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A yearlong project to identify and assist homeless people in downtown Silver Spring was successful in significantly reducing the number of homeless on the streets, according to a new report from Bethesda Cares, which led the effort.
The “Homeless in Downtown Silver Spring” report showed that 89 people were found who experienced homelessness for more than 30 days during the study period from May 2017-April 2018. Of those, 72 people were considered to be experiencing chronic homelessness.
“Chronic homelessness is long-term homelessness with a disabling condition,” said John Mendez, Bethesda Cares executive director.
More specifically, a chronically homeless person is one who is homeless for a total of more than 12 months, and has a disabling condition such as mental illness or substance addiction.
The person actually could be homeless for longer than that, Mendez explained, e.g, if they have temporary housing with a relative but then are back on the streets, perhaps more than once, for a total of 12 months during a four-year period.
Bethesda Cares works to end homelessness all over the county, in places such as Kensington, Wheaton, Rockville/White Flint, Bethesda, Chevy Chase and others.
“Our target population is in all those communities,” Mendez said. “Silver Spring has the highest concentration of persons experiencing homelessness, and Bethesda Cares was the outreach agency that works in downtown Silver Spring.
“We’re trying to help Silver Spring, and we got an outreach contract [from the county] to do that, and we’re helping people in partnership with downtown Silver Spring agencies,” he added.
The group in the past had conducted two overnight headcounts of the homeless in the area, which provided data to help justify efforts such as Inside/Not Outside, a county campaign begun about two years ago to end chronic homelessness.
The recently completed project consisted of day-to-day outreach to identify, engage and assist homeless people, with the help of page-long list of partners that included agencies such as Interfaith Works, Shepherd’s Table, the Housing Opportunities Commission, government entities including the Silver Spring Library and Regional Service Center, and local business owners like Lene and Abeba Tsegaye of Kefa Café.
Kefa Café “is a good example of the small business entities in downtown Silver Spring that we were constantly frequenting to interact with,” Mendez said, explaining that these businesses could identify individuals that needed help, and the times and places they might be found.
“We were trying to engage these people, and they knew who was homeless in the community, and the business owners in downtown Silver Spring were very, very helpful in helping us identify people and the time they were there and descriptors so we could effectively engage those folks and raise their level of care,” he said.
The work also turned up some surprises.
“There was a high concentration of [homeless] women who were severely mentally ill in downtown Silver Spring,” Mendez said.
Agencies typically find that about 10 percent of chronic homeless people are women. However, this study found that number was about 28 percent in downtown Silver Spring. That’s high compared to the rest of the county, Mendez said.
However, he added, the project, by measuring the numbers on a day-to-day basis rather than at a point in time on one night a year, may have given a more accurate reading of actual conditions in downtown Silver Spring.
While tracking the 89 homeless identified during the project, the group found that 31 people can’t be accounted for and apparently have left the area. Many who stayed found the help they needed.
“We’ve seen a greater than 50 percent drop in long-term street homelessness in downtown Silver Spring, and that’s the result of the work being done by Bethesda Cares and all the agencies that partner with us to get these people placed into housing,” Mendez said.
“We can dramatically reduce the numbers of people who are experiencing homelessness in downtown Silver Spring,” Mendez continued. “Twenty-six of the 89 people were housed in permanent support housing, so homelessness ended for 26 people.”