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By Donna Cipolloni Tester staff writer

In frigid temps with snow underfoot, volunteers from Naval Air Station Patuxent River partnered with professionals from social service agencies and deputies from the St. Mary's County Sheriff's Department, Jan. 29, to help count the local homeless population and identify the military veterans among them.

Known as the Point-in-Time (PIT) Survey, the annual count is conducted nationwide and provides critical data for social service and welfare organizations whose services depend on federal and state assistance.

"This was the first year we worked with volunteers from [Pax River]," said Lanny Lancaster, PIT coordinator for St. Mary's County and executive director of Three Oaks Center supportive housing. "This year, the emphasis was on finding homeless veterans, so that we might take advantage of Veterans Administration Supportive Housing, or VASH, vouchers and be able to secure some for our area."

An essential tool in the effort to end veteran homelessness, VASH is a joint program between Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, with HUD providing housing assistance vouchers and VA providing case management and outreach.

Lancaster said most people living here have no idea of the extent of the homeless population in St. Mary's County, and U.S. Coast Guard Senior Chief Boatswain's Mate Philip Robinson, who said he volunteered to help because he wanted to serve people, admits he was one of them.

"I learned that every year about 1,000 homeless get counted," he said. "As for homeless veterans — the military does a good job of taking care of its members when they're in, but loses track of them when they leave. I had never heard of VASH vouchers before and I feel if [the homeless veterans] knew the vouchers were available, they'd want to take advantage of that opportunity to get the help they need to get back on their feet."

After a meeting at Three Oaks in Lexington Park to go over final instructions, volunteers were matched with their team leader before heading out to visit areas known to be frequented by homeless individuals.

In addition to providing safety, sheriff's deputies were able to guide the volunteers to places — specifically in the woods — where they knew tents and lean-tos were likely to be found.

PIT volunteer Senior Chief Master-at-Arms Scott Johnson, the leading chief petty officer for Pax River's Security Department, said not only did he and his team go to one of the homeless camps in the woods, they also visited numerous business establishments along Great Mills Road to hand out information.

"We had brochures that noted the programs available to the homeless along with details about the service agencies, their emergency numbers, points of contact, etc.," he said. "By making local business owners aware of the situation, they can pass out the information to anyone they see in need of services."

Three years ago, seven homeless veterans were counted in St. Mary's County; last year that number was more than 40; and this year, it's even higher.

"Preliminary numbers appear to indicate that we counted 65 'literally' homeless veterans by HUD definition," Lancaster said. "And if we use the VA definition, it was closer to 120. The number is the magic bullet for VASH vouchers and we're hoping those vouchers will now materialize."

Not everyone encountered homeless individuals that evening. Lancaster noted that the very cold weather meant many of them were not found outdoors as usual, but had migrated to the shelter of churches or soup kitchens and had been counted earlier that day.

However, he wants to make sure all the volunteers know their service was vital.

"Counting was only part of the program," he said. "Pax River volunteers really helped raise awareness that homelessness is a serious problem here in St. Mary's County. Representatives who were here from the Department of Housing and Community Development and the Baltimore staff from federal Housing and Urban Development saw what seemed to them like a sea of volunteers. They were amazed and impressed — and I want to thank the base for that."