Two men's paths diverge after shelter program ends

May 22, 1994|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,Sun Staff Writer

Three months ago, Larry Harris and Art Clippard shared sleeping quarters in a 20-bed, makeshift homeless shelter at Emmanuel United Methodist Church in Laurel, a refuge from bitter cold and ice storms.

Now that the ice storms have turned to springtime rain showers, the temporary homeless shelter program, called Winter Haven, has ended.

For Mr. Harris, spring has brought a new job and an apartment. But the hard times continue for Mr. Clippard: He lives in his aging and immobile car.

The men are fixtures at Elizabeth House, a Laurel soup kitchen that helped sponsor the Winter Haven shelter program, a 17-week program for homeless men. On a recent visit, they recalled their stay in the Winter Haven shelter.

"If the program wasn't around this year, a lot of people would have been in trouble," said Mr. Harris, as he recalled the winter weather that bore down on the Baltimore-Washington region. "The program was real helpful. It kept me off the street."

This year, the program kept 65 men off the streets at various times during the winter.

On a rotating basis, 12 Laurel-area organizations housed the men for one-week periods, setting up shelter for them at a church, synagogue or private school through March. Beds were provided for 20 men each night.

During the winter of 1991, the program's first year, Winter Haven provided shelter for 63 men. Last year, 68 men were housed.

Although some of the same men returned from previous years, volunteers and the program's founder said the men now focus more on improving their lives and work to escape homelessness.

"The people were more interested in bettering themselves," said Patricia Dols, who managed the shelter at Emmanuel United Methodist Church. "We had fewer alcoholics and people with those kinds of problems."

Men were prohibited from staying in the shelter when unruly from drugs or alcohol. When volunteers saw men with drug or alcohol problems they informed them of group meetings and rehabilitation programs.

"We've brought in more ways for people to get involved in recovery programs," said Jane "Jenny" Smith, who organized the Winter Haven three years ago, modeling it after similar projects in Prince George's and Montgomery counties.

"We do have a fair number of people who are still struggling with alcohol or drugs," Ms. Smith said. "But we've been more stringent about the rules. I was pleased with the Winter Haven this year."

Ms. Smith said Winter Haven's board of directors is seeking to add shelter space for women and children next year. But shelter for men remains a critical issue, shelter providers said.

"I sincerely believe it's a population worthy of our help," said Andrea Ingram, executive director of Grassroots, one of Howard County's primary homeless shelter programs that is looking to establish a permanent men's shelter.

"We need to offer services to help them resolve their problems," she said.

For nearly two years before entering the shelter program, Mr. Harris, 25, watched his life drift downhill: His girlfriend wrecked his car, thieves stole the truck from which he occasionally sold ice cream and he lost his job as a bicycle messenger in Washington, his hometown.

As his problems worsened, Mr. Harris, who was born with a disabled right arm, made his home in a tool shed outside a Hechinger store in Columbia.

On Jan. 17, Mr. Harris walked into Emmanuel United to stay for the night, carrying his blue mountain bike, its gears and brakes frozen, with icicles hanging from the handlebars and spokes.

His stays carried him through the winter and gave him the chance to get his life in order.

Now, even during the recent spring showers, Mr. Harris rides to the soup kitchen on a new bike. He also has a job with a Laurel landscaping company and a new apartment in Laurel.

"Things are definitely getting better," Mr. Harris said as he stood on the porch at Elizabeth House and smiled as he stared into the rain at his prized 18-speed Schwinn bicycle.

He was interrupted by Mr. Clippard, who finished a macaroni and tuna casserole dinner and now wanted to tell those in the hall what he thought of Winter Haven.

"Of all the churches, and there were a lot of them, [Emmanuel United] was my favorite," said Mr. Clippard, 62, who used to live in Baltimore.

But his excitement quickly faded, as he prepared to return to his current home -- a tan 1973 AMC Matador, which broke down a year ago and is parked behind the soup kitchen next to a trash bin.

Mr. Clippard, who suffers from heart disease and has a wooden right leg, said he lost all his money in a bad real estate and business deal in the late 1980s.

Because of his heart problem, Mr. Clippard said, he retired nearly two years ago as a cabbie, a job he had held for 35 years.

A year ago, he packed everything he owned into his car and left Baltimore. He landed in Laurel, where his car broke down.

The car "is not running at all," he said. "I'm just looking for a && home."

Mr. Clippard found some blankets and covers and called the front passenger's seat his bed and his AMC Matador his home.

"I'm fighting," Mr. Clippard said. "I just got too old and too sick."

A social worker from Prince George's County visited him about ** four weeks ago but has not returned.

"If you're down on your luck, your best bet is to get the hell out of Maryland," Mr. Clippard said.

"I'm just looking for a chance to do it."

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