Dorthea "Dee Dee" Graves thought it would be easier to start over again, to find a better life for herself and her baby daughter.
When she escaped from an abusive relationship last summer, the 24-year-old mother wanted to learn how to survive on her own. She imagined taking classes, getting a job and settling into a normal routine with her1-year-old daughter, Kiarra.
Seven months later, her dream still seems elusive.
She spends her days caring for Kiarra in a private, one-bedroom apartment at Sarah's House, Anne Arundel's main homeless shelter, at Fort Meade. The long-term, transitional shelter has been a refuge, a place to heal and rebuild her self-esteem. But without day care for Kiarra, Graves says, it can't set her free.
"I had job offers, but I keep having a problem with day care," says Graves, who hopes to work as a cosmetologist some day. "I've called and called, but most day-care centers won't take a baby under age 2."
Sarah's House soon plans to offer homeless parents a better chance at starting a new life. The 4-year-old program, run by Associated Catholic Charities, hopes to open its own day care center as early as next summer.
It will be the first homeless program in the Baltimore region to offer on-site day care, says Marjorie Bennett, director of grants and special projects for the county's Department of Social Services.
The day care dilemma is a major stumbling block for homeless women like Graves, says Susan Thompson, assistant director of Sarah's House. Bound by their children, many single parents can't break the cycle of poverty that leads to homelessness.
Women with newborn or infant babies often can't find a baby sitter or licensed day care provider to care for them. Without day care, they can't enroll in job training programs or find work. But without a steady job, single parents often can't afford the day care.
"It's a Catch-22," Thompson says. "That's why so many women have a hard time breaking the homeless cycle."
The county already has setaside $200,000 in Community Development Block Grants to convert Army barracks next to the transitional shelter into a day care center. Social Services applied for $60,000 in additional block grants this year to renovate the former mess hall.
County officials are reviewingsketch plans now and expect to hire an architect within the next twoweeks, said Kathleen Koch, assistant planning and zoning officer.
At the same time, the county and Associated Catholic Charities are re-applying for a federal grant to finance the renovations and start-up costs, she said.
Sarah's House requested $802,000 to open the day care center and another transitional shelter from the Supportive Housing Demonstration Program last year. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development turned down the application, but Koch said Sarah's House was encouraged to compete again this year.
Even if Sarah's House loses in the upcoming round, the county plans to move ahead with opening the day care center,
"We're committed," Koch says. "This is a very important part of the process of getting people back on their feet. Employment is the key to avoiding homelessness, and without day care, many men and women just can't get the training and job counseling they need."
Bennett, who is planning the day care program, said she hopes to offer specialized tutoring, counseling and recreational activities designed for homeless children. Many have been seriously shaken by suddenly losing their homes or even parents.
Sometimes, they have been evicted overnight when their fathers left. At other times, they have seen their mothers abused, their fathers falling-down drunk, their parents screaming at each other over unpaid bills. They're often left emotionally scarred, Bennett says.
"We're looking at a real comprehensive program that would be intergenerational and help the parents as well as the children," she says. "We want to get the parents involved in activities, like reading programs or learning proper parenting. It's not just going to be a baby-sitting place."
Thompson hopes the county will approve a timetable that wouldallow opening the day care center by late summer. If an architect ishired soon and plans are approved, renovations could start by March.
With its dilapidated shell of peeling blue paint, the barracks looks like it would require substantial work. But architects who touredthe old mess hall have said that it's structurally sound and doesn'tneed a complete overhaul.
The 2,175-square-foot building will be gutted and rehabbed to meet the state's stringent child-care regulations, Thompson says. When completed, the day care center could house up to 32 children, including some infants. But Sarah's House expects it won't be able to afford to hire enough staff for that many children right away.
Single parents from the emergency and transitional shelters will be able to leave their children at the day care center while they look for jobs, apartments or attend job training.
For thetired and confused parents who suddenly arrive at the emergency shelter, the day care center will offer a respite, "to give them a chance to be more focused on what they need done," Thompson says. For womenliving up to 18 months at the transitional shelter, the day care center will offer them a chance to work and save money for a new home.
Robyn Weston, 25, an unmarried mother of a 3-year-old girl and an 8-month-old boy, plans to use the center for more than day care. She wants to enroll in a training course to become a child care aide.
Pointing to her baby son crawling in front of the television, Weston says: "My daughter was with a sitter since she was 2 weeks old. I really want to see (my son) grow up."
It's a goal born at Sarah's House, which is touted by county officials as a model program to help the homeless avoid ending up back on the streets.