TOWSON – L.B. Walls Jr., 56, introduces himself as a poet, and he carries a notebook full of his work to prove it.
“I’m a writer as well,” says Chris, 55, who doesn’t want to give his full name. “I once wrote a play loosely based on ‘The Iceman Cometh’ by Eugene O’Neill.”
“That’s a bit pretentious, isn’t it?” Walls teases. “That’s like me saying I’ve got a poem based on W.H. Auden.”
These are just two of the men at the Prologue Homeless Outreach Program’s Towson facility who participated Thursday in the Office of Community Conservation’s annual Point in Time Survey.
Chris says he has a master’s degree in counseling and psychology from Johns Hopkins University, and worked as a mental health therapist for 20 years.
Another man named Eric, 57, holds a teaching degree and taught middle school. They’ve had families, careers, car payments, white picket fences. They could be anyone.
The three-page survey they and others filled out — with the help of dozens of volunteers who fanned out across Baltimore County Thursday — is required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to provide data on each homeless person’s background and what services, if any, that person has utilized.
“It gives us a real snapshot of what services the homeless are engaging in and what they’re not, so we can learn to do better outreach,” said Sue Bull, the organization’s homeless services coordinator. “We learn from this process what the needs are. And we know there are plenty of needs.”
Stuart Hancock Jr., Prologue program director, said 36 homeless people showed up at the center, a number slightly higher than the center’s normal traffic, and only two people refused the survey.
“There’s more of them than there are of us,” he said, meaning the central problem of outreach is that need is greater than the resources available.
Though the national Point in Time study results will probably not be available for several months, some experts fear the number of homeless people in the U.S. is increasing.
“We don’t yet have the scientific numbers to back it up, but people at food pantries and shelters are seeing increases in two groups especially — homeless families and homeless students,” said Michael Stoops, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless.
Stoops said that, though homelessness will probably grow because of the foreclosure crisis and economic downturn, there will be a delay before those affected turn up in shelters.
“When someone has had their home foreclosed upon, they usually do have some source of income, so they downsize and move in with friends and relatives. Then they move into an RV or a campground. Then the very last thing, which they usually want to avoid, is knocking on a shelter door,” Stoops said.
That’s basically what happened to Eric, who, like most of the clients, would identify himself only by his first name, partly to avoid hiring discrimination by potential employers.
Eric quit teaching full-time to care for his late wife when she was diagnosed with ALS, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
“The medical bills completely depleted our savings,” he said. “After she passed away, I lost the house. I spent some time with relatives, but I moved out to make room for their daughter, who also had to move in when she lost her job.”
Sylvester, 57, said he became homeless less than two months ago. He says he worked in the construction industry his entire life, but lost his job due to health problems that forced him to stop working.
He says he struggles with depression and thinks about suicide.
“I never thought I’d be homeless,” he said.
“Can you imagine what it feels like to be outside on a cold, snowy, icy day, wondering where you’re going to sleep that night? Neither could I.”