Critics claim shelter rules are too strict Few of the homeless who need housing aid can qualify, they say

'You have to be humane'

Agency in charge emphasizes spending funds for local people @

June 07, 1996|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

In trying to cut costs and limit abuse, the Howard County group that handles an emergency shelter program for the homeless has tightened restrictions to the point that few who need help can qualify, local aid groups charge.

The rules for the $43,400 program are the most stringent in the region, requiring that people must have leased or owned a house in the county for the preceding six months to qualify.

Concerned about the severity of the rules -- most homeless people lack leases or deeds -- county officials asked the &L Community Action Council (CAC) two months ago to relax its requirements for the small but important program that places people in motels when the county's shelters are full.

Since that time, CAC caseworkers have been given more discretion in handling cases, said Manus O'Donnell, director of Community Services, which oversees social programs.

But local aid groups say needy people still risk being turned away, and differences among the social service providers show that the county is stumbling as it tries to deal with a small but troubling homeless problem.

At issue are conflicting philosophies over which people the county is obligated to help. Critics charge that CAC is trying to get rid of the "undesirables" and ship them off to other areas.

Dorothy L. Moore, CAC executive director, said it's a matter of spending local resources on local people.

Grassroots, the primary homeless shelter network in the county, managed the emergency motel shelter program until CAC took it over last year. When Grassroots administered the program, the residency requirement was much more loosely defined.

Andrea Ingram, Grassroots executive director, said geography should not be the primary factor considered when giving aid. "I think you have to be humane about it," she said.

Fewer people appear to be receiving motel placement under the new residency policy, which was drafted in November 1995.

Since then, CAC caseworkers have denied motel assistance in 108 cases. Instead, they arranged for the families or individuals to be sent to shelters outside Howard or to live with family members. Thirty-five were sent to a shelter in Baltimore, CAC records show. Motel housing in Howard was provided in 53 cases.

CAC put 41 people in motel beds for 788 nights in the first three months of this year. By contrast, Grassroots placed 69 people for 1,481 nights for the same period in 1995.

In Howard -- one of the wealthiest counties in the nation -- few homeless people are found living on the street.

Social service agencies say many people they see are informally evicted -- meaning they were living with relatives or friends and the relationship soured. The term "homeless" also applies to victims of domestic violence who have left spouses and need a place to sleep.

A few years ago, officials say Howard's homeless programs became a magnet for out-of-county residents looking for better schools and living conditions.

O'Donnell said suspicions arose a few years ago that people were trying to get preferential treatment in the Section 8 public housing program by declaring themselves homeless.

"We're trying to make sure people in Howard County get those services," O'Donnell said. "We're trying to get the motel program back to its original purpose."

Motel programs -- which most counties use sparingly and as a last resort -- are undeniably costly, say officials in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties. Carroll County's program is essentially defunct because of the high cost.

Coordinators of programs elsewhere criticized Howard's policy, but also said they understood the financial restraints.

"I could not endorse that policy," said Bob Gajdys, executive director of Community Assistance Network, a nonprofit in Baltimore County. "I think that any policy as it refers to homeless has got to be as lenient as possible, as compassionate as possible."

Maureen Robinson, spokeswoman for Baltimore County Department of Social Services, sees the Howard policy as part of the move to cut spending.

"Frankly, it's probably going to get a whole lot worse," she said.

CAC officials said they are doing what they can to ration resources. State and county funds paid for more than 10,000 beds in fiscal 1994 and 1995 under the looser rules -- serving so many people that Grassroots once spent a year's allotment in six months, O'Donnell said.

But the aid groups charge CAC has gone too far.

One victim of domestic violence wanted to leave the Howard County house where she had been living for more than a year, but the shelters were full. Because she did not have a lease, CAC officials questioned whether she could qualify to stay in a motel for more than one night. Officials with the Foreign-Born Information and Referral Network (FIRN) said they helped the woman find shelter outside the county.

"The most vulnerable are those least likely to have the documentation that is required," said Pat Hatch, director of advocacy and community education at FIRN.

Added Ingram: "That's pretty unusual for us to get someone who owns a home."

Moore said that there is flexibility in the CAC program and each case is examined individually, but she also reiterated, "We cannot serve people who jump from county to county."

Pub Date: 6/07/96

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