Database to track needy

January 03, 1994|By Alisa Samuels | Alisa Samuels,Staff Writer

Worried about fraud and abuse, the Howard County Community Action Council hopes to start a countywide clearinghouse to help nonprofit groups, churches and others make sure they are aiding people who are truly needy.

If implemented, the central database would allow service providers to check potential clients' histories to learn what kinds of services they had already received.

"It would . . . try to ensure, on the one hand, that people were not defrauding the system and, on the other hand, provide a service" to agencies and the poor, said Lawrence Hunt, program operations administrator for the CAC.

The 28-year-old council, a private, nonprofit group, provides low-income residents with energy assistance, food, eviction prevention and crisis intervention services.

Mr. Hunt said some of the county's smaller churches have no way to verify the financial need of people seeking assistance.

"We think there's a lot of abuse taking place in the system," said William O. Crowe, director of the 19-member Howard County Baptist Association. "There's a lot of needy people out there as well, but they are being deprived by people abusing the system."

But Andrea Ingram, director of Grassroots, which helps house the county's homeless, said she has reservations about a database designed to eliminate fraud.

"I personally think [fraud] is very minor," she said. "I think programs are hurt when that becomes the belief." She would rather see a database that would help agencies work together in providing assistance.

Plans call for the clearinghouse to be an extension of the CAC's own internal database, which tracks information on all its applicants, Mr. Hunt said.

It would function like the county's new Homeless Tracking System, which records names, Social Security numbers and other data from homeless people who seek shelter.

Before that, the county could only estimate the number of homeless.

Because plans are still under way, Mr. Hunt said he could not estimate the cost, which he hopes to finance through a grant or other means.

"I think it's a good idea," said the Rev. Ernest B. Beevers of the 500-member First Baptist Church of Savage. "We get taken every now and then.

"There are people that we've found are systematically going from church to church asking for funds, and some of the stories that people told us didn't always check out.

"Sometimes the people will play one church off against another. They'll say, 'Well this one gave me $50,' " Mr. Beevers added.

To reduce those occurrences, his church refers applicants to Caring for the Needy, a ministry of the Howard County Baptist Association.

After Caring for the Needy checks the records of people it has assisted in the past and determines who have legitimate need, it refers them back to the churches.

Bob Cremen, Caring for the Needy's volunteer director, said a central database is needed because no one knows how widespread abuse is. He said that he has witnessed it.

He cited a person who received more than $450 in donations from churches and nonprofit groups for a utility bill and who went to Mr. Cremen's group seeking money for the same bill.

Still, Mr. Cremen remains sympathetic to the needy, saying that many people become bogged down in a system that doesn't help them find good-paying jobs or teach them to manage their money.

"Once people get into it, it's difficult to get out," he said.

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