2 Women's Vision Of Homeless Shelter Coming Into Focus


May 05, 1991|By Mark Guidera

Cheryl Hill and Shelia Powers get a kick out of the looks of disbelief Shelia gets when she tells people she's going to bag her job with the U.S. Postal Service to run a homeless shelter.

They smile first, then turn serious. Yes indeed, they are going to run a homeless shelter. But it's not like the shelter is up and running with government and private grants to shepherd it along, you see. At this point it's more like, well, a vision is what Cheryl likes to call it.

Shelia grins, and then she sets you straight as to why a young woman raising two children alone would consider leaving a well-paying government job to help homeless people.

"This is where my heart is," she says as she spreads her arms out, gesturing to the vacant roomsin the ramshackle house on a street corner in Edgewood. Peeling paint and cracked plaster abound. The two women envision this as the county's next shelter for the homeless.

"I don't feel like I'm losing anything by leaving my position with the post office," Shelia says.

The two partners in this seemingly quixotic adventure are starting from scratch a shelter that will house up to 16 homeless souls of this county. They are moved by a deep force in their lives.

"Listen, when God calls you to do a thing, there is no turning back. You just listen when he speaks to you, and you do it," says Cheryl.

Of course there are the proverbial mountains to climb, and this one seems full of precipitous ledges.

Neither Cheryl nor Shelia has run a shelter before. They've never run a small business. The only money the two Joppatowne residents have for the shelter is the $11,000 the two scraped together from friends, family and fellow church members to use as a down payment on the house.

Settlement on the house is in August. They still must raise about $5,000 for the settlement charges.

Then there's been the craggy cliffs of government forms for zoning approval and applications for the U.S. Department of Housing and UrbanDevelopment and other grants.

The house isn't exactly in move-in condition, either. It was last used for years by a printing business.A faint smell of printer's ink hangs in the air.

A real estate advertisement for the two-story, cottage-style home with the wide, overgrown back yard might have teased: "A handyman's joy! No dearth of projects in this 3 Bdrm, 3 Bth. Expansive addition on back for more bdrms. Huge basement w/potential for conversion to clubroom."

But these cliffs and ledges are no deterrence to Cheryl and Shelia.

Cheryl can't really pinpoint when the idea came to her to pursue starting a shelter for homeless families. It sort of came together in patches of reflection about life after she weathered the grief and confusion of a miscarriage in 1989.

Then there were the times the mother of five went down to Baltimore and would pass Our Daily Bread, a soup kitchen run by Associated Catholic Charities.

"I would see the womenand babies in line right there with the men, and I would say, 'This can not be. This is America and it should not be.' "

She began talking about doing something for the homeless to friends at her church,Speak The Word Only Church in Edgewood.

Shelia was among them. She'd been feeling angry about the people she'd see living in misery asshe drove up U.S. 40 on her way home from her post office job in Baltimore.

"You see plenty of homeless people walking along Route 40," says Shelia. "I tell people at work that I see these people and they say, 'Homeless people in Harford County? No way. That's a place rich people live.' "

"There are plenty of homeless people in this county," says Cheryl. "They're living in the woods, some of them." She'slost her upbeat tone now. There's an edge in her voice.

But then she turns and looks at she says will be a cozy living room area with a television and nice pictures on the wall one day soon, and the natural brightness in her manner returns.

There is much left to be done, she says. But she has already crossed a couple of the more formidable ledges.

For one, she figured out at the library how to file for incorporation. The result: She founded The Christian Hands TogetherHelp Center Ltd., which will operate the shelter.

And, she has negotiated her way through the maze at HUD offices in Washington and Baltimore to get to the right people for grant applications to help start the homeless shelter. She figures she'll need $80,000 to $100,000 annually to operate it.

She says she spent a week coming up with abudget for the shelter and filling out the pages of the federal grant application.

"I'd never worked on a budget in my life," Cheryl recalls. "There came a point when I was filling out the HUD application that I just said to myself, 'This is just too much.' I felt I couldn't do it."

Shelia rallied friends at the church to pray for Cheryl and Cheryl thought of a verse in the Bible, Mark 11:22.

That's the one that says to just have faith in God, and if you do and ask a mountain to move and jump in the sea, it will be done.

Well, Cherylwill tell you the mountainous HUD grant is finished. It'll be in thehands of the regional director in Baltimore two weeks before deadline.

"This will be a home. A family place," says Cheryl. "Not an institution. The system is set up to break up families who are homeless.We want to keep them together."

We are out in the backyard of theramshackle home now, and the May air is light and filled with the smell of lilac, and the grass is growing green and tall.

"The battleis already won," says Cheryl looking at the back of the house where the clapboard is particularly gray with soot.

"You have to have peace in your soul and vision. When you're doing what God calls you to do in this life, then you have them both."

As you look around the wide yard, you kind of get the feeling she's right, and that this vacant, dingy home will one day be a pretty bright place to be for people with troubled lives, because Cheryl and Shelia will be right there to point them down the good new road.

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