John and Elizabeth Newton with their children Desiree, 10 and… (Karl Merton Ferron, BALTIMORE…)
Elizabeth Newton wakes up 5 a.m. each day to prepare breakfast for her family and more than 150 other homeless residents at the Baltimore County East Side Shelter.
She leaves a bunk beneath her daughter's, in a room shared with dozens of other women, as her husband, John, and son Timothy, 12, catch another hour of sleep on blue mats that look like equipment from a high school gym. John and Timothy sleep on the shelter's dining-room floor; Elizabeth hasn't shared a bed with her husband since they moved in more than three months ago.
It's been a tough adjustment for the Newtons, who just last year shared their own single-family home in Snow Hill. They are now one of about a half-dozen intact homeless families at the Rosedale shelter.
"I miss just having a house and the family there," Newton said. "I miss [it], not being able to spend time with my children — not being able to sleep next to my husband … just being the four of us, not 160. There's really no privacy," Newton said.
In Baltimore County, though, families have few options. Shelter space is already in high demand there, because homelessness jumped by nearly 25 percent in the past year. More than a third of the 890 people counted in a county survey said they were homeless for the first time.
"The quantity is the problem. We need more space," said Blanche Coady, supervisor of information referral for the county's Community Services. "We have places for various situations but we need more than we have."
Only two county shelters provide smaller, separate spaces for people with children. The Night of Peace Family Shelter in Windsor Mill offers air mattresses between divider walls for 27 people. The Hannah More House in Reisterstown offers beds for 75 people — only single women and families with children. In both shelters, smaller families or single women with children double-up in a room.
Kevin Lindamood, vice president of external affairs for the Baltimore-based Healthcare for the Homeless, said most of the resources for the homeless throughout the state are not designed for families. Often, he said, families have to be spread out among different spaces.
"Structurally we have a resources problem," Lindamood said, because the system is "not set up for intact families." He said there is only one emergency shelter to serve that population in Baltimore City.
While families in shelters recognize they're lucky to have lodging at all, many struggle with group accommodations that make normal relationships difficult.
Baltimore County, like jurisdictions across Maryland and the nation, has seen an increasing number of parents seeking emergency housing with their children. The number of homeless couples with children has more than doubled in the past five years, with 330 people requesting shelter last year, up from 158 in 2005, according to the county Department of Social Services.
According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, homeless people with children are among the fastest-growing segments of the homeless population. A 2007 survey by the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that families with children comprised 23 percent of the homeless population.
Homeless advocates are calling for better resources for families, citing rising numbers of evictions and foreclosures.
Even though two parents can pool more resources — typically at least one parent is able to get a job — the economy has wiped out these advantages, said Neil Donovan, executive director for the National Coalition for the Homeless.
"They're on a treadmill and they can't go fast enough," he said.
Donovan said the absence of proper shelter makes transition more difficult. If there were more local resources, he said officials would be able to do more to help families get back on their feet, rather than simply providing them with a place of "last resort."
Families with children are especially vulnerable because of the need for childcare while parents are working.
Samantha Schmolitz, 27, and her fiance, Charles Ballweg, 32, were evicted from their Dundalk apartment after Schmolitz lost her job at Sam's Club and fell behind on rent payments. The family moved into the East Side Shelter in March with her children from another relationship. The kids, Ethan, 4, and Katelyn, 2, call Ballweg "Dad" and he watches them while Schmolitz is working at a local Burger King.
After he drops her off, Ballweg takes the car that stores their possessions and takes the children to North Point State Park or other places in the area to get them out of the shelter.
Schmolitz's $7.25-an-hour job offers limited shifts, and she doesn't make enough for the family to afford a home.
"I still know I need something better or I'm not going to make it out there," she said.