She came 350 miles from upstate New York to Carroll County, leaving the comforting support of family to try to mend a rocky marriage and establish a stable home for her two young children. Instead, within amonth, her hopes for reconciliation with her husband vanished, and Theresa (not her real name) and her children faced eviction from the relative's apartment they were occupying temporarily. With no income, an unsympathetic landlord and slim prospects for finding an affordable apartment within a week, Theresa turned to the only option she believed she had -- a homeless shelter.
"When you have children, you think less about yourself and your pride, and more about the basics," she said.
She got lucky. When she called Human Services Programs of CarrollCounty Inc.in late July, only three families preceded hers on the shelter waiting list. On Aug. 1, the day on which she and her children were to be evicted, shelter space opened.
Theresa, 28, spent only one week on the waiting list, partly because turnover at the sheltersis greatest at month's end. But she also was fortunate because the waiting list was relatively short, compared to the last two months.
The waiting list -- which had been virtually non-existent since HSP began operating shelters in 1985 -- bulged to an all-time high of 28 women and children the last week of August. The list has ranged between 10 and 30 women and children since mid-August, with a typical waitof 10 days to two weeks or longer, said Lynda Gainor, HSP deputy director.
The men's shelter has no waiting list because HSP ran out of money to provide space until Nov. 1, forcing the agency to freeze occupancy below the 12-man capacity.
The wait can seem interminableto a woman struggling to make it on her own with children, said Theresa. She said she felt anxiety, depression, anger and a sense of failure as she waited for shelter spaces to open.
"When you have nowhere to go, even a week is forever," she said.
The wait also can place HSP clients in perilous situations. At least one single woman and another woman with three children were living in vehicles, said Gainor. Theresa said another woman at the shelter remained in an abusive situation at home because of the wait. The more fortunate ones live inovercrowded conditions with friends or relatives, exacerbating tensions.
"It's a new situation for us," said Gainor. "We don't like not being able to help and offer solutions. More are asking for help, and we have less to help with."
The increase in those seeking beds at shelters reflects the languid economy and the shortage of apartments for low-income renters in Carroll, said Gainor.
For the year ending in July, the average stay in shelters for women was 39 days, 10 days longer than the previous year and 18 days longer than two years ago. Clients are allowed a maximum 12-week stay. Seventy percent had no income when they entered shelters, compared to 44 percent the previous year. The average income upon entry dropped from $300 per month to $142.
HSP, a private, non-profit agency, operates four shelterstotaling 36 beds for men, women and families. Two other non-profit organizations run shelters in Carroll.
Gainor said she doesn't expect demand for beds to tail off as winter approaches. The county needsat least one more shelter for women and children, based on the recent waiting list, she said.
Beds that open at the shelter in the morning are filled later the same day, Theresa said.
Last week, county officials began exploring possibly converting several vacant housespurchased in connection with the county airport expansion project into shelters. The houses must be inspected for building code requirements, especially for lead paint and asbestos. The county attorney is researching liability issues.
County officials plan to contact the Federal Aviation Administration to request permission to use the houses as shelters and to ask that rent be waived. Because the FAA is contributing 90 percent of the money to buy the land, the agency requires that it receive 90 percent of the fair-market rent.
"I don't seeany insurmountable obstacles," said Robert A. "Max" Bair, executive assistant to the county commissioners, adding that the proposal mightbe only a short-term solution to the problem.
Commissioner President Donald I. Dell said he'd be "willing to risk" liability to provide shelter for those that need it for the winter.
"If there's anything we can do, it will be done pretty quick," he said.
Gainor saidthe most desirable solution would be to create more low-income housing for the working poor, a strategy that often meets with political and public resistance.
"Then we wouldn't need more shelters," she said.