"Why doesn't she just get a job?"

"I would give him money but he'd just spend it on liquor."

"We don't have that problem here."

"I'll never end up like that."

We tell ourselves homelessness will never be our deal. In reality, many of us are only a paycheck away. What if you got in an accident today and couldn't work for three months? What if your child became gravely ill and you had to take off work to tend to her? What if the car broke down and you had to buy a new one?

Most of us are strapped for cash this time of year. Imagine being strapped for cash and homeless, like the Cecil Countians who live among us but bear no address.

They are not as obvious as the homeless who wear layers of clothes and ask for change on the sidewalks of major cities. Here, they huddle in woods, parks, cars or abandoned buildings. Many of them are children. Cecil County's homeless are growing in numbers.

"In rural areas like Cecil, homelessness is invisible," said Rev. Carl Mazza, founder of Meeting Ground, an umbrella group that includes three shelters: Clairvaux Farm in Earleville, a 20-acre residential facility with accommodations for 35 people; Wayfarers' House in Elkton, with capacity for 18 women, with or without pre-school age children; and the George Porter House in Elkton, a duplex with transitional housing for eight people. The county Department of Social Services also provides beds.

The problem is invisible, but here it is rampant. In 2003, county agencies provided about 25,580 "bed-nights" for the homeless. A bed-night is a bed provided for a homeless person one night of the year. More than 1,000 people were turned away from local shelters last year because the shelters were full.

"We have turn-aways; they've been more constant this year because of the severe weather," Mazza said.

In recent years, while homelessness in the county has grown, funding for shelters has dwindled.

"It's been a difficult year because funding has been cut," Mazza said. "A lot of money that used to be available just isn't anymore. It's just a bad time economically. Many non-profits are going through this." Along with cuts to state funding to help the homeless, donations from private citizens and businesses are decreasing as well, he said.

Nationwide, homelessness has been steadily increasing for the past 20 years. In Cecil County, the problem stems from a lack of affordable housing combined with a community where many residents are not trained for jobs that would pay them enough to afford a monthly rent, Mazza said.

According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the average rent on a two-bedroom apartment in Cecil County is $802 per month. A single mother would have to earn about $15 per hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment and other living expenses.

Here, a lack of public transportation also contributes to homelessness. People who don't have cars are limited in the jobs they can work.

Many people who stay in local shelters are military veterans.

"People think (veterans) are all taken care of," Mazza said. "But we've got a lot of Vietnam vets who are suffering. They're being treated in local facilities - they get treated, but they don't get housed."

It can happen fast and without warning.

"People think of a homeless person, they think of substance abuse," Mazza said. "Substance abuse does tie into it but it isn't rampant in Cecil County."

Most of the time, he said, homelessness hits when someone who is already strapped for money endures a setback. That setback could be small, but in many cases it is the one that sets him back so far he can't pay the rent. Bills gradually start piling up, and before he knows it, he is out of a home and just can't get caught up.

"Their health fails, and they need to take off work but don't have money saved up - they live close to the margin - and then their car breaks down, or a kid gets sick and it's just enough to push them over the edge."

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