Baltimore County has counted heads and found more than 600 people homeless within its borders. But the actual number of people living in shelters and on the streets in the county is likely much higher.
The county recently released the findings from a one-day homeless census it conducted on January 24 when it found 609 homeless people countywide.
But county officials caution this is merely a snapshot on a given day that provides a rough estimate. And those who work with the homeless say it is a low ball number.
"Guaranteed that we are missing people. That’s a guarantee," said Wade Pratt, who works with Prologue, an organization that provides services for the homeless.
Pratt estimated the 609 people counted in the census make up one-third to one half of the homeless in Baltimore County.
"Some of them don’t want to be found, first off," he Pratt said. "But that’s not even the majority. The majority of them, they’re just too busy doing their own thing, trying to survive to be bothered with something like a survey like this."
The county was divided into four regions for the census. Volunteers fanned out into each region, looking for homeless people at places like encampments and well-known hangouts. They counted those in shelters as well. The eastern part of the county had the highest concentration of homeless.
Dundalk itself was one of the four regions because of the large number of homeless there. And Pratt said the region that includes Middle River, Essex and White Marsh had the most volunteers counting homeless people.
"It’s really spread out where people are," Pratt said. "There are a lot of people over there but there’s a lot of ground to cover because there’s a lot of wooded areas where people can kind of hang out."
Of the homeless who were found, nearly 60 percent were women. Around 20 percent were children. More than 60 percent were African American. Two-thirds had had a previous residence in Baltimore County, and 30 percent had once resided in Baltimore City.
On the evening of the census, volunteers like Ann Vinup were handing out meatball subs, fruit, drinks and desserts to homeless people at Dundalk United Methodist Church. The word had gone out that there was a free meal to be had at the church, and the homeless people who came could be counted. But only a few showed up.
"We thought there’d be 50 or 60 people here," Vinup said. "We’re giving it out for them to take with them."
The volunteers also handed out supplies like socks and gift cards to people like Judy Haddix.
Born and raised in Dundalk, Haddix said she spent a couple of years in jail for selling drugs. Her parents have died. She said she’s bipolar and had been on the streets for about a year.
"It’s just been hard," Haddix said. "It’s been really hard out here. And everybody I know is gone, either died or moved, you know? So it’s just crazy."
Kerry Woodard told a similar story. He spent some time in jail. Most of his relatives have died and he’s bipolar, too. Woodard said he’d been homeless for about two years and had been sleeping in the woods off Dundalk Avenue.
"The only thing I’ve got in hope is an opening in homeless shelters," he said. "I mean you don’t get to take a shower. You don’t get to have your own bathroom or anything like that. It’s like living in the wilderness."
The county uses the one-day census to plan ways to reduce homelessness. It’s also one of dozens of factors the federal government takes into account when determining funding to help the homeless in Baltimore County.