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Sailors and Marines from Naval Support Facilities Indian Head and Dahlgren braved snowy weather to participate in the annual Point-in-Time Survey on Jan. 29 in Maryland. The nationwide survey helps communities provide care for the homeless through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Continuum of Care Program.

Maryland officials sought active duty volunteers for this year’s survey to not only help determine the number of veterans among the region’s homeless, but to also educate homeless vets about resources like Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH) vouchers. In addition to helping vulnerable veterans receive housing subsidies, the vouchers also bring vets into the VA’s case management system.

Active duty volunteers worked alongside civilian volunteers from a diverse group of non-profit organizations and churches. In four-hour shifts, the volunteers scoured southern Maryland for individuals and families without a home, living out of cars or in sub-standard, improvised housing.

“Conducting a Point-in-Time Count is important to all communities,” said H.S. “Lanny” Lancaster, executive director of the Three Oaks Center and lead coordinator for the Point-in-Time Survey in St. Mary’s, Charles and Calvert counties. “The count is a tally of who is homeless on a given night and provides a snapshot of who experiences homelessness throughout the year. The Point-in-Time Count is a one-day, statistically reliable, unduplicated count of sheltered and unsheltered homeless individuals and families in our Continuum of Care-Community.”

Lancaster praised all of the volunteers, which included service members from Naval Support Facilities Dahlgren and Indian Head and Naval Air Station Patuxent River, for making an impact in their community. “The volunteers open their arms to the homeless and can provide warm blankets, food, and clothing,” he said. “The volunteers also distribute resource guides-pamphlets, brochures, etc.-directly to the homeless, pointing them to a full complement of community resources which can help them navigate their way out of trouble. In St. Mary’s County, the volunteers distributed the same material to over 90 businesses and organizations so that they in turn can help the homeless they encounter in the future with this important information.”

Helping the homeless stave off cold and hunger was a top priority for the volunteers, but the empathy and understanding they provided was equally important, said Lancaster. “More than anything else the volunteers help the homeless to recognize that they, the volunteers, are aware of the struggles facing them,” he said. “In addition, the volunteers are raising awareness in the community about the existence of this terrible problem. Both of these functions are critically important and help to shape the community response around homelessness.”

Though the final results of the survey are still being calculated, Lancaster estimated that 55 to 70 homeless veterans or veterans’ families were counted in the Tri-County region.

Seven of those homeless veterans were counted in Charles County, where service member volunteers from Indian Head and Dahlgren were active. “The volunteers were wonderful,” said Sandy Washington, founder and executive director of LifeStyles of Maryland Foundation and Point-in-Time survey coordinator for Charles County. “We surveyed a total of 350 unsheltered individuals. As the word gets out people continue to contact us.”

Hospitalman 3rd Class Ashley McMurray, assigned to the Chemical Biological Incident Response Force at NSF Indian Head, lent her efforts to the survey only a few short hours after CBIRF concluded a major support operation. Like many who volunteer to help the homeless, she found the work to be deeply fulfilling even as it was also physically and emotionally difficult.

“A lot of [volunteers] encountered children with one parent around or children being raised by a grandparent,” she said. “Some (adults) had drug problems or other issues and they weren’t able to care for their children.”

Many of the local volunteers already had experience serving the area’s homeless and provided advice to service member volunteers like McMurray. One area minister instructed the volunteers to call him if they encountered a homeless person who perished in the cold weather, so he could offer a prayer. “It was a real eye-opener,” said McMurray. “I wasn’t thinking about finding anything like that. It was so cold that night.”

Some of the shelters used by the homeless consisted of nothing more than a few trash bags and tree branches. “We’d leave a blanket and some food,” said McMurray. “It was a good service. I plan on contacting the church that participated in the survey and doing some more volunteer work. I felt really good doing it. There were a lot of good samaritans out volunteering their time.”

McMurray was able to put her Navy skills to use during the survey and would like to do so again in the future. “When you’re a Corpsman, you’re always thinking about the medical aspects of a situation-what can I do for this person? You do a little patient assessment in your head. You ask the person if they’re feeling pain or if they’re hungry. You look at little things-is their skin warm? Do they have shelter? I was picking up on a lot of different things.”

While helping others is in the bones of any Navy Corpsman, McMurray was struck by the gravity of homelessness and all its complexities. “You feel good if you’re able to help someone, but you also feel like it’s so insignificant,” she said. “Everyone who is [homeless] is there for different reasons. That’s what a lot of people don’t understand. Some think people choose to live this way or that the decisions they made in life led to this. But it can be something as simple as a chemical imbalance in the brain or a medical condition. If you go without your medication, anything can happen.”

The daunting problem of homelessness, however, did not discourage McMurray. “I knew it was going to be a very fortunate thing for me to be able to do,” she said. “It really is a blessing; it makes you think about your own life and you just feel so fortunate. When I got home I fixed myself a meal and thought about the people in a cold home or without a home at all. We saw some empty tents, which is maybe a good thing-hopefully those people found someplace to go.”

The final results of the survey are still pending, but initial numbers show an increase in the region’s homeless count. Experts stress that they do not think there are more homeless in the region; rather, the unofficial count reflects the thoroughness of this year’s survey. The region currently receives no VASH vouchers, but the survey results will likely provide the community with more resources to help homeless veterans.

In the meantime, those who would like to help serve the homeless in the region have a variety of opportunities to do so. Two good places to start are www.lifestylesofmd.org and www.threeoakscenter.org.

“Volunteering doesn’t have to begin or end with the Point-In-Time Survey,” said Lancaster. “Most organizations and agencies working with the homeless welcome volunteers for a variety of important tasks. Three Oaks Center, for example, has program monitoring and food service opportunities among other roles that volunteers can provide.”

While the volunteer opportunities are diverse, defeating homelessness requires a community-wide effort. “We firmly believe that no one in our community has to spend a single night in the woods,” said Lancaster. “Rather, that there are enough resources to protect them from the elements while we work together with them to bring stability to their lives.”