2021 | Government

County leaders focus on solving homelessness as they mourn its casualties

Six homeless people died of COVID-19 complications during pandemic

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Amanda Harris, chief of Services to End and Prevent Homelessness within the Department of Health and Human Services, speaks at Wednesday's ceremony honoring 88 homeless people who died in 2020 and 2021.

Photos by Steve Bohnel

As the sun shined Wednesday over Veterans Memorial Plaza in Rockville, more than a dozen nonprofit leaders took turns at a podium, facing dozens of people in the crowd.

Elected officials and community leaders said that even if the coronavirus pandemic is winding down, they must focus on the county’s homeless population — people living in uncertainty, often lacking shelter, food and security. 

Then, nonprofit leaders gave a face to people who faced those challenges. They read the 88 names of homeless people who died in 2020 and 2021 and shared details about their lives. Six homeless people died because of complications caused by COVID-19, officials said.

County Council Vice President Gabe Albornoz said those 88 people were mothers, fathers, and friends to many, and all were someone’s children.

Albornoz added that even though the last year-plus has been exhausting, county leaders and nonprofits must remember that homeless people deserve attention, dignity and respect as they seek permanent housing. 

Amanda Harris, chief of Services to End and Prevent Homelessness within the Department of Health and Human Services, led Wednesday’s event.

Near the end, she said the ceremony reminded her that among the numbers, metrics and goals, names remind her why the work is important.

In an interview, Harris said the pandemic showed that when Montgomery County comes together, it can make great progress in reducing homelessness. But it also showed that the facilities and shelters where people live are not humane, she added.

And homelessness is more complex, Harris said.

“A shelter is not an end to homelessness, and I think we have to keep that in mind,” Harris said. “It actually pains me to be spending so much money on emergency shelter, because it’s temporary. We want people to have dignity … but the long-term goal is, how do we create deeply, deeply affordable places for people to live?”

Several dozen people gathered Wednesday at Veterans Memorial Plaza in Rockville to honor homeless people who died in 2020 and 2021.

Susie Sinclair-Smith, CEO of the Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless — a nonprofit that has aimed to reduce homelessness countywide since 1990 — shared a similar view. 

SInclair-Smith said in an interview that she is excited about a new shelter the coalition will run, scheduled to open early next year. Currently, the coalition has a 60-bed men’s shelter on East Gude Drive in Rockville.

The new shelter will have more space and provide 200 beds at Nicholson Lane and Nebel Street, Sinclair-Smith said. It will have Wi-Fi throughout and an employment lab, she said. 

Even though the number of homeless people recorded has gone down in recent years, the problem persists, officials said. Mary Anderson, a spokeswoman for the county’s Department of Health and Human Services, said on average, 400 people spend nights in shelters countywide.

Sinclair-Smith agreed that county officials need to prioritize affordable housing. The Department of Housing and Community Affairs and the Housing Opportunities Commission must be “strategic” in how to build deeply affordable housing, and not always pick the easiest path, she said.

Still, community leaders, nonprofits and the county’s elected officials are headed in the right direction, Sinclair-Smith said. Even though around 400 people are homeless on any given night, that’s about a 40% drop from the last four or five years, she said.

“I know we can continue to do this,” Sinclair-Smith said. “We’ve got incredible providers. We just need to be strategic with the resources and targeted in terms of who we help.”

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com