Emergency funds scant for housing

Almost all of agency's allotment is gone, officials say, with a budget deficit feared


As Howard County readies plans for a new homeless shelter and the third church-based winter shelter program ends, anti-poverty officials say they are running out of emergency housing funds.

James B. Smith, director of the quasi-governmental Community Action Council, said his agency spent all $138,410 allotted for eviction prevention and nearly all of another $13,488 from private donations intended to help the working poor survive unanticipated bills that could result in eviction.

The agency received an additional $20,000 from the Howard County government and the Horizon Foundation several weeks ago, but Smith said that likely will run out before the new fiscal year starts July 1.

"We are still facing a budget deficit," Smith said, adding that the agency limits its one-time grants for Howard residents to $600. Rents in Howard, which averaged $1,238 a month in late 2004,, are increasingly squeezing lower-income renters, officials said.

The agency uses its funds to add to whatever families can pay, as well as any additional amount they can borrow from other private donors.

"If [the rent] is $900 or $1,200, we'll fill the gap," Smith said. "But for rent in Howard what's $600? Nothing. We try to help to the extent we can."

For those who are evicted, the county's 32-bed Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center in Columbia and its 20-bed overflow winter shelter program can be the next stop.

The cold-weather shelter moves from church to church and is to end its third winter's operations Sunday, said Andrea Ingram, Grassroots' director.

"I think the cold-weather shelter has found some of the hidden homeless population," Ingram said.

Grassroots is trying to find more permanent housing by Sunday for every temporary shelter resident.

The average occupancy per night this winter was 21 people, Ingram said, though the nightly roster ranged from 18 to 27. Of the 89 people sheltered up to March 16, 36 were homeless because of eviction.

Over the winter, the 15 churches hosting the shelter housed 58 males and 31 females. There were six families, including eight children. Ingram said 15 people had stayed at the shelter in previous years.

"The way I read that is we have this chronic homeless population that's under the radar screen and doesn't use the traditional services," Ingram said.

One woman has a mental illness and has come to the church-based shelter all three years.

Shelter residents got extra help this year from a volunteer physician, she said, and the county pitched in $14,400 to pay the core staff and for supplies.

The Rev. Ostein B. Truitt, of St. John Baptist Church on Route 108, said her congregation will supply up to 70 volunteers to run the shelter in the church's community room this final week.

"I'd say it's about the same level of enthusiasm in that people realize there's a need," she said.

People who need shelter gather at Grassroots each afternoon and are brought to the church for the night by volunteers, who then provide an evening meal. They must leave the church by 7 a.m. each day.

The new two-story Grassroots building should improve the county's attempts to care for the homeless, Ingram said.

The number of permanent beds will grow from the 32 to 55.

The building will house crisis programs and a few emergency shelter beds nearest the main entrance, Ingram said, with the rest of the first level devoted to bedrooms and a 25-seat dining hall and kitchen.

The second floor will have administrative offices, a community room, counseling offices and the men's bedrooms.

Ingram said she hopes to have financial commitments for the $5.5 million building by July, when construction bidding would begin. The project has about $3.8 million in commitments, assuming that the legislature approves a requested $500,000 bond bill now before the General Assembly, she said.

The 23,000-square-foot building will be shaped like a "U" around a central courtyard, with the entrance facing Atholton High School next door.

The current building will be demolished, she said, and Grassroots will have to scatter to several temporary locations once construction begins.


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