Homeless shelter pushes independence

January 31, 1993|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,Staff Writer

Thirty-seven-year-old Reginald A. Barnes reached his lowest point two weeks ago when he sought shelter and warmth in the laundry room of a Columbia apartment complex.

Mr. Barnes, who has been disabled since age 3 when he developed polio, has held a handful of jobs over the years -- cook, dispatcher, janitor. But he's been unemployed since 1988 when he fell and seriously injured his hip.

He's been homeless since last September when his mother asked him and his brother to leave her Columbia apartment because of a family conflict.

"It's not been an easy life, but compared to what I had to do that night, to find myself walking down the street with that kind of chill. . . ." Mr. Barnes said.

He slept a few hours in the laundry room and spent the rest of the night at a friend's. Tired of relying on others for a place to stay, Mr. Barnes finally called the police and asked for a ride to the Grassroots homeless shelter in Columbia.

Not surprisingly, the shelter was full, but counselors found Mr. Barnes a room at the Copper Stallion Inn in Elkridge through the Grassroots motel shelter program.

The program, operating since Nov. 1, is used as a backup when the 32-bed Columbia shelter is full. Clients stay at the Copper Stallion Inn or the Westgate Motor Hotel, just over the county line in Catonsville.

Two full-time case managers work with clients in the motel program to design a plan to allow them to live independently. This usually involves looking for a job, applying for benefits or going to school to develop job skills.

"A case manager not only finds people a place to live but deals with the real needs of everyday life," said Johnny Moore, a case manager. "If I put somebody in a motel and can't find them housing, if I haven't done anything to help them acquire skills, then I've put them right back in the same situation. And that doesn't make any sense to me."

When Mr. Moore arrived at the Copper Stallion for his first meeting with Mr. Barnes, he found him lying on the bed watching television.

"How you doing today?" Mr. Moore asked.

"Not good." Mr. Barnes said the microwave in his room doesn't work and his car is in the shop.

Mr. Moore began by asking Mr. Barnes about his background, his disability, his work record and how he became homeless.

Mr. Barnes said that since he was asked to leave his mother's home in September, he has stayed with various friends until their generosity ran out and occasionally slept in his car.

Developing a "client action plan" is Mr. Moore's first concern. He listed issues that Mr. Barnes needs to address: housing, finances, credit report, disability and support systems.

"We'll help you to budget your money in a way so that when you're ready to leave here you won't have to worry about a security deposit, gas or food," Mr. Moore said.

"I like that," said Mr. Barnes. "I like the structure."

A graduate of Wilde Lake High School who attended Morgan State University and Howard Community College, Mr. Barnes said he'd like to go back to school.

"It's a sad, painful place outside when you're homeless," Mr. Barnes said. "I've never been to the bleak stage that I'm at right now. I've always been a person that had a plan, that had goals."

The Grassroots program, which operates through state and county grants, recently received a $6,000 grant from the Federal Emergency Management Administration, boosting to $27,000 the amount the agency has available to pay for emergency motel stays until June 30, the end of the fiscal year.

The Community Action Council had administered the motel program as part of the county Homeless Service Center since 1989, before Grassroots took it over last November. The Community Action Council continues to administer the other components of the Homeless Service Center grant, including providing emergency rent and utility money.

The Grassroots motel program is handling 13 cases -- many of which are families -- involving 27 people. Since November, the program has given temporary shelter to 101 people in the two motels.

The motels provide rooms to shelter clients at reduced rates, $25 at Westgate, $20 at the Copper Stallion. The maximum stay is eight weeks.

Motel program supervisor Cathy DeNodo said the demand is greater than she had expected. She said most of the residents are families with children.

When someone enters the program, case managers evaluate the person's immediate needs and begin taking steps to meet them. Frequent

ly, this involves applying to the Department of Social Services for welfare, food stamps or medical assistance benefits. Some people may need advice on how to go about looking for work.

"I see my job as solving problems, doing creative things to help get people going in society again," said Mr. Moore.

That may mean helping someone avoid being placed in the motel program in the first place.

As a case manager, Mr. Moore is glad to help clients in any way he can with job and housing searches, but he's found that some clients become too dependent on his efforts.

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