“Sometimes you have to go through something like that to realize, homeless people are normal people. “Don’t judge people going through things.”
FEDERALSBURG — Two panel discussions held recently in Caroline County aimed to “put a face on homelessness,” by bringing together people who have lived that existence and are trying to help others experiencing it to tell their stories.
“Faces of Homelessness” was held Tuesday, Nov. 19, at the Federalsburg VFW, and again Thursday, Nov. 21, at the Greensboro Community Hall.
The events were sponsored by the Caroline Homeless Board and held during Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, both nationwide and in Caroline County.
Lynn Keckler, executive director of His Hope Ministries in Denton, said by listening to the panelists’ stories, she hoped others could learn how they can help in their own communities to end homelessness.
Keckler said a study found a Maryland resident working full time, making minimum wage of $10.10 an hour, can afford only $525 per month in rent.
“There’s very little affordable housing like that available in Caroline County,” Keckler said. “It’s difficult to get into.”
She said the same study reported someone making minimum wage would have to work 98 hours a week to afford a three-bedroom house for a family.
“That’s out of reach,” Keckler said. “We need to find a way to provide more affordable housing.”
Keckler said there are many ways to get involved, including volunteering at local homeless shelters and donating food items to local blessing boxes.
“There are so many people in need, and it takes all of us working together,” she said.
The first panelist to speak was Bernie Fowler, now the executive director of Farming 4 Hunger, a nonprofit that started in Southern Maryland and recently opened a satellite location in Caroline County, to feed people both physically and spiritually.
Fowler said he was the owner of a successful custom building company when the recession hit in 2008.
Suddenly, he owed millions in land development deals. Not long after, he also went through a divorce. By July 2009, he was at rock bottom, having laid off his company’s last employee, and contemplating suicide.
“I was humbled really quickly,” Fowler said. “I had always been a fighter, but I couldn’t get out of this mess.”
Fowler said he started attending church services and volunteering, where he met other people who had lived through similar situations, making it easier to open up to them.
That served as the basis for Farming 4 Hunger, which brings together everyone from inmates to business teams to work side by side and help pick each other up, Fowler said.
“You don’t not have to grow up in poverty to be put in that (homelessness) situation,” Fowler said.
The next speaker said she, her husband and their seven children were evicted from the apartment they had lived in for three years.
“No one chooses to be homeless,” she said.
Their former landlord got them into His Hope Ministries’ shelter, where they lived for five months while the ministry’s staff helped the woman’s husband find stable employment and worked to find a new home for the family.
“I was the type of person who thought this wasn’t going to happen to me,” the woman said. “But when it happened to me, that was when reality hit.”
The woman said she and her family have lived in their new home for two years now, and they now help others facing homelessness.
“I learned to trust God and give back,” she said. “It has truly been a blessing.”
An employee of another local shelter then read a letter from the next panelist, a woman living at the shelter with her young son, who both had to go into hiding from the woman’s abusive boyfriend.
In the letter, the woman said for four years she tolerated abuse from her boyfriend, also the father of her son, as alcohol and cocaine made him say and do ugly things to her.
She wrote the abuse also was psychological, as he repeatedly told her she was nothing, no one loved her and she had nowhere to go.
When she finally found the strength to leave, her aunt allowed her to move in with her, until the woman protested against her aunt’s abuse of her grandmother. A fight ensued, and police were called to the house.
The woman and her son then moved into the local shelter, where they have been for two weeks.
The woman said she was grateful to the shelter for the peace of mind while she gets together a plan for employment, child care and housing.
Keckler said 20% of the guests at His Hope Ministries’ shelter are victims of domestic violence.
The next panelist said she and her husband moved to St. Michaels in 2006, after they both graduated from the University of Delaware.
A few months after their daughter was born, the woman said, her husband underwent surgery. He wound up addicted to painkillers.
Years of in- and outpatient rehabs followed, she said.
“I did everything I could,” she said.
When their daughter was 4, the family was evicted from their rental home after their landlord failed to pay the mortgage.
The woman said her own family lives in Tennessee, and her husband’s family blamed her for her husband’s addiction. With no one else to turn to, she got help from Talbot Interfaith, which got her into His Hope’s shelter.
For the three weeks she stayed at the shelter, she still had a car and a job with medical benefits, she said.
“No matter how well we thought we were doing, it got snatched away by things out of our control,” she said.
The woman said she went on to get a master’s degree in social work to help others.
“When my family couldn’t help, complete strangers did,” she said.
The next panelist said he moved in 2016 to Caroline County from Massachusetts. He was working full time, living with a roommate, when the roommate took his share of the rent money but did not pay the rent, and they both got evicted.
The man said he lived in his car for three weeks while continuing to work. Then he also got help from His Hope Ministries, which helped him find an apartment.
“The process (of finding an apartment) opened my eyes,” he said. “I couldn’t get one because no one wanted to rent to someone who was homeless, because that meant I was irresponsible.
“That’s not true,” he said. “I got into a situation that was out of my hands. I had a job. Landlords’ guidelines can push people to be homeless.”
The man said he now serves on the Caroline County Homeless Board.
“We need to show the community we are here for them,” he said.
The final panelist said she was in foster care until she got pregnant at age 18. Her foster family kicked her out, and she and her boyfriend lived in her car until a friend let them stay in their basement.
The couple moved into their own studio apartment, but then they had a second child. The bills piled up, and they moved to Caroline County to live with the woman’s stepmother.
Her boyfriend got a good job, and they had their own car, until she got pregnant again and the bills once again put them under water.
After they lost their car, her boyfriend lost his job due to lack of transportation. The young family had to move into a shelter.
“It was hard to accept it and say I was homeless,” she said. “We had to explain to a 2- and 3-year-old what we were going through, while I was eight months pregnant.”
The experience inspired her to go to college to get a social work degree.
“Sometimes you have to go through something like that to realize, homeless people are normal people,” she said. “Don’t judge people going through things.”