Hands-on program helps poor families find homes

County provides money, guidance to leave motels

April 08, 2003|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

An unusual Howard County government program has helped 22 poor working families escape the financial trap of living in expensive older motels after losing their homes - but it has been a more complicated job than expected.

"Initially, we were thinking it would take three or four months, but it has taken six months to a year" of often intensive one-on-one work to help the families, many of whom are beset by multiple credit, health and personal issues, said Scott Knox, the part-time case manager hired by Grassroots, the county's private, nonprofit homeless shelter.

Only families that have children and have supported themselves for three months are eligible. Drug screening is also required. Knox follows each family for a year after they get better housing.

The county is spending up to $2,000 per family, sometimes working with other agencies or private charities to overcome particularly high debts, said Knox and Kathy Dinoto, Grassroots' shelter supervisor.

County Executive James N. Robey said Friday that, considering its benefits, the $35,000-a-year program is a bargain. Even with county revenues down and more state budget cuts likely, Robey said that he will not cut the program's funding.

"Anytime we can get people out of motels and into a home of their own, we have achieved" something valuable, Robey said. "Particularly in times like these, it's easy to cut money from those who need it the most. People like me can stand a loss. They can't," he said about those the program helps.

Often an illness or injury and resulting job loss, a layoff, bad credit, a big hospital bill or a lack of transportation forces families out of their homes and leads some of them to move into older motels along U.S. 1 and U.S. 40.

They pay up to $900 a month, plus storage for furniture and belongings. Barely able to afford daily or weekly rates, they are unable to save for a security deposit and first month's rent for a new place. Some landlords, Dinoto said, readily accept renters with these problems, but demand two months of rent as security and are as quick to evict as they are to rent.

Knox said he has worked with 36 families. Of those, 17 successfully moved to permanent housing, while five more found an apartment with county help. Several moved in with relatives or got other private help. Ten families have dropped out, while a few just disappeared from the motels, Knox said. More than half are single-parent families, three of which are headed by fathers, and most families in the program have two to four children.

Three or four families have had more problems after finding an apartment, and the county sometimes will help them with an end-of-the-month food supply or occasionally, more cash, Knox said.

"The biggest things dogging people are poor judgment and the fact that they don't have a lot of support," Knox said. Often, people at the bottom of the economic ladder are the first to be laid off, have no health insurance and are fired if they miss work because of illness or a transportation problem. Some people use poor judgment, too, he said, spending money needed for rent to fix a car or buy furniture, or signing a rent-to-own contract that drains vital cash and results in eviction. Others don't know how to economize on food, buying expensive packaged items or restaurant food instead of cheaper, but nutritious, items from a supermarket.

"It's nickel-and-dime kind of stuff that doesn't put anybody on the street, but that takes away a [cash] reserve," Knox said. Then, when an emergency occurs, the family has no funds to cover it.

The program began with a county grant of $45,000 to cover Knox's part-time salary and money to help about 15 families. Those funds lasted more than a year, and subsequent grants have been lower, about $35,000 a year folded into Grassroots' overall county grant, according to Andrea Ingram, director of Grassroots.

Now, Knox said, he is working with four families, though the caseload is somewhat seasonal. Families often lose their homes in spring, and come to the program in late summer, after spending the warmer months in a motel. Most are local families, he said.

"I don't think it's a need that will go away," Ingram said.

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