Opening doors the goal

Help: Congregations Concerned for the Homeless, a nonprofit volunteer organization of about 35 Howard County congregations, works to get homeless families back on their feet and headed in the right direction.

February 13, 2004|By Jeff Seidel | Jeff Seidel,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Toni Volk has seen some horror stories during her four years as executive director for Congregations Concerned for the Homeless. But she has also helped make some dreams come true.

CCH is a nonprofit volunteer organization of about 35 Howard County congregations established in 1990 that works to get homeless families back on their feet and headed in the right direction. The group gives families a place to live and plenty of guidance during a two-year period -- and can be there for them afterward, too.

"We want to open doors to the future," Volk said. "People are homeless for various reasons. There's often such heart-breaking stories, and it's very sad."

The families are involved in what is called a "transitional" situation. They are allowed two years to be supported by the grants CCH receives. The group will place families in local housing units -- CCH is working with 11 families at sites scattered anonymously throughout Howard County.

Federal laws state that the "transition time" for a family in a place of residence can be no longer than 24 months. After that, a house is no longer considered transitional. So CCH and the families work as hard as they can during that time.

CCH receives donations to furnish the place for the family, which is allowed to take the furnishings and items such as pots and pans to their next residence. Volk said the group recently earned a huge victory when one of the families bought a townhouse.

"We were just elated," Volk said.

CCH has four full-time employees -- Volk, two case-workers and an administrative assistant -- and relies on nearly 50 volunteers, mostly from area congregations. But they do large amounts of work despite the small numbers.

"We're always looking for volunteers to do things," said Kizzie Bozeman, CCH interim treasurer. "If we didn't have volunteers, we really couldn't operate."

Gene Lohman works full time at Peak Technologies in Columbia and is president and chief executive officer of CCH. He often spends eight to 10 hours each week helping the group.

"We're trying to teach people to stand on their own two feet," Lohman said. "Whatever it takes to get them to stand on their own, we do."

Families have to go through an application process to get into the CCH program. Volk said almost all of the clients come to CCH through human-services referrals. They are interviewed and must meet several requirements, including being drug-free (or not have used drugs or alcohol) and holding a job for at least a year. Part of the program is learning how to earn the money that will lead to self-sufficiency.

Lohman said that getting clients into a home "just starts the cycle." Volk said the families are first just thrilled to have a roof over their heads. But the group pushes clients to learn what to do after they leave CCH.

CCH has people work with families on a variety of issues, including budgeting, being parents, making career choices and activities such as learning to drive. The goal is to prepare clients for the outside world again.

Lohman said that when clients have completed the CCH program the group helps to find them places to live, such as an apartment or Section 8 housing. But because of Howard County's freeze on Section 8 housing the families are put on a waiting list while CCH looks for alternatives.

"The challenges are taking care of the client's needs today," Lohman said. "There's lots of options to consider."

Volk said that families connect with CCH after leaving transitional housing and that strong friendships often form between the clients and those working with them.

The congregations that support CCH help raise money and support the organization so that it can continue helping people.

Volk said she used to work with CCH when she was with the United Way. The group caught her attention, and she couldn't get it out of her mind.

"I helped give them grants and fell in love with them and then [came to work]," Volk said. "I really feel I'm truly doing God's work on Earth and getting paid for it. I'm very inspired by this."

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