Feeding homeless faith and support

Shelter: Holy Family House lets residents live in a healthy, family-oriented setting while they are putting their lives back on track.

March 23, 2003|By Lucie L. Snodgrass | Lucie L. Snodgrass,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In the shadow of Aberdeen's train station, so close that you hear the clatter of passing trains, a small faith-based organization has been quietly assisting families for 14 years on a different kind of journey: from homelessness back to self-sufficiency.

Started in 1989 by churches in the Episcopal Regional Council, Holy Family House was created "to provide safe transitional housing for homeless families with children." Providing support such as free transitional housing for up to six months, life-skills training and even cooking lessons, Holy Family House has grown from an all-volunteer organization with one housing unit to a full-fledged nonprofit organization with three professional staff members, 16 housing units and a budget of $225,000.

Demand for its services continues to grow because of the perceived success of Holy Family House's model and because homelessness in Harford County is becoming more acute. In just one year, from July 2001 through June 2002, Holy Family House provided 9,922 bed nights to 31 families.

During that same period, Holy Family House turned down 187 families, either because of lack of space or because the families did not fit Holy Family House's criteria for admission. Families applying for residency there must be highly motivated to succeed, work full time or attend school, have no criminal background and agree to work with staff to actively improve their situations.

"Holy Family House fills such a great need," says Mary Chance, Harford County's director of community services, which provides financial and technical assistance to Holy Family House. "They're the only organization in Harford County that tries to provide shelter for intact families."

It is usually young women alone who head the households in residence. Of the 31 families served in the period ending last June, only six included fathers. And out of 16 families currently in residence, only two have men.

Most of the mothers are young women in their late teens or early 20s, living on their own or fleeing domestic violence or unsafe living conditions. Consequently, much of the emphasis at Holy Family House is on offering a safe and supportive environment.

"A big part of what we do is take away part of the burden from the families and let them relax and just catch up. It gives them a chance to get established," says Joanne Bowman, a member of Holy Family House's board since the early 1990s.

In addition to providing free housing and utilities in individual apartments, Holy Family House also sponsors mandatory life-skills training and parenting classes, teaches residents to manage money, and works with them to set and meet attainable goals.

Staff members also ensure that families file for and receive appropriate social services from state and local agencies. And to provide as much support as possible, they assign each family a sponsoring church, which furnishes an apartment before a family moves in and helps with other needs.

But perhaps most important, Holy Family House gives residents the opportunity to live in a healthy, family-oriented environment while they are putting their lives back on track.

"Most of our residents have never really had homes," says Patrick McCarty, a retired elementary school principal who is executive director of Holy Family House. "They all exhibit survival behavior, but most of them lack appropriate skills and socialization, and they don't understand cause and effect."

His role, he comments wryly, sometimes resembles the stern father figure.

"I try to convey what it costs to run a place like this - 48 cents a minute. That means you don't set the thermostat at 83 degrees and run around half-naked," he says.

Falling behind

McCarty's tough words mask a caring nature and deep commitment to the complex's young families. On a recent day in his office, he played with Cameron Williams, the energetic 2-year- old son of Kristina and Lonnie Williams, who have been living in a Holy Family House apartment the past four months.

The Williamses got behind in payments on their car and apartment. Eventually, they got kicked out, and their car was repossessed. A relative of Kristina Williams refused to take them in, and they ended up homeless, right about the time she was due with her second child.

McCarty beamed as Cameron brought him a floppy disk and pointed at a nearby computer. Seconds later, Cameron was happily ensconced at McCarty's desk.

"The love has to come first," McCarty says. "As a Christian, I felt this drive to serve. I felt it as a calling."

Alma Schwanke, Holy Family's caseworker, and Jenett Ebright, the agency's secretary, both echo McCarty's commitment and faith.

"I wanted to do something that could make a difference," Ebright explains, proudly showing off photographs of residents' children that grace her walls.

"I got tired of arguing with God," Schwanke says with a sly grin. "A lot of people couldn't do this job, but the caring is what's needed. A lot of these girls need a mother."

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