Howard winter homeless program sees more families with children

Owen Brown congregation joins program

April 28, 2011|By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun

Howard County's cold-weather shelters housed 20 children over the course of the winter — double the number of children who received the housing service in any of its eight years of existence.

The program is run at 16 churches from late November to late March, and provides shelter, food, rides and laundry services for up to two dozen homeless people each night. The Grassroots Crisis Intervention center, which administers the eight-year-old service, released last season's data this week.

Various congregations provide space and volunteers for either one or two weeks. Grassroots also operates a 51-bed permanent shelter next to Atholton High School, and often puts additional people up in motels for limited stays..

"We did have more families and children," said Andrea Ingram, Grassroots' executive director. She said Christina Rice, a part-time social worker whose only Grassroots job is to work with people who use the winter shelter, managed to help 24 people find new permanent housing and 17 more moved in with family or friends.

"She's a very hardworking angel," said Ingram, adding that Rice began helping people as soon as they appeared at one of the nightly shelters and then followed how they fared through the winter.

According to statistics collected since the church shelters closed, the program served 78 people, including 39 individuals and three couples without children. Of the others, 10 families had 20 children among them, twice as many as in any previous season. Grassroots' main shelter took in 11 people and seven more found a place at other permanent shelters, some in nearby Prince George's County. Two people were hospitalized and 17 others left without any known destination.

Two-thirds of those using the shelter improved their situation by winter's end, Ingram said. "It's one of the jewels that works really well," Ingram said of the program. The faith-based service "is really operating pretty smoothly now."

The Rev. Paige Getty's Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia, in the Owen Brown Interfaith Center, participated for the first time this winter. She said it was such an uplifting experience the group has already signed up for next year, along with Christ United Methodist Church, the other part-owner of the building near the Owen Brown Village Center.

"We just decided we were going to put our energy behind this and make it work," Getty said, after several years of fretting over the logistics of hosting 20 or more people each night for a week in a building where all the rooms are shared with other organizations and where there are no shower facilities.

One congregation member stepped up to organize the first year's effort and all worked out well. Getty said at least 140 people volunteered to help during the congregation's week in mid-December, and on the last day roughly $6,000 in cash was collected to benefit Grassroots. That's at least three times the normal amount collected in outside donations, she said.

The value congregation members took away from the experience will be long lasting, Getty said.

"It was a turning point in our congregation," she said. "Social justice work is a real part of our identity."

Helping people face-to-face every night brought home the plight of those without a place to stay in a very personal way, she said. Some people formed friendships with those coming for shelter and continued to stay in touch after the congregation's week was over.

Congregation members are now volunteering to help the homeless at a daytime center that Grassroots operates in North Laurel that provides food, a daytime place to go and both social services help and a place to wash clothes and bodies. Other congregation members are busy exploring more ambitious ideas, Getty said.

Earlier in the winter, the annual one-day tally of homeless revealed 191 homeless people in Howard County on Jan. 26, compared to 221 homeless counted on one day at the same time in 2010. Ingram cautioned about drawing conclusions, however.

"It's hard to see that one-day count as a trend," she said, because so many factors can affect it.

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