In rural Md., the homeless are hidden from view but just as desperate

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The Washington Post
By: Petula Dvorak
December 21, 2010

In her four-wheel-drive pickup truck, Claudia Raskin is bumping over the muddy dirt road on an unusual mercy mission.

She's an organic farmer, foodie and former Manhattanite who helps run a food bank in rural Prince George's County.

This isn't the Wegmans/Redskins/cash-filled bra part of the county. This is what used to be tobacco country, where roadside signs advertise goat meat and discount pig stalls. And we're only 23 miles from the White House.

Here, the deeply impoverished aren't lined up outside a soup kitchen on a busy city street. Instead, they are living in trailers, dumped campers and tents, even when it's 23 degrees outside.

"It's not like New York here," Raskin tells me as we bounce between potholes. "There, you can be literally stepping over the homeless. It's right there, right up in your face. Here, it's hidden."

And it's not just food, blankets and clothing they need.

On this biting-cold December day, we're delivering 10 gallons of kerosene to a 72-year-old man living in a decrepit camper tucked in the woods.

Kerosene, propane, heating oil, firewood. These weren't the things Raskin necessarily thought would be part of her nonprofit life.

She's raised Asian pears and marshaled baguettes, ground beef and sushi from grocery stores to give to the poor.

But as she made the rounds when she began her organization, Community Support Systems, she found that many of the folks living on the edge didn't have plumbing or electricity, and the only way to get heat, to cook or to get light were old camping lanterns, heaters and stoves.

And so, she became the fuel fairy.

She looked into utility subsidies. But the people living in the woods of Brandywine were so far off the grid, traditional subsidy programs like a Pepco payment plan or government fuel fund program wouldn't work.

According to the federal Low Income Energy Assistance Program, Maryland is one of the top states receiving fuel assistance funding, 11th behind places like Alaska, North Dakota and Vermont.

But that program wants to see your canceled utility bill, and will help make your home more energy efficient.

It's not designed for people like Mildred, who lives in a trailer, uses an oil heater and occasionally walks along dirt roads in high heels and full makeup, thinking she's still downtown, heading into her old office for work.

As she got to know the people living outside, Raskin began adjusting to their needs.

It began at the food pantry at St. Philip's Episcopal Church. There, the parking lot is full before the pantry opens. People fill the church, carrying empty bags. The group realized that lots of people simply couldn't get to the pantry, having lost their cars not long after losing their jobs, so they organized a bus that picks them up.

There are senior citizens in old coats, children, a young man in a collegiate hoodie working his BlackBerry while he waits.

"I've seen it change a lot in the last few months," said Irma Tayman, 81, who has been volunteering at the church for 12 years. "A lot more people coming in now. Different kinds of people."

Some are homeless and living in the woods; others are the working poor who have low-wage jobs and are having a tough time making ends meet.

"I went on disability, and it's just not enough to feed the four grandkids," said Geraldine Oliver, 64, who wore festive jingle bell earrings to the food pantry. She lost her job as a janitor at Montgomery College after an injury.

And after that crowd takes the chicken breasts, birthday cakes, carrots, bread and hummus ("What do I do with this?" a man asked, turning the hummus container upside-down and all around. John, a volunteer at the pantry, helps out: "Put it on bread, crackers. It's really good."), they create custom packages of food for those who have no stove, let alone a kitchen.

And then Raskin turns to fuel deliveries, which come from a special fund in her organization to help the people living outside.

She pays $3.98 a gallon for kerosene. Sometimes it's a half-cord of wood or as many propane tanks as she can carry.

As we get to a trailer along that bumpy road, a man meets us outside, carrying the heating lamp he uses to make it through the cold nights.

This is a tough delivery for Raskin. Matthew Thomas is 72, living in the woods and obviously cold. But word at the corner store where he hangs out during the day was that he sold the last batch of kerosene that she brought him.

"There's no liquor in there. What are you looking for?" he hollers at me, when I try to take a peek inside the camper he calls home.

"Come on, Matthew, let me see you put that kerosene in there," Raskin urges.

Thomas grumbles and curses under his breath as he sploshes some kerosene on his shoes.

"There. You happy now?" he challenges Raskin.

"Thank you, Matthew," she tells him.

Back in the pickup, she sighs.

"You can't turn your back on him. You know he needs it."

dvorakp@washpost.com

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