Like countless cities across the United States, Hagerstown has a problem with homelessness – but until now, the scale of the issue has been unknown.
“It’s really difficult to put one number on how many homeless people are in our community,” said Jodie Ostoich, executive director of REACH of Washington County.
The release of the very first “State of Homelessness” report by the Washington County Homeless Coalition paints a clearer picture. While the county’s average homeless rate (0.13 percent) is lower than Maryland’s rate (0.14 percent) and the country’s rate (0.19 percent), other troubling issues appear – like an 82 percent increase in average length of stay at emergency shelters.
“It’s tough,” Ostoich said. “Our shelters are full. We have people staying in hotels and sleeping in cars.”
Many subsidized housing programs have had waitlists for years, so cold weather shelters get filled to capacity.
“That helps demonstrate that we have a very clogged system,” Ostoich added. “That helps demonstrate that there are no exit points for people that are experiencing homelessness. Therefore, they’re staying longer in emergency shelters.”
Washington County has also seen a steady rise of homeless students. In 2006, there were about 116 students without fixed addresses. Now, the number has increased to 744 students.
Members of the coalition said that most of them are not necessarily “on the street,” but could be staying in hotels or a friend’s residence.
Another issue addressed is the lack of transitional housing in the area. Although there are several organizations in Hagerstown that offer year-round beds, all of them cater only to specialized groups – such as victims of domestic violence, or military veterans.
While City Council members were empathetic, most believe that solutions also need to come from the county and state levels.
“It’s hard for us to absorb any more of the burden of caring for the homeless,” said Councilman Martin Brubaker.
Mayor David Gysberts, who is holding a housing summit later this year, said he is considering many approaches – including the “housing first” model – to eradicate homelessness in Hagerstown.
“The idea is that you put a roof over their head, and then you get those people hooked up with the services they need to get clean, to find a job and to get the training,” he said.
That housing summit will be held in June, with local government and business leaders gathering together to discuss issues like vacant buildings and dropping property values in the area.