The number of homeless people in Prince George’s County and the Washington metropolitan area continues to grow. While Mission of Love Charities (MOLC) in Capitol Heights has a five-day-a-week food pantry that helps many of them, homeless people have many other needs in addition to food.
That became very apparent over the last year when many homeless people started to gather at a wall near Central Avenue and near the MOLC facility in western Prince George’s County, Md. They came to share their stories, learn about resources from others, and talk about how to cope with their special challenges and needs.
Greg Torrence, Director of Outreach for MOLC, learned about the gathering at The Wall, as it came to be called, and he began to visit the group gathered there, bringing food and a listening ear. He wanted to learn more about their needs, and eventually he invited them to meet at the nearby MOLC facility.
Now they meet every other Thursday on an open area near the MOLC facility.
“We set up tents and tables and barbeque food,” he says. “We bring games like checkers and corn hole to make it fun.”
Homelessness is a real problem, and Mission of Love Charities is an action-based organization looking to solve it. Many of the individuals who come to the MOLC Food Pantry are homeless and dependent on the food to survive. Yet the homeless population has many other needs in addition to obtaining food. The open discussion by the people who gather at The Wall helps the organization’s staff to better understand the homeless and their situations and how they can be helped.
“Finding out where the homeless are and what their needs are is important,” says Torrence. “An informal discussion takes place.”
“We first have a roundabout and discuss what is currently going on. From this conversation, we pick up on what they need now, depending on how their last two weeks went. They might need to wash their clothes or shower or need a bus pass. Mission of Love Charities does what it can to meet their needs,” said Torrence.
Torrence says there are two rules for The Wall: respect yourself and never disrespect a woman. Since 90% of the employees at MOLC are women, that rule pretty much applies to almost everyone. Torrence says if they honor these rules, then “We can make it from there.”
At each gathering, MOLC provides a snack bag to every homeless individual to help them get through the day. The bag includes: food, sandwiches from Starbucks, fresh fruit, two bottles of water and a hot meal from one of MOLC’s community partners. SLK Health Services, which stands for Sharing Love and Kindness, also gives each person a bag filled with necessities including food, Gatorade, socks and hats, even condoms. SLK provides incentives for people to get tested for HIV, because many in the homeless community share needles. If the homeless person does the test, he or she receives a gift card from Subway. If a participant tests positive for HIV, they are provided appropriate care.
In addition to having basic simple needs, many of the homeless individuals have more complex needs such as healthcare. MOLC works with community partners to help in diagnosing health issues. Torrence says, “We invited the Bowie State University Nursing Department to do blood pressure checks and heart monitoring. If we find that a person is at risk for heart problems, we make appointments with health care providers for them. For those without health insurance, we get health insurance for them through Maryland Health Connect. It’s free for the homeless population.”
Some of the homeless people may not know they qualify for health insurance. With this important first step, individuals qualify to get a free phone from the State of Maryland, which is a critical necessity for keeping appointments and returning calls. Of course, it takes a lot of patience and sensitive care by the MOLC staff to make all this happen.
Having health insurance also helps many in The Wall group to get access to behavioral health services. Many of the homeless have mental health issues, and they simply need to be treated. DXT Therapeutic Services and Integrated Behavioral Health are two organizations that partner with MOLC and treat the homeless population on an outpatient basis. They come to Mission of Love Charities to meet these people and help them with their behavioral health issues. Assessing initial needs begins at the gathering of homeless at The Wall.
It is not possible to help any of the homeless individuals without dialogue, which isn’t always easy. Oftentimes, the homeless will come to MOLC for food but have their guards up for fear of being abused by the process. The Wall provides a free forum for discussion and dialogue, where fear-based barriers come down. Torrence says the theme of The Wall is: Your Mission: Our Help.
“Many are unhoused, and that’s our main concern,” said Torrence. Housing solutions are not easy, but out of 12 homeless individuals that have met at The Wall, four have been placed in their own apartments.
Work is another need, but getting well and healthy is a pre-condition to working. So, the Mission’s hard-working staff helps with these primary needs of the homeless first. Then they work on getting them employed. Employ Prince George’s County has a program for the homeless called Stand and Deliver. The program places the homeless into viable employment situations. Out of the 12 who come to The Wall regularly, nine are now employed as a result of this program.
The process of getting homeless individuals on their feet takes time, but it’s worth it in the end. “I didn’t want to stay homeless,” says Bruce Blackwell, a formerly homeless man who now has an apartment of his own. He has been working with Greg Torrence and the rest of the team at MOLC for a year and a half, and now his life is turned around for the better. “I used to sleep in the park, but now I have my own place,” said Blackwell. “I got tired of being on the streets. Instead of staying in abandoned houses and sleeping in the park, Mission of Love helped me. I don’t sleep outside anymore,” added Blackwell.
One of the main issues for the homeless, in addition to healthcare, housing and employment, is transportation. Often homeless people can be provided with bus passes that are free or even a Metro pass.
“Transportation is a basic requirement,” says Torrence. “They have done all this hard work, and they showed up. We helped them obtain insurance and benefits, and we have to help them with treatment and transportation,” he added. Some days Torrence will transport a homeless individual to where he needs to go in his truck. “It’s a lot of heavy lifting on the part of the employees of MOLC — but we get it done,” said Torrence.
This important work by the dedicated staff is the catalyst for change in a homeless person’s life. It takes time, but The Wall has created a space for meeting and open discussion about needs. This enables the staff to work on the individual issues for each homeless person.
“Our Case Managers are amazing,” says Torrence. “They work constantly to get things done for the homeless,” he adds.
At the end of the day “We are all humans and should be treated, with respect and most of all be given a helping hand,” states the CEO Deborah Martinez. The bottom line is hope. That’s all.
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