Residents thankful for roof over heads

Holiday offers chance to celebrate temporary home at city shelter


Thanksgiving at the Light House Shelter in Annapolis will be simple and plain for those living there, without a home to call their own. But for some residents, the gathering will not be dim in hope or spirit.

"Each one of us has our own stories," said Beverly Stone, a middle-age mother estranged from her family and recovering from a heart attack. "They try to make you as happy as you can be and it gives you a sense of pride."

For the 15 men, five women and the handful of families who temporarily reside at the 206 West St. shelter and a few nearby apartments and houses, the turkey dinner served tomorrow will be a chance to give thanks for blessings that might not meet the eye. Some are just glad to be alive.

"If it hadn't been for this place, I don't know what would have happened," said Stone, who also has struggled with memory loss. "I went down and didn't know which end was up."

The celebration in the small common space will take place within walking distance of some of Annapolis' most fashionable hotels and restaurants.

Operated by Annapolis Area Ministries Inc., Light House is the only emergency shelter in the state capital. It is also the only shelter in Anne Arundel County for single people, serving men and women.

But shelter operators say they need more space. For Thanksgiving, the dinner table has been set up next to a row of women's beds.

The nonprofit group is scouting additional sites and property, but has not decided what the future holds for the Light House shelter's location downtown, said Toni Graff, the executive director.

With cold weather and a tough economy, demand for shelter services is rising. "We have to turn hundreds of people away every year - half of them children," Graff said. She attributed the spike to the area's soaring housing costs.

For Crystal Brownlee, a shelter coordinator with a motherly bustle, it's a cycle of caretaking for people who stay a maximum of three months in most cases. And there's a more practical cycle: doing the laundry twice a week.

There are limits to the dinner offerings, which will not include champagne, wine or beer to go with the turkey and cranberries. "We have a zero-tolerance policy here on drugs or alcohol," Brownlee said.

Employment strategies are also part of the shelter's program, with the residents expected to work or look for work during the weekdays.

When they are at the shelter, they are referred to as guests, said William Grigsby, the night monitor and caseworker. "You treat them like they're guests, welcome [at] home."

Recent arrival Troy Mitchell, 28, got out of prison in Baltimore this month, a place where he spent most of his 20s. Ready to start over, he praises the shelter program and its strict policy.

"It keeps me on my toes," he said. "You know you have something to lose. It makes you care."

He needs to keep his distance from the "drug-infested" neighborhood where he grew up, Mitchell said, which is why he came to Annapolis. Unfazed by living in a shelter, he counts it a gift.

He said that he and his fiancee have a baby girl, for whom he is deeply grateful.

"I have a purpose now," Mitchell said. "I feel 150 percent better that someone needs me."

Like the women, the single men sleep in their own area, side by side, in a row of beds covered by cheery quilts made by volunteers.

One thing the shelter doesn't have is privacy.

"The women, especially, have no privacy," Brownlee said. "A new shelter would give us that."

Stone said she brought her few belongings to the shelter and keeps them at her bed.

"That [bundle] is everything left out my life," she said, cracking a crooked smile.

Yet Thanksgiving will mean something to her this year, Stone said, for what she called "the healing within."

Said Grigsby: "For some, coming here is a rebirth. And we have to reinforce great expectations."

To volunteer at the shelter, call 410-269-7925.

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