Warner’s former colleague Sharan London, who ran the Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless for 14 years, says most people who panhandle aren’t homeless—and most homeless people don’t panhandle. A woman who walks along a median near Westfield Wheaton mall holds up a cardboard sign that reads jobless, not yet homeless, with sad faces drawn into the Os.
At last count, London says, there were 692 single adults in the county with no place to live. Social-service providers walk the streets one night every January visiting shelters and soup kitchens, trying to get a handle on how many people are homeless. In 2010, they found about 125 families, most headed by a single parent.
“In 2009, if you made minimum wage—$7.25—in Montgomery County, you had to work 168 hours a week to afford a two-bedroom apartment,” says London. “You can’t do it. It’s impossible.”
Families with children aren’t turned away—there’s help for them year-round. If a shelter has no room, the county puts them up in a motel while they wait for space to open up in an emergency-, transitional-, or permanent-housing program. It’s different for single adults: They’re guaranteed a place to stay only in the winter.
“We’re serving 400 single adults in emergency shelters on March 31,” London says. “On April 1, that number goes down to 125. So we just made 275 homeless. Where are they going to go?”
When Warner got a call from a Montgomery County police officer about people living in the woods off Veirs Mill Road in Rockville, he stopped the cop before he’d finished speaking and asked him to take him there. The two walked about a mile into a wooded area near Parklawn Cemetery and found men and women cooking stew over an open fire.
It reminded Warner of Zimbabwe, where he’d traveled to do ministry and met people who walked ten miles barefoot on Sundays to get to a church that didn’t have a roof. It was there that he tasted the best rolls he’d ever eaten, made in an improvised oven. These people in the woods had figured out how to control the air flow and the temperature of the fire to slow-cook the stew.
He went back a few weeks later, and the people living there ran. “La Migra!” some yelled, mistaking Warner’s group for immigration authorities.
According to police, most homeless camps are illegal because they’re on private or government property. It’s hard to know how many there are: Two years ago, six known camps were in the Rockville police district. The adults who lived there slept, ate, and relieved themselves in a small area surrounded by trash.
The men and women Warner met were mostly undocumented immigrants, many with alcohol problems, who spoke of broken relationships with family. Some didn’t want the county’s help; others were too fearful to accept it.
Warner has been berated for ministering to illegal immigrants while working for the Montgomery County government.
“Some people have threatened to write to the bishop on me. They’ll say, ‘You’re a United Methodist elder—how can you stand for this?’ ” he says. “We think about immigration as some people who came across the border who are not supposed to be here. But the reality is: What do you do with the people who are here?”
Laura is thinking about picking up a few shifts at the pizza place where Pedro works. He’s back in the kitchen; she’d be out front. They could go to work together at 5 pm and come home together at 10:30 pm. It would be perfect, Laura says, because Ingrid could watch Isis when she got home from school. She would make the girls dinner, put it in the refrigerator, and Ingrid would warm it up. She’d make about $7.50 an hour.
“If I had to stop working or I got sick, this way she would have some experience,” Pedro says.
“We’re trying to see what’s possible,” Pedro says.
Laura tells her son and daughter she wants them to do something honorable, to earn their money by the sweat on their foreheads. “My dream is to see them with their professions, to see them working, not poor or begging,” she says. “That’s my biggest dream.”
Tim Warner has plans for the spring. If the parks department can get the deer fencing up and the weather is warm enough for an early planting, he’d like to have low-income families growing their own food later this month.
He started thinking about a community garden last year when he saw his Salvadoran neighbors planting vegetables in their front yards. In other countries, he learned, if you have a few square feet of land, you plant on it and eat from it. His neighbors didn’t realize that it’s against the rules in his development to grow anything to eat and that you’re expected to keep your lawn nice and green.
The county school system is letting Warner use four acres of land behind an administrative building in Gaithersburg, next to an old African-American cemetery. It will be divided into small plots and he’ll invite people to farm there for $50 a year. He’ll ask gardening stores to donate plants, seeds, tools. This way, families who can’t afford their grocery bills can enjoy high-quality fruits and vegetables at a low cost and feel like a part of something bigger.
He’s planning to find two caretakers to help, he says. Pedro is his first choice.
This article appears in the April 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.