Giving people a place to go

An effort to expand the reach of an Aberdeen nonprofit


When 19-year-old Jessica Fulweiler's mother got pregnant, she asked Jessica to move out of the two-bedroom apartment they shared with three other adults.

But Fulweiler, who has her own 1-year-old son, Corey, had no place to go.

She found shelter, and more, through an Aberdeen organization that has been assisting homeless families for 17 years.

The nonprofit Harford Family House Inc. provided Fulweiler an apartment for her and her son - something she said changed her life.

"Getting an apartment here is the greatest thing that has happened to me," said Fulweiler, who is expecting her second child in February. "I'm learning how to do things for myself that I didn't even know I could do."

As demand for shelter in Harford continues to rise, program officials are gearing up for a capital campaign. The organization plans to raise $1.6 million for renovating the 1950s-era apartment complex where the homeless are housed and hopes to raise enough money to fix up several vacant units in the area to accommodate more families.

"We help about 16 families now," said Executive Director Jonita Shoaff. "And our current budget [$389,000] doesn't allow for us to expand on that. So right now we're turning away about 25 families a week."

The program was born in 1989, when homeless people approached the county's Episcopal churches seeking assistance.

"People would come to the church door, and the churches soon realized that any one of them couldn't help a family alone," said the 58-year-old Shoaff.

Originally established as Holy Family House Inc., the group changed its name to Harford Family House after the source of its funding grew from just churches to include individuals, businesses and foundations. Two years ago, the group acquired Della Grove apartments so that it could serve the growing number of families in need.

"Our program is the only one in the county that leaves the entire family intact," said Shoaff, who joined the program about a year ago. "The other programs have one area for the women and children, and one for the fathers."

Some changes have been made to accommodate the growth of the program. The length of time tenants could stay extended, for example, from 30 days to 90. But program coordinators realized that even 90 days wasn't enough, Shoaff said.

"Sometimes it takes that long to figure out the problems the family members have that brought them to us," she said. "We do a criminal and credit check on every potential client."

The checks can divulge problems such as medical or credit card debts. "We try to help get them on the right track before they leave," Shoaff said.

Now clients stay an average of eight months, though they are allowed to stay for up to a year.

The program has managed to keep rents low, offering furnished one- and two-bedroom apartments and two- and three-bedroom homes for no more than $50 a month.

The rules haven't changed, either. Tenants cannot use drugs or alcohol or have overnight guests of the opposite sex. Also, all bills must be paid on time.

"We basically have a three-strikes-and-you're-out program," said Shoaff. "When they get three strikes, they have to leave, and we don't allow repeats. We give them one chance to get it right."

To help tenants, the house offers a three-part educational program called STEPS, aimed at helping people become self-sufficient. The program focuses on such self-improvement issues as nutrition and health, parenting, job searches and self-evaluation.

"We help people find their way," said Gail Landers, a 47-year-old volunteer from Bel Air. "We don't just put on a Band-Aid. It's all about making them independent, and they can't be independent if they are dependent on us."

The tenants range in age from 20s to 50s and come from all over the nation. The families who need assistance include people leaving abusive situations, single mothers or fathers who can't make ends meet, those who are unemployed, those with adverse credit and those with severe disabilities.

Fulweiler said the program has helped her reconnect with her family.

"I appreciate my parents 100 percent more," she said. "I also appreciate the little things like a home-cooked meal. My mom will call and say she made a meatloaf, would I like to come to dinner? And I'm there."

For others, it's about pride in having a place to call home. Deveana Peterson, another tenant, said that self-examination while living alone there has given her a better grasp of her disabilities - bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress syndrome.

"Before I came here, I was down and depressed and had no friends," she said. "I had no one to talk to. Now I have friends, and I'm giving my daughter a place where she has the freedom to be a kid. I feel so much better about myself."

And sometimes, the properties are seen as havens. Sharon Raines came to Harford Family House from an abusive situation. Since arriving, she's been receiving treatment for bipolar disorder, rage issues, anxiety and anti-social disorders.

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