Women in shelters fight for their havens

January 27, 1995|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Sun Staff Writer

In an old school in Baltimore, Antoinette Purnell found a haven, a place to start over again. Yet just as she began to have hope for the future, the very program that lifted her out of homelessness threatened to return her to the streets.

For the past two weeks, Ms. Purnell and a dozen other women with young children have had to fight the Housing Assistance Corp., a nonprofit corporation that runs two highly touted transitional shelters.

While still waiting for federal approval to rent apartments of their own, the women were told to pack their bags and leave their shelter by the end of the month. Panicked by the notice, Ms. Purnell and the other women sought the help of tenant advocacy groups, the mayor's office, the City Council and U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume.

"I moved up here to get out of a battered situation. I came here from North Carolina with my children and the money and clothes I could carry on my back," said Cynthia Carter, 26, the mother of two young girls. "If they put us out now, I have nowhere to go."

City housing officials called the eviction notice a "communication problem" yesterday and made clear that none of the women would be forced to leave before finding a new home.

By the end of the day, after they had called The Sun and Baltimore television stations, the city Housing Authority announced that all but five of the women had received the needed federal housing subsidies. The others will have them by the end of the month or early February, said Zack Germroth, a spokesman for the housing authority.

Mr. Germroth acknowledged some missteps by the corporation but also said a number of the women were lax in filling out their applications for the Section 8 rental certificates. All of the women had graduated from the program Sept. 11, he said, and HAC needs the 71 apartments in the two shelters for the next group of homeless women.

"There were some problems, clearly, outside of residents not wanting to move," he said. "We want to do everything we can to encourage them to move, but we're not going to make any folks homeless."

Ms. Carter and three other women interviewed said they were unable to obtain housing certificates because the corporation failed to forward their names after the graduation. Mr. Germroth blamed the problem on a former program manager, who has been fired.

HAC receives nearly $1 million in annual operating subsidies from the city to run its shelters and develop low-income housing, one a renovated school on Cottage Avenue and the other on Rutland Avenue. Each family participates in the program for a maximum of 18 months.

Typically, the homeless move from cots in church basements to comfortable, modern apartments. They are also encouraged to finish school, get jobs and day care for their children.

In October, the city housing department cut off funds to HAC for a brief time after receiving complaints about the suspected misuse of funds. Housing officials received an anonymous packet of invoices and canceled checks that indicated high-ranking employees bought meals, photo equipment and a computer at HAC's expense.

The complaints have been fully investigated and resolved, Mr. Germroth said, although he could not provide details.

Ms. Purnell, 24, said she will attend a Section 8 orientation on Jan. 31 -- the day she was supposed to leave. For Ms. Purnell, the mother of two boys, ages 4 and 2, the reassurance from housing officials yesterday gave her a reprieve.

"They did get a roof over my head," she said while on lunch break yesterday from her new job as an office assistant at a Charles Street accounting company. "I was really desperate. I had just had my second son, and I lost my job. But the whole thing ended differently than I thought. They talk about wanting you to succeed, but if they really do, why this?"

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