Shelter is 'always full'

Even with added space, county can't keep pace with growing homelessness

November 16, 2008|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,

Despite having more beds and occupying a new, larger building, the county's main homeless shelter remains full to overflowing.

For the sixth year, a group of county churches is preparing to host up to 25 homeless people a night for a week or two at a time, from Nov. 24 until March 29.

"We're always full," said Andrea Ingram, director of the Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center. "We're more than full."

Even with 51 beds, compared with the 32 in the old building, Ingram said four beds in the emergency shelter room are often in use, with people sleeping in two of the rooms intended for counseling.

"It's wonderful that we have this new building and can help more people," she said. "We can respond quicker, but we still have more people seeking help," she said.

Several people who have sought help recently were "extremely vulnerable," said Ingram. One was a man who had spent the previous three days in a hospital and wasn't well enough to fend for himself on the streets. Another was a young mother with an infant."There are situations where it's more than shelter" at issue, she said.

More than 140 chronically homeless people have used Grassroots' new day center in North Laurel, a place on U.S. 1 open since July for four hours each Monday, Wednesday and Saturday.

There, people - who often are mentally ill or have substance abuse problems and may have been homeless for years - come to wash their clothes, take a shower, attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, get something to eat and talk to a case manager.

Grassroots also places up to six families a night in motels.

Meanwhile, higher utility bills are putting more pressure on many families, pushing them closer to homelessness, said Bita Dayhoff, vice president of the Community Action Council, a nonprofit anti-poverty agency.

This fiscal year, 1,635 families have applied for help with utility bills, compared with 897 at this time last year. Dayhoff said her program has spent $325,000 this year. She said in 1997 utility bills represented 9.7 percent of a poverty-level income budget for a family of two. Now it is 15 percent on average.

The cold-weather shelter is an effort of 16 county churches whose congregations each host the homeless for a week or two.

Under the program, aided by Grassroots and the county government, a person must call Grassroots' hot line, 410-531-6677, to see if there is a bed available, according to Anna Katz, who coordinates the program.

Volunteer church drivers pick up homeless people at the main Howard Transit bus stop behind The Mall in Columbia at 5:30 p.m.

Each person gets an evening meal, breakfast the next morning and a lunch to take with them. Many churches offer showers and laundry services. More volunteer drivers take the guests back to the mall at 7 a.m. the next morning.

While the concept of putting two dozen people up each night for a week with mattresses provided by the county may seem simple, it is not, said Greg McKelvin, who coordinates the effort for the Seventh-day Adventist Church on Martin Road in Columbia.

"It's pretty big," he said, noting that his church uses 90 to 95 volunteers for one week's effort, which includes two church members' staying at the shelter each night.

McKelvin said the effort entails organizing the shifts, getting volunteer drivers, cooks and laundry volunteers, and coordinating with the county and Grassroots. Church members donate food as well as time, often cooking meals at home and bringing food in, while others use the church's kitchen, he said.

The church, which is in its fifth year of participating, is committed to the effort, McKelvin said.

"It's something that's really needed," he said. "Our churches really like being involved in the community. It's one of the things we pride ourselves for."

Ingram said Grassroots, which also offers crisis intervention and other services, also is trying to build a more stable income stream to escape the ups and downs the economy imposes on donations.

To that end, a new program called Friends of Grassroots is being launched. Ingram said her agency is seeking donors - groups, individuals and businesses - who might be willing to agree to monthly installment gifts throughout the year.

"We need predictable, steady income," she said. "If we could have some contributions on a monthly basis, there are things we would really like to do that we can't."

Chief among them are raising employee pay and keeping up with rising health insurance costs.

"We fall behind so quickly," she said.

Pay is low, anyway, and health insurance premiums keep rising and benefits keep receding.

"You get to the point that you can't give people what they need."


Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center

Location: 6700 Freetown Road, Columbia.

Accommodations: 51 beds, 33 for women and children and 18 for men, plus four emergency beds.

Size: two stories, covering 25,150 square feet, three times size of former shelter

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