11/18/2013 07:03 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

When a Front Door Stands Between Life and Death

As I sit down to type this, it's heading towards nine o'clock on a bitterly cold November night; a sylvan moon is sending silver light slanting through my windows and the silence is absolute. A lamp glows softly on my desk and all seems cozy. A few minutes ago, I ran through my nightly ritual: I went downstairs to shut off the first-floor lights that the children inevitably leave on, and then to my front door to bring my two black cats in for the night. I opened the door and called their names, in a very particular, admittedly annoying but oddly effective sing-songy tone that always somehow brings them running in from the woods, into warmth, into safety, for the night.

This is my first winter working with homelessness and at Bethesda Cares. I already know that nothing in my comfortable life will ever feel the same, that nothing else in my comfortable live ever should feel the same, because I see a reality I did not, before: my cats live better than some people that I know.

That's not rhetoric. After six months on staff at our homeless Drop-In Center, I now know that when I let my cats in for the night, just two miles away, men and women have no one to let them in at night, nowhere to be let in at night. They have no lights to dim and no doors to shut, much less to lock. I know their names, their stories, their humanity.

And I know they need our help.

In the past months, Bethesda Cares has partnered with Montgomery County and other local nonprofits in a massive, county-wide push to identify and interview every individual sleeping unsheltered in this County. This effort has been under the umbrella of the national 100,000 Homes Campaign, which seeks to house 100,000 of our most medically vulnerable citizens, by first finding out who the most medically vulnerable are by talking to people, on the streets.

So that's what we did, the first week in November. We talked to people. For three mornings in a row, starting at 3:30 a.m., volunteers fanned out around our county, to known sleeping grounds for people without homes, to find them, to document their stories, their issues, their hopes.

And we found them. We spoke to hundreds of people. Hundreds of people, living everywhere, in areas urban, suburban and rural. They are living in our woods, our Metro stops, our parking lots. Some claim to be U.S. military veterans. Many are hungry, ill, or both. Most are cold. All are suffering, and none have any hope.

Now we in Montgomery County must move forward, quickly. As partners, we have collectively identified our citizens in need of shelter. We know their names, we have logged their physical and mental disabilities. And we have located dozens of others living outside but, unwilling to talk to us, not ready to seek help. We as a county now have a lot of data and a lot of momentum. Together, we've held a press conference, publicly named these issues and vowed to help those in the shadows.

But all these efforts will be noble but fruitless if we don't provide more housing units, and get people into them, quickly. By cataloging them, our local governments, and we, are on record as acknowledging that our citizens are living unsheltered, and that some will die from exposure this winter. We have literally said, to ourselves, to each other, to the media, that our citizens will die in the streets without our help; now we as a community must maintain momentum.

Our people need our help and the help they need is housing. Housing. Housing. It's past time to treat our most vulnerable members better than my cats.