Groups eager to offer shelter

Several churches want to resume winter program

`We have a moral obligation'

$11,000 county funding set for homeless service

Howard County

April 09, 2004|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Howard County's peripatetic winter overflow shelter program for the homeless worked so well, moving from church to church every week or two, that officials plan to do it again next year.

"We'd be happy to do it again," said the Rev. Mary Dennis, pastor of caring and missions at Glen Mar United Methodist Church in Ellicott City, where the cold-weather shelter was stationed for its first two weeks in mid-January.

The program - a coalition effort of churches, the Horizon foundation and county government - gave the county up to 25 more beds each night for homeless people who otherwise were being referred to shelters in Prince George's or Baltimore counties.

The county is planning to provide another $11,000 next year, County Executive James N. Robey said, and church groups are eager to repeat the effort.

"We found that for many of the people coming here it was their first experience being homeless. They were frightened," Dennis said.

On the last day at Glen Mar, Dennis said, she was particularly touched by a frightened woman who came straight from the psychiatric ward of Howard County General Hospital after a suicide attempt.

"Everything in her life had fallen apart. We fed her a meal, got her clothes, a towel and showed her a bed. All she wanted to do was sleep," Dennis said.

"The thing most shocking to me is how many of these folks were living in their cars. It was frigid," she said, adding that she and congregation members were grateful for the chance to help people in need.

Robey and several County Council members visited various church shelters and spoke to some homeless people, they said.

"I'm glad to see the faith community taking an active role," he said, adding that he found shelter guests appreciative for the help. One woman told him her only alternative was to sleep in her car with her children.

Council Chairman Guy Guzzone helped clean a county-owned house near his home that was used for the final week of the program, which closed March 29.

"You just never know who is going to be [homeless] next. I think we have a moral obligation not to turn our backs on folks," he said.

While plans for a larger permanent shelter in Howard are on hold because of community opposition to several locations, the overflow program worked well, said Andrea Ingram, director of the Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center.

"We really think that going from site to site is the best way to go. The congregations have all expressed interest for next year," Ingram said.

According to statistics gathered by Grassroots, which operates the county's 32-bed permanent shelter, 61 people received shelter in the overflow program at eight churches and a county-owned house from mid-January through March. On a per-person, per-night basis, that amounted to 927 bed-nights.

The homeless ranged from a 9-month-old infant to a 63-year-old man on crutches, Ingram said.

Of those served by the shelter, 37 were male and 24 were female; 52 were adults and nine were children.

There was a common theme to the stories people told of how they became homeless, Ingram said.

"He'd always worked," she said about the 63-year-old man on crutches. "That's a story we have heard more and more. A temporary health problem or disability," and people lose a job, then lose their apartment or house, she said.

Eighteen people had been homeless less than one week, 17 between one and six months, and 12 people had been homeless for a year or more.

Ingram said she was pleased with the response from churches and the county government, which provided bedding and other materials as well as workers to transport equipment from church to church.

"We had incredible support and enthusiasm from the congregations. There had to be 1,000 people working on this," doing laundry, preparing food and operating the church's buildings, she said.

The only complaints came before the first shelter opened at Glen Mar, and they melted away, Ingram and Dennis said. Terri Hicks, who provides day care at her home next to the Glen Mar church had complained that she had no warning before the center opened, but Ingram said she did not receive one complaint about any of the shelters after the program got under way.

Representatives of Trinity Episcopal Church Waterloo on U.S. 1 and First Presbyterian Church on Route 108 said their churches have agreed to repeat the program.

"Looking at 27- and 28-year-olds, I felt like I was looking at my own child," said Patricia B. Cullison, outreach chairwoman at Trinity.

"We had over 100 people involved," said Patrick Curran, chairman of the mission unit at First Presbyterian. "Everybody came up to me and said we were glad to do this. I was pretty proud of our church for stepping up."

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