Aid funds vote is today

Council OK seen for budget shift to help the needy


County social services officials see the infusion of $250,000 in anti-poverty assistance into next year's budget as a badly needed boost for agencies hard-pressed to keep up with rising rent and utility costs in one of the nation's wealthiest jurisdictions.

The money -- expected to be approved today when the County Council votes on a last-minute amendment to County Executive James N. Robey's fiscal 2007 budget -- is intended to create a Family Stabilization Fund to help stave off more homelessness and help seniors on fixed incomes.

Robey said the need became apparent to him several weeks ago after several discussions with Susan Rosenbaum, director of the county's Citizens Services Department, which administers grants to nonprofit groups and helps serve the needy and the elderly.

"First and foremost, this money is to help stabilize families and individuals who have slipped beyond their means before they enter full crisis mode," Robey said. The money also is to help get people out of emergency or transitional shelters into permanent housing and to then use intensive case management to boost their long-term prospects.

In announcing a shift of $250,000 from snow-removal and contingency funds at a news conference Monday, Robey referred to the 97 people who spent nights at church-based cold-weather shelters from November to late March.

"These are not lazy people. These are people desperately in need of assistance," he said, standing in front of the Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center in Columbia to emphasize the point.

The executive said the county can spare $160,000 from the snow-removal fund because the county has filled its salt domes for next winter, and he said taking another $90,000 from the $1.5 million contingency fund should not cause a problem. The new budget takes effect July 1.

County Councilmen Ken Ulman and Calvin Ball, both Democrats who attended the announcement, agreed, though Republican Charles C. Feaga, who said he could not make it, dissented.

"It's just something we've got to do," said Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat who is running for county executive.

"I think there is a need," Ball said, noting that the move adds no money to the overall $1.2 billion operating budget.

But Feaga said the idea is premature, coming before the budget year begins. "We're spending too quickly," he said.

The Community Action Council ran out of eviction-prevention funds this fiscal year and needed an emergency infusion of $20,000 from the county and the Horizon Foundation.

With higher transportation costs and the looming 72 percent increase in utility rates, Robey said he felt he should act now instead of waiting until money runs out again.

The idea, said Rosenbaum, is also to use some of the money to help seniors, who may be spending half or more of their incomes on rent, to keep lights operating.

Leaders of several county social services agencies said they see more problems coming.

"There's very little in the way of subsidized housing left," said Grassroots Director Andrea Ingram -- even in hardship cases.

Two homeless people have been living at the Grassroots shelter for 18 months or more, and with average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Columbia at $1,288 a month, poor families who are evicted cannot afford a place.

James B. Smith, executive director of the county's anti-poverty agency, told the council last month that the number of families needing help is growing every year, but federal and state funding has dropped and the Robey administration has not increased its contribution in five years.

"It takes $4,357 per month for a family of three to cover the basic costs of living, working and raising a family in Howard County," Smith said.

Last fiscal year, his agency helped 2,578 families, an 8 percent increase from the previous year. In the first half of this fiscal year, Smith said, his agency provided 367,788 pounds of food -- an increase of more than 100,000 pounds over all of last year.

Even Community Action Council employees have not had a pay raise in five years, Smith told the council, and many make less than $2,200 a month -- about half the amount needed for a family of three, though they get health insurance and other benefits.

Smith said yesterday that he will be able to provide a 5 percent pay raise next year, welcome news to people such as Janelle Clements, 27, a college student, and single mother of two young children who makes $11.69 an hour as a community worker at the Community Action Council.

"I love helping people and working with people, and I have a rapport with my clients," she said, but lately she has been making partial payments on bills and has been late paying some. "I may have to pay half on this bill and half on that bill," she said.

Poverty facts

Facts about poverty and homelessness in Howard County:

About 11,000 of Howard's 273,000 residents live in poverty.

777 people were known to be homeless in Howard last fiscal year, including 395 children, and 97 who slept at the winter shelters.

The average length of stay at Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center is 253 days for families and 135 days for individuals.

It costs $43,800 to house a mother and two children at Grassroots, the county's homeless shelter.

One-third of renters in Howard pay more than 30 percent of their income for shelter.

The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Columbia is $1,288. First month's rent, utility and security deposits require about $3,000 in cash to get an apartment.

It takes an income of $4,357 a month to support basic needs for a family of three in Howard County.

Sources: Howard County government; Community Action Council.

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