The problem of homelessness is front and center in Frederick right now, with citizen complaints about what they perceive to be a growing problem, and many ideas for how best to address the issue.
For that reason, The News-Post recently sent reporter Colin McGuire to two cities of similar size in December to see how others are coming at the issue.
Both Asheville, North Carolina, and Greenville, South Carolina, have similar questions facing them, and their solutions appear to diverge somewhat, based on our reporting.
Frederick has a slightly smaller homeless population than either of the other two cities, according to figures given to our reporter.
In January 2019, Asheville counted about 560 homeless people on any given night. A housing advocate in Greenville estimated there are between 700 and 800 homeless people in the city throughout the year and between 300 and 400 at one time.
According to a point-in-time count for Frederick County, the number of homeless people locally in January 2019 was 286. It might have surprised some readers to learn that number has remained fairly stable for several years.
That does not mean we can ignore homelessness, but understanding the reality might make it easier to make headway.
Homelessness is such a difficult problem to address in large part because people can be homeless for many different reasons.
Temporary, short-term homelessness can be caused by sudden financial reverses. These can result in a family being evicted from their home, and they can end up in a shelter for a time while trying to find more permanent quarters.
For many people in this situation, the affordability of housing is probably the greatest challenge. It is related to homelessness, but it is not the same. People living close to the edge can be pushed into homelessness by a layoff, unexpected medical bills or major car repair, but most can get on their feet with a little time and some public assistance.
Long-term homelessness is more difficult. It can be the result of mental illness, drug addiction, alcoholism, and any number of other factors. These people need treatment to overcome those problems, and many are resistant to being treated.
Others prefer to live on the streets, sometimes because they don’t feel safe in shelters, sometimes because they have established a camp in the woods away from neighborhoods where they feel more comfortable. Many are alienated from family.
These problems are complicated, and the solutions are neither obvious nor simple.
At minimum, the city needs safe, clean and welcoming shelters for all of these people, with sufficient beds available when they are needed. Then, we have to look at the problem of housing affordability, so that working families can live in the Frederick community without stretching their finances to the limit.
Affordable housing should include public housing for the very poor as well as planning and zoning rules that encourage the construction of private projects aimed at people of moderate means.
Frederick is ahead of Asheville and Greenville in another important way, and that is the role each city government plays in the battle against homelessness. Asheville and Greenville occasionally allocate funds for services, while Frederick has an agency addressing the problems, the Frederick Community Action Agency.
Our community has six shelter programs — the Rescue Mission, the Religious Coalition, the FCAA’s transitional shelter, Heartly House, Advocates for Homeless Families and SHIP of Frederick County.
This is a community that cares about and is trying to do something about homelessness. But the problem of housing the homeless does not recognize the boundary between the city and the county.
The two governments should consider putting together a homelessness task force to continually assess the problems and make recommendations to both the County Council and the city’s Board of Aldermen every year. Solutions must involve drug treatment and mental health centers, as well as shelters and affordable housing.
We also need to acknowledge that because people end up on the streets or in shelters for many disparate reasons, we are never going to end homelessness, even as we strive to help those who are living on the streets.