Redemption finds a home

Annapolis Area Ministries Inc. opens Willow House, a facility intended to give homeless women a long-term place to live while they get their lives in order

June 25, 2008|By Karen Shih | Karen Shih,Sun Reporter

One year ago, Renee Cooper was evicted from her home, a high school dropout who walked the streets at night with her family until police officers let them sleep on the station floor.

Cooper, who returned to school and recently graduated from Annapolis High School, is looking for a job in child care. She has shown drive in her effort to turn around her life, say officials at Annapolis Area Ministries Inc., who have chosen her to be the first resident of Willow House, its new house for homeless women.

"I'm proud of myself," she said. "I want to do what I have to do [to] live a better life."

Willow House, a renovated five-bedroom home on Willow Street in Annapolis, celebrated its opening yesterday. It will provide permanent, affordable housing for four homeless women selected from the Light House, an emergency shelter, also run by AAMI. The house will be available to single women older than 18 years of age who remain drug- and alcohol-free, have stabilized mental health conditions and have jobs.

AAMI is looking for women "who are highly motivated to make necessary changes for themselves," said Harry Cole, executive director.

Willow House is different from transitional housing, which limits how long residents can stay, because the women can stay in the house as long as they meet the requirements.

A caretaker will live in the house to help the women learn how to keep it clean, plan their meals and deal with everyday tasks, and AAMI will bring in a therapist to help the women as well.

"We don't want to handicap them by doing everything for them," Cole said. But at the same time, "we're not assuming that any of the women have that level of responsibility" to take care of their everyday needs.

The women will pay 30 percent of their salaries to live in the house, and the rest is to be subsidized with vouchers from the Housing Commission of Anne Arundel County.

The need for housing and support for the homeless in Anne Arundel County is strong, said Mario Beninzoni, executive director of Arundel House of Hope in Glen Burnie, which runs several facilities and programs for the homeless.

"There needs to be more viable, permanent options" for housing, he said.

Marci Kennai, director of the county Department of Social Services, estimated that 467 single homeless people were living in Anne Arundel last year, and 216 of them were women. She also said that about 209 families in the county were homeless. Kennai stressed that those figures were low, because not all homeless people had formally sought services from the county.

Sarah's House on Fort Meade provides emergency shelter for as many as 66 people and transitional housing for 22 families. But neither service is meeting the demand for services for homeless women, according to the Sarah's House Web site.

"We've seen a dramatic increase in adult homeless women," Beninzoni said. "Any additional housing for women, for anybody, will help."

The women-only house is a change for AAMI, which manages Light House and Anchor House, transitional houses for the homeless in Annapolis.

"In our services right now, we serve more single men," Cole said. "We were kind of trying to make [the services] a little more adequate."

It took about a year to convert the building into Willow House, with a grant from Arundel Community Development Services Inc., part of Anne Arundel County's Office of Housing and Community Development. ACDS administers the county's federally funded community development block grants, which provided $25,000 for the Willow House project.

ACDS has worked closely with AAMI over the years and saw the building as a "golden opportunity" to create affordable housing in Annapolis, said Kathleen Koch, executive director of ACDS.

The house was converted with the help of the local community, particularly the Junior League of Annapolis, which helped furnish and decorate the house with donations from local residents and businesses. "We got involved because we wanted to support projects that build better communities and that support women," said Renee Christel, of the league.

With strong local support, Cooper can now work toward her dream of going to cosmetology school for hairstyling.

"I want to get to my goal ... [to] open my own salon," she said.

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