completed dozens of survey forms identifying homeless individuals at stops across Waldorf, La Plata and Bryans Road. They’ll do it twice more next week at locations that will be announced soon.
While the revised approach and limited volunteers may affect the accuracy of the count this year, Young said she believes the number of homeless individuals could be declining because of the extraordinary efforts that LifeStyles and other local services and organizations have made to find shelter for them during the pandemic.
“There has been a lot of coordination of helping our homeless population this entire pandemic,” she said. “Quite a few of them are either in shelters or we have worked hard to get them placed in housing or with family temporarily. So we’d like to say that the majority of the reason why we have a lower count is that many of them have been offered shelter or housing.”
ACCEPTING A HAND UP
Within minutes of arriving, the couple in the SUV also met Rene Curry, an Intake Supervisor with the Charles County Department of Social Services.
“We asked them vital questions about how they arrived at their situation and whether there is someone we can contact to let them come and stay with them,” Curry said. “It’s called a homeless intake, and it’s what we do every day. When it gets really cold or we have inclement weather, you have more people willing to go into shelter care. This time is our busiest time of year.”
She was able to help them complete paperwork to make them eligible for a range of services and housing options. Once they have COVID tests, they will become eligible for shelter through Safe Nights or one of the other local options available.
As the couple completed the intake process, the LifeStyles team prepared bags with four hot meals from the Southern Maryland Food Bank, as well as nonperishable milk, cereal, hand warmers, hand sanitizer, toilet paper, hygiene items and more.
Whatever comes next for this young couple and their children, they’ve taken an important first step toward finding safe shelter. Now that they’ve coordinated with both LifeStyles and the Department of Social Services, they’ll be able to take advantage of the resources and opportunities available to them to improve their situation.
And it’s that coordination that brings about the Help, Hope and Transformation that everyone is striving to achieve in the community.
“They’re our partner agency, so we work very closely, very hand in hand,” Curry said of LifeStyles. “We need them and they need us.”