Homeless shelter program in Howard Co. is stricter than necessary, critics say Emergency housing rules are most stringent in area

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 the help can qualify, local aid groups charge.

The rules for the $43,400 program are the most stringent among counties in the region, requiring that people must have leased or owned a house in the county for the past 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 then, CAC caseworkers have been given more discretion in handling cases, said Manus O'Donnell, director of Community Services, which oversees the county's social programs.

But local aid groups say needy people still risk being turned away, and the differences among social service providers shows 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 "undesirables" to other areas.

But Dorothy L. Moore, executive director of the council, said it's a matter of spending local resources on the local population. She said Howard County should serve Howard countians.

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 City, CAC records show. Only 53 cases have been housed in motels in Howard.

Although year-to-date figures are not available, CAC placed 41 people for 788 nights in the first three months of this year. By contrast, Grassroots put 69 people in motel beds for 1,481 nights during the first three months of 1995.

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

Social service agencies say many of the people they see are those who 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 their 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 to move to the county for better schools and living conditions for their families.

"We're trying to make sure people in Howard County get those services," O'Donnell said.

Pub Date: 6/07/96

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