Clairvaux Farm offers safety net for homeless

March 21, 2004|By Erika Hobbs | Erika Hobbs,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

EARLEVILLE - Bobby Gordon, a wise-cracking New Yorker with the girth of two linebackers, is old-school. He holds three simple truths: Love God, your country and your family.

So it was, in a way, Gordon's pride that five years ago led him, his wife and his daughter through a seven-month trip living in the family's Ford Escort, a borrowed cabin in the woods and, finally, Clairvaux Farm homeless shelter in Earleville.

Macular degeneration slowly deteriorated Gordon's vision so that by five years ago, the former Baltimore-based retail buyer could no longer see the suppliers' lists on which his job depended.

While his employer found tasks for him to do, Gordon grew frustrated.

"They were good to me, but they couldn't make me see anymore. So I said: `Thanks, but I don't need no welfare,'" said Gordon, 58. And so he left.

But Gordon couldn't see, so he couldn't work. And the debt spiraled. "We were robbing Peter to pay Paul," Gordon said. The family lost its apartment.

"I never thought we'd be like that," he said, a beefy hand rubbing his brow.

The safety net that finally caught Gordon, caught him for good. Through word of mouth, he found his way to Clairvaux Farm, a faith-based shelter tucked deep in the heart of Cecil County on a 20-acre farm, near the Bohemia River.

He started as a resident, but he and his family still live there, by choice, and said they do not intend to leave. Gordon now works there as a program coordinator for the unemployed chef, the deli worker, the young girl with a black eye and toddler, and the others who, like Gordon, never thought they would be homeless and found themselves at Clairvaux's door.

This month, the women with children who make up Clairvaux's 17 residents moved into the farm's new residence hall. They moved from the farm's original plantation-style house with sloping floors and slanted walls into a 4,000-square-foot, air-conditioned building. The ranch-style hall, built by 500 volunteers for about $120,000, will hold as many as 35 people. It can also be converted into quarters for single fathers with children, a segment of the population with increasing shelter needs. None of the county's four other shelters provides such lodging.

`Social crisis'

In 1981, when Carl Mazza, an ordained Presbyterian minister, founded Meeting Ground, the umbrella organization that runs Clairvaux, he thought he was offering a solution to a "temporary social crisis."

There were no homeless shelters in the county then, he said. First, Mazza, his wife, Marsha, and a group of like-minded colleagues bought a Victorian house in Elkton. Wayfarer's House, as it is called, houses 20 women and children. But the demand was so great that Mazza scouted for more land. An abandoned farm off Cherry Grove Road became available, and the group scooped it up. Within months, Clairvaux Farm opened. The Meeting Ground group named it after St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a 12th-century monk who inspired St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint for the poor. Roughly translated, Clairvaux means "bright valley." Later, the group opened George Porter House in Elkton, a transitional residence for eight people.

Meeting Ground also helped establish advocacy centers in Arizona and Delaware, as well as the Cecil County Men's Shelter and the Elkton Community Kitchen.

Clairvaux looks like the bright valley of its name. The farm, with its occasional goats, chickens and dogs, grows herbs that it packages and sells for soups, poultry and dips.

The 12 buildings are painted in bright pastels. Many sport zoo-animal graffiti. A multicolored playground is sprawled underneath the shade of trees.

The hodgepodge of colors is deliberate, Mazza said. Children should feel welcomed, not threatened, as their families search for stable housing.

Last year, Clairvaux provided more than 19,000 bed-nights of emergency and transitional housing. Mazza estimated that it also helped more than 227 people find homes. Its operating budget hovered around $524,000, funded largely by private donations and foundations.

3.5 million homeless

The National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates that as many as 3.5 million people experience homelessness each year. State figures show that in Maryland - a state that ranks third in household median income and has one of the highest housing costs - more than 45,560 people sought shelter last year.

In Cecil County, more than 800 people sought respite in the county's five shelters.

The state and county figures dipped slightly from 2002, largely because of closed shelters and erratic reporting, state housing officials said. Yet state officials and advocates for the homeless say that the problem of homelessness is increasing.

More people are demanding beds and staying in shelters longer, said Greg Shupe, director of transitional services for the Maryland Department of Human Resources.

"We know there are families doubling up and doing other kinds of things who are not showing up in shelters," he said.

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