At a recent social event in Hunt Valley, Bob Gajdys, the director of Baltimore County's private, non-profit anti-poverty agency, came to realize just how tough it is to fight suburban poverty.
"I was talking to some people -- members of a prominent family in Towson -- who were convinced that there are no poor people in Baltimore County. They firmly believed that," he said. Poverty is that much harder to fight, he explained, if the more affluent portion of the population doesn't even recognize that it exists. Gajdys said he believes that nearly 10 percent of the county's 692,000 population is living below federal poverty levels.
Last winter, the Community Assistance Network, the descendant of the old Lyndon Johnson anti-poverty program of the 1960s, gave out emergency rent and utility money at nearly twice the daily rate of the previous year, the director said. In addition, county welfare figures show a 30 percent rise in cases just since July 1989 as part of a statewide increase spurred by the recession and the county's growing urbanization.
Even among low-income county residents, many don't know his agency exists, Gajdys said, and they turn up only when some crisis sends them on a frantic search for money for the rent, the utility bill or food.
That's why Gajdys, 53, a retired federal employee, is working to raise his agency's profile, while trying to attack some problems without waiting for them to fester into crises.
Although the public perception of poverty may have hardened ** since the 1960s when his agency was formed, Gajdys said, most of the counselors and agency workers bring their own personal dedication to their mostly low-paying jobs. He described his own childhood as an orphaned Mohawk-American in upstate New York in the late 1940s, picking apples for area farmers who sometimes refused to feed the kids anything but the apples they picked, and often let them sleep in barns. "I know what it's like to be hungry -- I can relate," he said. He was adopted at age 13 by a family of Lithuanian extraction, he said.
Many of the agency's counselors have themselves been homeless, poor, or victims of alcoholism. The three workers manning the agency's offices in Catonsville, Randallstown and in Rosedale now make only $17,800 a year although they have been at their posts for between 15 and 22 years, he said. Gajdys said he himself makes $43,000.
The agency is headquartered in the former Merritt Point Elementary school in the 7700 block of Dunmanway, Dundalk. Other offices are at the Banneker Center in Catonsville, and at the county's two Family Resource Centers in Randallstown and Rosedale.
Despite the emotional resistance of some countians to the idea that poverty not only exists, but is growing in their back yards, Gajdys said, his agency is seeing more and more middle-class families in crisis caused by job losses, low paying service-industry jobs and the resulting stress.
A couple in their 30s, the parents of three young children, recently came in seeking emergency money to have their utility service restarted. The husband had lost his factory job which paid $25,000 to $30,000 annually and he had begun using drugs to ease the stress of unemployment. Meanwhile, the family was disintegrating because of the couple's constant fights over money.
The agency was able to counsel the couple, who really wanted to find a way out of their downward spiral. The man was able to kick his drug habit, and was enrolled in Project Self Sufficiency, a program funded by Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. for people needing retraining. He's found a new job, although with lower pay, and is now working toward an accounting degree, Gajdys said.
The agency has a yearly budget of only $2 million, half of which is devoted to weatherization projects, and 28 full-time staff members. It uses up to 200 volunteers to deliver surplus federal government food to the poor several times each year. The agency receives its funding from the county and private sources.
Gajdys has begun holding board meetings around the county to attract more public attendance and participation, hoping to forge new links with other public and private county agencies, and acting as an advocate agency for the homeless.
In weatherization, the director said, he has been able to interest several large landlords in the county for the first time, allowing more weatherization to be done and helping reduce utility bills for many low-income renters.