Crowded shelter helps families get through the hardest times

December 18, 2005|By SUSAN REIMER

Beverly Stone is hoping to wake up Christmas morning in her own place. It would sure beat waking up in a hospital.

"When they come at you with the paddles, like you see on ER, you know you are in trouble," says Stone.

Not yet 50, she suffered a second heart attack while struggling to care for her parents, who were in and out of hospitals and nursing homes.

Suddenly, Stone was the one in the hospital. But when she got out, there was no home to which she could return. It was April when she came to live at Annapolis' Light House Shelter for the homeless.

"I've been here since, putting the pieces back together," says Stone, who battles memory loss and anxiety as well as health problems. She looks fitter than she is, in jeans, tennis shoes and a striped blouse, and like she should be picking her son up at school in the family's SUV instead of waiting in a bureaucratic line for housing that will let her leave the crowded shelter.

She crosses her fingers and then crosses herself. "Christmas Eve," she says, looking toward heaven, "I will be in my own place."

Teresa White and her 5-year-old daughter Michelle and her 8-year-old son Devin will be spending Christmas in the shelter.

"My kids are OK with it," says the single mother. "They pretty much go with the flow."

White's life fell apart when she lost one of her two jobs -- the better paying one, the job that covered her rent. Then she lost her apartment.

"I wasn't on the street, or anything. But I knew what was coming. I walked in here, had to wait two days and they had an apartment upstairs for me. That was the last week in October."

She brought some of her own furnishing to help the tiny rooms feel more like home. "It is more than some people have," she says.

Like Stone, she is on a long list for housing she can afford -- a premium in a county where the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment might be $900.

"I just need to get a place to live, and I will handle the rest," she says. "The whole game is about waiting, but I'll stick it out."

White and Stone are the unseen faces of homelessness. They are not scruffy and begging at a stoplight or dressed in rags and pushing a shopping cart. The mentally ill and the addicted are what people think of when they think of the homeless.

"These are regular people who have had their own private Hurricane Katrina," said Elizabeth Kinney, a long-time volunteer fundraiser for the Light House Shelter and president of Friends of the Light House Shelter. "A health crisis or a lost job and suddenly they find themselves in a shelter."

Kinney heads a group that helps raise the $525,000 executive director Toni Graff needs to keep the shelter open. It is funded almost exclusively by private donations.

But the group has a more ambitious goal. They want to build a new shelter, one that will have six apartments for families and 50 beds for men and women. It will be at least twice the size of this converted drugstore, which opened 15 years ago and now sits, incongruously, amid the billion-dollar facelift of West Street going on around it.

The Light House Shelter presently sleeps 10 men and five women and has two tiny apartments for families. On bitter cold nights, the staff finds room for four more beds.

Last year, the Light House Shelter turned away 470 people -- twice as many as it served -- and half of them were children. "The average homeless person in Maryland is a child the age of 6," said Graff, who has been with the shelter since it opened.

Right now, the shelter is so cramped that beds are inches apart and there is not enough room to set up the 8-foot tables for dinner. Several of the residents ate while perched on furniture in the TV area during a recent evening when the Crofton United Methodist Church young adults group brought lasagna and salad for dinner.

The kitchen, from which 20 to 30 homeless people are fed three meals a day, would try the patience of a mother of four. The food pantry, from which more than 100 families are fed each month, is not much bigger than a walk-in closet in one of those McMansions. The lockers, in which the residents keep their possessions, are a third the size of the ones in which high school kids keep their sports gear.

Certainly, more room is needed for the homeless. But, without a trace of irony in her voice, Kinney wants a facility that is big enough for the volunteers.

The Light House Shelter might attract 30 volunteers a month who work between 200 and 300 hours. That doesn't count the time of the volunteers who drop off 500 to 800 bagged lunches every month. Kinney would like to see a way for volunteers to do more than feed the body.

"We need more than dinner cooked every night and lunches packed every day and laundry done," said Kinney. "We need a place where volunteers can come in on a consistent basis and mentor people and work with them. That's how you change lives."

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