Sherri Ingram-Hudgins steps into the homeless resource center on U.S. 1 in Jessup on the cold, rainy afternoon after Christmas, just about two years to the day since she began her effort to help people living on the margins.

The place has been open more than an hour and is already crowded with people stopping in to do laundry or use a computer, get a meal, maybe pick up donated clothing or canned goods.

She walks into the meeting room she's been using for gatherings of a nonprofit organization she founded in the spring as a kind of experiment — giving small, direct cash grants to help people get a job, or a place to live, or perhaps to aid them in achieving better health or emotional well-being. As far as she and the director of a national homeless advocacy group can tell, there's nothing else like A Hat for Harold.

She calls this her "pilot site." The room at the U.S. 1 Day Resource Center, furnished with desks, a couple of computers, file cabinets, bookcases and swivel chairs, fills up soon enough — eight men, two women, roughly the gender ratio you'd expect among the homeless at large in Howard County.

They listen as Ingram-Hudgins explains that they'll be voting today to divide up $300. She says only seven are eligible to vote today, based on their past participation in these meetings, and three are eligible for a grant.

A Hat for Harold is still a work in progress, said Ingram-Hudgins, who is working in collaboration with a couple of members of her board of directors but without an exact model for what she's trying to do.

It seems simple enough: The organization — which is not affiliated with Grassroots Crisis Intervention, which runs the Resource Center — raises money, then gives it out in small increments.

A computer programmer who lives in Montgomery County, Ingram-Hudgins started volunteering here in March of last year, mostly helping people work with the computers, applying for jobs or looking for other information online. She helped make business cards for one fellow who stands out on U.S. 1 with a cardboard sign offering his services as a handyman.

After a while, she said, she noticed patterns in the difficulties many people were having and thought about how they might get beyond these obstacles.

"I was continually struck by often it seems like a small amount of money might be able to make a big difference in people's lives," she said in an interview.

Help in small doses

She writes the figure "$300" with a black marker on a whiteboard. All 10 people fill out the A Hat for Harold request/survey form, which asks a bit about their lives: marital and employment status, number of children, primary mode of transportation, where they've spent most nights in the past six months.

A separate one-day survey conducted in January counted 230 homeless people in Howard County, a place usually associated with affluence and the planned tidiness of Columbia. Roughly two-thirds of those were living in a shelter at the time of the survey, the rest outdoors. They might be in their cars, under highway overpasses, doorways, perhaps in tents.

Most live along U.S. 1, where wooded patches between the fast-food restaurants, car dealerships, motels and industrial buildings become makeshift campgrounds. One resident of the area says you can often see the lights from campfires through the trees.

James W. Conroe, who sometimes goes by Jason, said he's been in one of those tents and has been outdoors off and on now for more than two years. He came to the center hoping he can get $150 for a tire he needs for his Ford pickup, to replace the nearly bald one on the driver's side rear.

With a new tire, the 39-year-old car mechanic figures he can make the 1,000-mile trip down to southern Georgia, where his mother lives, and start his life over again.

Donald "Butch" McCulley, 50, the handyman who now has those business cards Ingram-Hudgins helped him make, said he needs $132 for two more nights at the Turf Motel, down U.S. 1, where he's been living for months. Work has been slow during the holidays, he said.

He had been living with his girlfriend, Staci M. Watkins, who was contributing part of her disability check to their living expenses. But earlier this month, Watkins, 49, was found dead in a patch of trees near the motel. Police do not suspect homicide.

Another 54-year-old man, who would not give his full name, said he's been in a shelter for a few weeks and needs $65 for a pair of boots so he can report for work at a warehouse job in Prince George's County, his first full-time job in about a year. Of course, it's another question how he's going to find steady transportation to get there, he said.

It was a man like this, in need of basic things, who inspired A Hat for Harold.