BETHESDA – The Bethesda Cares homeless outreach center where Larry Sutton spends his afternoons is cluttered and virtually claustrophobic, and that’s probably the way he would describe his life.
Sutton, 47, has been homeless off and on for about four years. He has been searching for work with no success. After this week, he’s not sure where he will be sleeping at night.
Sometimes, “the anger kicks in and the frustration kicks in and you don’t want to do anything,” he said.
So getting Sutton to fill out his census form was not as simple as asking. That is why Bethesda Cares twisted its clients’ arms to get them to fill out their forms, part of a national effort to enumerate the nation’s homeless last week.
Robert Schultz, an official at the Regional Census Center in Philadelphia, which includes Maryland, called the count at shelters and soup kitchens “absolutely successful.”
On Monday, Census employees went to shelters to record the names of homeless clients, including children. Tuesday, they set out to count the homeless at soup kitchens. On Wednesday, and some again on Thursday and Friday, enumerators set out to tally people living on the streets.
“They’re the people sitting on the corner, on railroad tracks, a building alcove or a cardboard box,” Schultz said. The Census enlisted “volunteer outreach teams, government officials, and police” to help find them.
“Probably 90 percent of the places we went to (on the street) nobody was there,” Schultz said. “But we wanted to get that 10 percent,” he said, adding, “we want to count every single homeless [person] out there.”
But some of Maryland’s homeless did not want to be included in the count, most likely because they did not feel included in society, said the folks at Bethesda Cares. Maybe the homeless were not informed about the count. Maybe they didn’t care. Or maybe they just avoided enumerators.
“At first I refused to fill it out because I didn’t think it would have any benefit for me,” said Sutton, who heard the same thing from other homeless people he knows. “I really don’t think they have any concerns about it.”
Hope Hallock, an outreach social worker at Bethesda Cares, echoed Sutton’s statement.
“Most of our clients were like, ‘What has the government ever done for me?,'” she said. But Bethesda Cares knew that filling out the census form was the best chance for Maryland’s homeless to get additional funding for programs.
“We inconvenienced everybody at our lunch program the other day (Tuesday),” Hallock said. “We wouldn’t let anybody eat until they filled out their forms.”
“I really felt pressured to fill it out,” Sutton said. That pressure helped him come around to the idea of filling out the form, he said.
Hallock said the homeless “definitely need more than the census” to help them, but it is important that the government knows there are a lot of people without affordable housing, clothes, food and medicine.
The misconception many people have about the homeless may be the reason why there is so little funding to help them, Hallock said. Most people say, “Oh, the guy who drinks away the change I give him everyday. But that’s not what we’re about” at the outreach center, Hallock said.
“We don’t support pan-handling,” she said. Many of Maryland’s homeless work or are looking for work, and have families, Hallock said. Some have serious medical needs.
“It’s amazing if you fall into homelessness how difficult it is to get back up,” Hallock said.
“Getting up every morning, trying to look for a job, you don’t have the clothes and you don’t have the motivation,” Sutton said. “You pray everyday and hope things will get better.
“We are trying to change ourselves,” Sutton said. “I just don’t think it’s being noticed.”