[Hpn] Hidden Face of Homelessness

joe reynolds jos_reyn@yahoo.com
Sat, 15 Nov 2003 20:18:12 -0800 (PST)


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Hidden Face of Homelessness 
In Outer Suburbs, Growing Population Eludes Public Awareness 
By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 13, 2003; Page B01 

In a patch of trash-littered woods behind a Southern Maryland strip mall, Charlotte Mumford leans on her walker and thinks about the winter. 
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For two months, the 55-year-old unemployed woman has been living in a tent amid dozens of feral cats and piles of scavenged furniture, bicycles and other dumpster detritus. She can rattle off a dizzying array of ailments: heart disease, a nerve disorder known as reflex sympathetic dystrophy, a cancerous growth in her lung. 

So far, the outdoors have been manageable, she says, because of unseasonably warm weather and the help of J.R. Shampo, a burly man who has lived in the woods off Route 301 in Charles County for nine years. Yet, several fall rainstorms flooded Mumford's makeshift home, and now she is considering the coming cold. "I'm already so crippled from the dampness," she says. "If my health gets any worse, I don't know if I'll be able to make it." 

Her previous residence had four walls and a roof, but it wasn't much better than a tent. For nearly two years, she used money from her Social Security checks to pay $123 a month to live illicitly in a 10-by-15-foot storage unit. Building code inspectors arrived in September and told her and other squatters to move on. So Mumford, who says she has been on a waiting list for subsidized housing for more than three years, headed for the forest. 

Homelessness has rarely attracted much attention in Charles County and Washington's other outer suburbs, where men and women tend to blend into the landscape by taking shelter in tents, cars, warehouses or storage facilities. But despite the lack of visibility, the numbers are rising sharply and overwhelming many social services agencies, shelter operators and advocates for the homeless say. 

"Right now, the homeless population is really increasing here," said Colin Davis, who stepped down recently as director of the Robert J. Fuller Transitional House for homeless men in Waldorf, one of two shelters in Charles County. "Because this is still somewhat of a rural area, there are a lot of abandoned areas and woods where a lot of people live. . . . It's still hidden." 

The 16-bed shelter had to turn away 259 men last year because it didn't have enough room, Davis said. Now, he routinely sees twice as many men walk through the doors -- up to 10 a week -- than a year ago. 

Shelters in other suburban and rural counties in the Washington area report similar space crunches. The Serve shelter in Manassas expanded its facility last year by 40 percent, to 56 beds, but still couldn't keep up with demand, officials said. 

"A lot of people will say we don't have a homeless problem here, because they don't see it. And when I tell them we turned away 1,500 people last year, they look at me like I'm crazy," said Lindy Garnette, the shelter's executive director. 

The shifting, elusive nature of the homeless population makes it difficult to count. Some surveys, however, have detected a gradual shift -- away from the District and into suburban areas. Of the region's estimated 14,300 homeless people, 44 percent are in in the suburbs, up from 22 percent in 1991, according to a report this year by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. 

Garnette cited the region's high cost of living and a shortage of affordable housing as primary factors. "It's almost impossible to find a two-bedroom apartment in this area for less than $950 a month," she said of Manassas. "We estimate it costs 11 to 12 dollars an hour full time [in salary] to be able to get anything around here. And that's a long way from minimum wage. A couple years ago, these people might have been able to find something here. But now that's not true." 

Because some suburban shelters have to turn away so many, Garnette said, homeless people are forced to seek unconventional places to live. She said there are several encampments scattered throughout the woods in Prince William County. In Frederick County, there are about two dozen forest dwellers, with some sleeping in leaky tents and cooking over scrap-wood fires. 

To address the needs of homeless squatters, the Good Shepherd Alliance shelter in Loudoun County started a program this fall to send case workers out to offer food, blankets or other help to people living out of their cars or in the woods. "We're turning away people in droves. We had to get creative," said John Brothers, the shelter's executive director. 

Some of the increase in homelessness stems from a shortage of low-income housing in Washington's outer suburbs, shelter operators say. For example, in Charles County, where the average home price rose 22 percent last year, to $221,000, the Department of Community Services had 2,500 people on a waiting list in May and was serving requests from four years earlier. The department stopped taking applications in May after a fire destroyed many of its records. 

In their patch of woods, Mumford and Shampo face more immediate concerns than the frustrations of dealing with government. A recent rainstorm damaged their campsite. "We had water everywhere," Shampo said. "A tree fell and destroyed one of our tents. You should have seen it, there was lightning crashing everywhere." 

Shampo, 59, said the Army tours of duty he served in Vietnam prepared him for living outdoors. He has been offered space at a homeless shelter in the past, he said, but prefers to live independently. "It's like being in the jungle," he said. "If I've got to pull a tooth, I pull my own tooth. If I've got to stitch something up, I stitch it up." 

To scrape together money, he collects castaway merchandise on daily rambles to trash bins and sells or trades the items at yard sales and flea markets. He cooks over an old propane barbecue and has a small television that runs off a car battery so he can follow the Redskins. The only aid he receives, he said, are food stamps and the donations of old friends who pass by occasionally to drop off food. 

"I do whatever I can to help him out, though he's been around here a long time and he doesn't seem to need much help" said Joseph T. Crawford, a local candidate for U.S. House of Representatives, who has known Shampo for about a year. 

But after nearly a decade in the Charles County woods, Shampo dreams of warmer climates and maybe a motor home of his own. For the time being, he and Mumford are just focusing on getting through the winter. "It's not the most comfortable life," he said, "but where else would we go?" 


 2003 The Washington Post Company


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<DIV><STRONG><FONT size=4>Hidden Face of Homelessness<!--plsfield:stop--> <BR></FONT></STRONG><FONT face=arial,helvetica>In Outer Suburbs, Growing Population Eludes Public Awareness </FONT>
<P><FONT size=2><!--plsfield:byline--><I>By Joshua Partlow</I><BR><!--plsfield:credit-->Washington Post Staff Writer<BR><!--plsfield:disp_date-->Thursday, November 13, 2003; Page B01 </FONT>
<P><!--plsfield:description-->
<P><NITF>In a patch of trash-littered woods behind a Southern Maryland strip mall, Charlotte Mumford leans on her walker and thinks about the winter.</NITF> </P>
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<P><NITF>For two months, the 55-year-old unemployed woman has been living in a tent amid dozens of feral cats and piles of scavenged furniture, bicycles and other dumpster detritus. She can rattle off a dizzying array of ailments: heart disease, a nerve disorder known as reflex sympathetic dystrophy, a cancerous growth in her lung.</NITF> </P>
<P><NITF>So far, the outdoors have been manageable, she says, because of unseasonably warm weather and the help of J.R. Shampo, a burly man who has lived in the woods off Route 301 in Charles County for nine years. Yet, several fall rainstorms flooded Mumford's makeshift home, and now she is considering the coming cold. "I'm already so crippled from the dampness," she says. "If my health gets any worse, I don't know if I'll be able to make it."</NITF> </P>
<P><NITF>Her previous residence had four walls and a roof, but it wasn't much better than a tent. For nearly two years, she used money from her Social Security checks to pay $123 a month to live illicitly in a 10-by-15-foot storage unit. Building code inspectors arrived in September and told her and other squatters to move on. So Mumford, who says she has been on a waiting list for subsidized housing for more than three years, headed for the forest.</NITF> </P>
<P><NITF>Homelessness has rarely attracted much attention in Charles County and Washington's other outer suburbs, where men and women tend to blend into the landscape by taking shelter in tents, cars, warehouses or storage facilities. But despite the lack of visibility, the numbers are rising sharply and overwhelming many social services agencies, shelter operators and advocates for the homeless say. </NITF></P>
<P><NITF>"Right now, the homeless population is really increasing here," said Colin Davis, who stepped down recently as director of the Robert J. Fuller Transitional House for homeless men in Waldorf, one of two shelters in Charles County. "Because this is still somewhat of a rural area, there are a lot of abandoned areas and woods where a lot of people live. . . . It's still hidden."</NITF> </P>
<P><NITF>The 16-bed shelter had to turn away 259 men last year because it didn't have enough room, Davis said. Now, he routinely sees twice as many men walk through the doors -- up to 10 a week -- than a year ago.</NITF> </P>
<P><NITF>Shelters in other suburban and rural counties in the Washington area report similar space crunches. The Serve shelter in Manassas expanded its facility last year by 40 percent, to 56 beds, but still couldn't keep up with demand, officials said. </NITF></P>
<P><NITF>"A lot of people will say we don't have a homeless problem here, because they don't see it. And when I tell them we turned away 1,500 people last year, they look at me like I'm crazy," said Lindy Garnette, the shelter's executive director.</NITF> </P>
<P><NITF>The shifting, elusive nature of the homeless population makes it difficult to count. Some surveys, however, have detected a gradual shift -- away from the District and into suburban areas. Of the region's estimated 14,300 homeless people, 44 percent are in in the suburbs, up from 22 percent in 1991, according to a report this year by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. </NITF></P>
<P><NITF>Garnette cited the region's high cost of living and a shortage of affordable housing as primary factors. "It's almost impossible to find a two-bedroom apartment in this area for less than $950 a month," she said of Manassas. "We estimate it costs 11 to 12 dollars an hour full time [in salary] to be able to get anything around here. And that's a long way from minimum wage. A couple years ago, these people might have been able to find something here. But now that's not true." </NITF></P>
<P><NITF>Because some suburban shelters have to turn away so many, Garnette said, homeless people are forced to seek unconventional places to live. She said there are several encampments scattered throughout the woods in Prince William County. In Frederick County, there are about two dozen forest dwellers, with some sleeping in leaky tents and cooking over scrap-wood fires. </NITF></P>
<P><NITF>To address the needs of homeless squatters, the Good Shepherd Alliance shelter in Loudoun County started a program this fall to send case workers out to offer food, blankets or other help to people living out of their cars or in the woods. "We're turning away people in droves. We had to get creative," said John Brothers, the shelter's executive director. </NITF></P>
<P><NITF>Some of the increase in homelessness stems from a shortage of low-income housing in Washington's outer suburbs, shelter operators say. For example, in Charles County, where the average home price rose 22 percent last year, to $221,000, the Department of Community Services had 2,500 people on a waiting list in May and was serving requests from four years earlier. The department stopped taking applications in May after a fire destroyed many of its records. </NITF></P>
<P><NITF>In their patch of woods, Mumford and Shampo face more immediate concerns than the frustrations of dealing with government. A recent rainstorm damaged their campsite. "We had water everywhere," Shampo said. "A tree fell and destroyed one of our tents. You should have seen it, there was lightning crashing everywhere."</NITF> </P>
<P><NITF>Shampo, 59, said the Army tours of duty he served in Vietnam prepared him for living outdoors. He has been offered space at a homeless shelter in the past, he said, but prefers to live independently. "It's like being in the jungle," he said. "If I've got to pull a tooth, I pull my own tooth. If I've got to stitch something up, I stitch it up."</NITF> </P>
<P><NITF>To scrape together money, he collects castaway merchandise on daily rambles to trash bins and sells or trades the items at yard sales and flea markets. He cooks over an old propane barbecue and has a small television that runs off a car battery so he can follow the Redskins. The only aid he receives, he said, are food stamps and the donations of old friends who pass by occasionally to drop off food. </NITF></P>
<P><NITF>"I do whatever I can to help him out, though he's been around here a long time and he doesn't seem to need much help" said Joseph T. Crawford, a local candidate for U.S. House of Representatives, who has known Shampo for about a year.</NITF> </P>
<P><NITF>But after nearly a decade in the Charles County woods, Shampo dreams of warmer climates and maybe a motor home of his own. For the time being, he and Mumford are just focusing on getting through the winter. "It's not the most comfortable life," he said, "but where else would we go?" </NITF></P>
<P><NITF></NITF></P>
<CENTER> 2003<!--plsfield:end--> The Washington Post Company</CENTER></DIV><p><hr SIZE=1>
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