Three years ago, eight county churches formed Churches Concerned for the Homeless (CCH). Its mission was to help homeless families become independent by providing housing and other essential services, like job counseling, day care, transportation and help with budgeting.
Now, CCH has 30 member congregations, two paid part-time employees and has helped five families move closer to self-sufficiency, working within the framework of a long-term plan designed for each family. And CCH plans to expand with a program for homeless, single men.
In the past few years, other church-based organizations in the county, like CCH, have taken on increasingly important roles in providing social services.
As economic problems have increased the demand for welfare benefits, federal and local aid programs have fallen victim to budget cuts. County churches have responded by joining forces, in addition to working individually, to help those in need.
The range of church programs operating in the county varies from very structured arrangements like those offered by CCH to food pantries and one-time emergency grants.
"We use churches to provide a whole myriad of services. It's very important, especially with cutbacks in various federal and state programs," said Sam Marshall, director of the county's department of social services.
In the past 12 years, the number of county families receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) has increased by 43 percent, from 587 cases in fiscal 1990 to 841 in January. But monthly benefits for the state and federally funded program have been cut twice in the past two years amid state budget woes. In 1991, benefits were rolled back to 1989 levels, cutting benefits for a family of three from $406 to $377. Last November those benefits were reduced to 1988 levels, $359 a month.
Deeper cuts have meant the churches' social services role has ** evolved from being supplemental to essential, Mr. Marshall said.
Rabbi Martin J. Siegel, head of the Columbia Jewish Congregation, said "churches have always given help as part of their missions, but now they're trying to do it together in a more sophisticated way."
Rabbi Siegel is a founding member of the Coalition for Compassion, formed in 1989. The coalition of 21 county churches and synagogues provides emergency financial aid. Most requests come from people needing medical assistance or money to prevent eviction or to pay utility bills.
As part of their missions, church-based programs try to provide the emotional and spiritual support that their clients often can't find through an overburdened and bureaucratic public benefits system.
"Churches can deliver social services out of a sense of compassion and out of respect rather than as a business," said Rabbi Siegel. "A lot of government social service agencies tend to demean their recipients in the process."
The most recent addition to the county's network of church-based social-service programs is the Caring for the Needy Ministry, which began providing services in June.
Part of the Howard Baptist Association, 20 Southern Baptist churches and missions, the ministry operates four food pantries, a job placement program and provides emergency financial aid.
In seven months the ministry has served 107 cases, or 317 people.
In addition to these three relatively new programs -- CCH, Coalition for Compassion and the Caring for the Needy Ministry -- there are older church-based organizations and individual churches that serve the needy.
Christian Services of Howard County, in existence since 1964, has 33 member churches and approximately 250 volunteers. Its main operation is a thrift shop in Ellicott City stocked with donated clothing and furniture that is sold at low cost to people in need. FISH of Howard County, a religious affiliated organization made up of volunteers from several county churches, has been helping the needy here for more than 20 years.
The Salvation Army, which has coordinated the county's holiday meal drive for several years, opened a permanent office in the county in 1991 and provides emergency assistance to families.
In addition to collective church groups, the needy get help through an array of programs run by individual congregations.
Since 1989, St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church in Columbia has housed three homeless families in St. Johns' House. The families live in a Columbia town house, owned by the church, and church members provide support services for a specified period, usually a year to two years, until a family can live independently.
Community Action Council, a private agency in Columbia that operates the Head Start program and other community services, and the county Department of Social Services have a small amount of money to provide one-time emergency grants, often used to prevent evictions, pay first month's rent or pay utility bills.