Written By Lisa Breslin

The bride and groom wore black. Jazz pianist Eric Byrd provided the wedding music, and the witnesses were a mixture of some 45 new friends and strangers. The “chapel” was the place where the couple had met and would probably spend many more nights: the Human Services Program’s cold weather shelter in Westminster.

The pair, Mike Fernekee, 22, and Nicole Clayton, 24, were both homeless. They never dreamed that at a time when their lives were so unsettled, they would find peace in each other and marry.

Unemployed and estranged from her family, Nicole had been homeless for three months. A strong Christian, she spent a lot of time writing and visiting with her priest. She tried living out of her truck, but checked into the cold weather shelter when the temperatures dipped to freezing.

Mike, who works many days on the corner of Route 140 and Center Street, holding sale signs for a local jeweler, had been following the check-in-at-6 p.m., check-out-by-7 a.m. routine at the same shelter since the end of November.

The couple had plenty of time to talk; she often wrote him letters. He fell in love with her because “she is a strong woman, independent, devoted and loyal,” and he loves “the way she looks when she is doing something she loves to do.”

Nicole said she loves Mike’s creative talents and the fact that “everything about him is beautiful.”

“It was immediately obvious that they are each other’s soul mates,” said Jay Hutchison, a resident of Safe Haven who helps manage the temporary housing shelter and who married the couple.

Although little about Mike and Nicole’s wedding was traditional, a glance about the wedding party confirmed what many had suspected for a long time: the look of the homeless in Carroll County is not very different from that of people who live in homes.

The faces of the homeless community in Carroll County are a kaleidoscope of young and old, weathered and fresh, married and single, mentally ill and stable, addicted and clean, troubled and carefree.

In the local homeless community, Leroy Sheeler is known as the “Godfather of Westminster.” Homeless since age 15, he obtained housing a few days before Christmas. He is now 66.

Charles Livingston, newly released from jail after serving time for a shoplifting charge, checked into the county Human Services Program’s cold weather shelter the week before Christmas.

Jim Carlson, who has been homeless for several months, finds peace in art. His work includes a brightly colored English garden painted around the pay phone at the local shelter. A focal point of the mural includes signs at crossroads identified as Scylla and Charybdis.

“Those are Greek words that are loosely translated as a rock and a hard place,” said Jim.

From July 2004, until February 2008, more than 1,028 people were designated as homeless in Carroll County, according to Rita Zimmerman, deputy director of the county’s Department of Citizens Services.

Every two years, for a snapshot of the local homeless population, representatives from a variety of agencies and outreach programs span the county during a 24-hour period and count all the homeless people they can find.

The “Point in Time” count for January 2007, was 127 people, according Zimmerman.

“With the rising number of foreclosures and evictions, the numbers will rise,” she said. “Carroll County is perceived as a wealthy county, but an alarming number of people live at or below poverty level. Many residents have no idea that 20 percent – as many as 11,000 households – are at or below poverty level. I see that poverty every day.”

Of the 1,028 homeless counted between July 2004 and February 2008 there were:

¥ 176 children, 365 women and 487 men;
¥ 283 disabled, 90 over the age of 55 and 47 veterans;
¥ 112 chronically homeless;
¥ 352 who used the cold weather shelter;
¥ 81 percent who did not return for a second season.

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