Haven for homeless men

January 27, 1994

According to a recent survey by the Howard County Department of Citizen Services, the overwhelming majority of homeless people in the county are young, single women. Many of them are mothers. A department official explains that young women, especially those with children, tend to be the most vulnerable to financial turmoil, spousal abuse and other personal calamities that often lead to eviction from a residence.

The image of a homeless young mother is one that cries out particularly loudly for attention. To their credit, public and private agencies in Howard have labored to make sure many such cases are not ignored.

A smaller statistical group in Howard -- but one that might be more easily overlooked -- is homeless men. Yet they merit as much attention as any other category of homeless people; seeing to that is the three-year-old Winter Haven shelter program in Laurel.

The volunteer-run program offers homeless men a place to sleep at night through the coldest months. A dozen organizations in the Laurel area take turns hosting the men for a week at a time. One week the shelter might be provided by a church, the next by a synagogue, then by a private school and so on. During each of its first two years of operation, about 65 men ranging from teen-agers to seniors received aid from the program. Figures for the current year are on a similar track.

Provisions are modest but adequate. They can even be downright homey, as at the Methodist church that recently offered a VCR showing of "The Bodyguard," a hit movie from last year. Still, the men must adhere to regulations. They have to be alcohol- , drug- and weapon-free upon entering at 7 p.m. They can't leave after checking in, and they must be in bed by 11 p.m. Volunteers take shifts to watch over the men until 5 or 6 a.m. wake-up.

Jane "Jenny" Smith, a graphics company employee with no prior training or experience in social work, started Winter Haven because she worried about the homeless men who slept at night beneath a downtown Laurel bridge. Ms. Smith, who borrowed the idea for Winter Haven from similar projects in Prince George's and Montgomery counties, says her aim is "to keep [the men] from freezing to death."

That's a simple goal. In meeting it, Winter Haven volunteers are performing a noble and needed service.

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