With spring, a different struggle

Some homeless shelters in the area close for the season as others try to stay open

March 25, 2007|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,sun reporter

After today, Steven Johnson will be living on the streets again.

The 54-year-old former construction worker says he has had Parkinson's disease for five years and has been unable to work or get federal disability income for the past few years.

That is why he was one of more than 20 homeless people sleeping on slim mattresses amid their plastic bags and clothing on the floor of St. John Baptist Church in Columbia last week. But, like seasonal operations in other parts of the region, Howard County's annual winter shelter program is coming to an end.

With the county's permanent Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center shelter full, more than a dozen religious congregations take turns hosting the nightly shelter for one or two weeks from November through late March. Starting tomorrow morning, though, the winter shelter guests will be on their own until the fall.

"We have discovered this chronic homeless population that really doesn't avail themselves of the traditional services that are available," said Andrea S. Ingram, Grassroots director. "We work hard to get them services for mental illness or addictions, and we try to keep them safe and warm for the winter."

Asked where he will sleep tomorrow night, Johnson's answer was similar to those of a number of his fellow homeless in the four-year-old winter shelter program.

"I don't know. I'm going to be out. I have no place," Johnson said. He lost his last place in December after a fire, the burly, leathery-skinned Texas native said.

"It would be really wonderful if I could say that homelessness is going away, but unfortunately, unless we have big changes, people will continue to be homeless," Ingram said.

Howard County's Section 8 rental subsidy waiting list has been closed for several years as federal funds for social programs have been squeezed. Those on the list face an average five-year wait, county housing officials said.

Winter shelter programs for the homeless are also closing in Baltimore City, Carroll and Anne Arundel counties, while Baltimore and Harford counties are trying to keep their sites open longer, if not permanently.

Baltimore City's Code Blue shelters make 150 beds available between Nov. 15 and March 31, adding another 150 when the temperature at night dips to 32 degrees or lower. Baltimore County's seasonal shelter in Catonsville was to close April 15, but manager Rob Quigg said it is housing about 100 people a night, compared with less than 20 a decade ago.

"I don't see it closing," he said. Howard's Grassroots program called Friday, he said, looking for space after today.

Shelters run by public-private partnerships in Carroll and Anne Arundel are to close April 1.

Harford's Faith Communities and Civic Agencies United, a coalition of churches and nonprofits, was to shut the county's only shelter March 31, but have decided to try to stay open year-round, said Judy Merritt, executive director.

"We're kind of out on a limb," she said, adding that the group has enough money to stay open through April.

At St. John Baptist Church in Columbia on Thursday night, groups of volunteers scurried back and forth setting up trays of hot food and cold drinks in the large community room. The homeless begin arriving about 6 each evening and depart by 7 a.m. the next day.

Virgie Pope, the 75-year-old Columbia resident who organizes the church's volunteer effort each year, said about 100 people participate by cooking food, transporting the homeless to and from the church shelter, laundering their clothes and sleeping at the shelter each night, along with a professional social worker.

After a group prayer led by volunteer Kwasi Incoom, 50, of Columbia, people lined up for the food: trays of fried and baked chicken, two kinds of potato salad, green salad, macaroni and cheese, hot cabbage, rolls and vegetable soup, with cake and apple pie for dessert.

Some of the men in the group said they have spent time in jail, and had drug-addiction problems, while others say they are clean and working but don't have enough money to rent a place. Marcia Ellis Anderson, 48, said she has been ill and was in a car accident in September. Her former husband and her two children live in West Palm Beach, Fla. Her troubles began with her separation several years ago, and she has been homeless since November, she said.

"I am just trusting in God" for a place to go, she said.

Johnson said he has applied to enter a residential program in New Carrolton in Prince George's County, but he won't get word on a decision until Tuesday, and he has no transportation to get there.

Although Grassroots is planning a new, expanded building for its permanent shelter program this year, the cold-weather shelter will resume operations next winter because the need remains, Ingram said. Howard County's winter shelter costs $40,800 a year to operate, with the county government providing half the funding and donations covering the rest. Last year, nearly 100 people were sheltered.

The Rev. Osteen Truitt, a minister at St. John Baptist Church, said her congregation is committed to helping serve the homeless next year, too.

"The reality is, homelessness is an issue for Howard County," she said.

"We just think it's so important. Most of the [church] people here are middle class or better," she said. "This is a good opportunity to reach out to others, to share our goods and time for the church. It makes our lives more meaningful to help somebody."

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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