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News Maryland Harford County Aberdeen Havre De Grace

Harford Family House marks 25 years of serving homeless families

For a quarter of a century, homeless families in Harford County have had one main address to turn to: Harford Family House.

The Aberdeen based non-profit has come a long way in 25 years, from its start as a local Episcopal Church project to the county's largest provider of transitional housing for families with children who need to stay together.

Joyce Duffy, the group's director for the past six years, said Harford Family House keeps struggling to meet the needs of the largest growing segment of the homeless population.

Last year, the organization turned away 765 requests for services. This year, it has turned away 930, she said.

Duffy said she recently got a call from a mother at a hospital with a new baby who needed a place to stay immediately.

"The calls can be very urgent like that," she said. "The need is really incredible but we do the best we can."

Homeless families with two parents have also been on the rise, she said.

"We have had people call with 10 children," she added.

Affecting generations

Duffy noted that helping even one family get back on their feet affected future generations and the entire community.

"If we only served one family here... that impact would be very important," she explained. "What we hope is, we are breaking that cycle for the next generation."

Despite not being able to help everybody, Harford Family House has served more than 1,400 families in its 25 years, she said.

Harford Family House has approximately 28 housing units throughout the county. The organization rents or owns about a dozen homes in the Aberdeen area, including the Delle Grove apartment building at Post Road and East Bel Air Avenue, which also serves as its headquarters.

A typical client family spends roughly a year living in the transitional housing and is expected to work, abstain from drugs or alcohol and, ultimately, be responsible for finding their own place to live, Duffy said.

Harford Family House has seven employees, including three case workers, to help them do that.

Most recently, the organization partnered with Vehicles For Change to help clients finance their own car, as Duffy noted getting around the county is very difficult with no vehicle.

The program is funded in part by a three-year, $223,000 grant from the Dresher Foundation, a Baltimore region charitable foundation whose founding family has strong ties to Harford County.

The program also helps the families build good credit and develop financial literacy by working toward owning the car.

"We are not just trying to house people. They work," Duffy said, explaining people get three chances to follow the organization's rules. "If they don't work, they don't stay."

Back on her feet

One client, Christina Shoemaker, said Harford Family House helped her and her three children, ages 4, 10 and 11, with all their needs while she was homeless for about three months.

"I was living in my car and shelters and everywhere," she said, explaining both she and her husband had lost their jobs. She stayed at Harford Family House for 14 months.

She now works at Karing For Kids Learning Center and was approved for a home in Havre de Grace through the Housing Authority. She now also owns a car through the Vehicles for Change program.

Shoemaker said she does not know where she would be if it were not for Harford Family House, adding they still sometimes provide food and other necessities for her.

"I was very fortunate to be able to get in and experience what they did," Shoemaker said, adding it makes a big difference "when you go into a place and you are welcomed."

"They are really open when you are broken," she said. The rules they have in place "are really there to set you up to move forward. It was exactly what we needed."

High success rate

The organization boasts an 80 percent success rate in moving people from homelessness to self-sufficiency, as well as a very low cost for housing families.

Harford Family House calculates that 46 percent of its families have a job but the jobs do not pay enough. Duffy pointed out that a mother with two children who works a minimum-wage job usually cannot afford an apartment in Harford County.

Everything in Harford Family House's office is donated, Duffy said as she pointed out a row of computers given by United Way. Plastic bins held food that clients could pick up, including donations of baked goods made daily by Panera Bread.

Now, in the non-profit's 25th year, Duffy said she hopes to build an endowment to ensure Harford Family House's funding for the future.

The organization recently had a $1.3 million capital campaign to renovate the Delle Grove apartments, she said, and now also needs to spend about $250,000 on some basement repair.

Last winter, Harford Family House lost a grant and had to reduce hours for its employees.

"It was very sad and very horrible to me in the midst of an increased need for our services," she said.

Duffy herself previously worked for an organization for low-income mothers with children in Carroll County.

"This, to me, was ideal because I was helping people who were really in crisis and making sure they had all the things they need," she said about Harford Family House.

Less reliance on government

The organization has successfully moved from being funded mostly by government grants to only getting about 20 percent of its budget from the government, she said.

The rest comes from churches, foundations, individuals and, increasingly, corporations.

Most recently, for example, Exelon donated $1,000 to Harford Family House, presented during the company's recent groundbreaking for the expansion of its Perryman Generating Station.

The new goal is to raise $250,000 outside of its existing budget to secure a future for the organization, Duffy said.

Besides events like Harford's Most Beautiful Baby and Home Runs for the Homeless, the organization is starting a new event this year.

The Claddagh Manor Horse Show and Family Fun Day will be held Saturday, Aug. 16, at the Equestrian Center in Bel Air.

Duffy said she expects about 800 people at the event, organized from a suggestion from her daughter-in-law.

"I think our founders are very proud and excited about where Harford Family House is 25 years later," she said, adding some of them are still involved with the organization.

"I think we are in a very good place. If we grow, we have to grow responsibly so we have to measure our desire to help as many people as possible with what we can afford to sustain," she said.

The homeless problem will undoubtedly continue, Duffy said.

"Really, our job is to bring families off the street, help them make a plan for the future and see them off to their houses and get them on their own two feet," she said.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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