By the time Ingram-Hudgins met him, though, she was already on a mission.

'They call me Harold'

She reached a crisis in her own life in the spring of 2010 when, at age 47, the mother of two daughters ended up in an intensive care unit at Laurel Regional Hospital, being treated for blood clots in both lungs. Facing her own mortality "gave me a pause to reflect. It gave me a sense there was something else I had to do," she said.

Her younger daughter, Ashley, was already in the habit of asking her mother to stop at intersections so the girl could give her own money to homeless people. Months after Ingram-Hudgins was released from the hospital, she and her daughter took the practice to another level, making gift bags filled with fruit, gloves, scarves and toiletries.

On Christmas Day 2010, Ingram-Hudgins drove to the intersection of University Boulevard and New Hampshire Avenue in Langley Park and handed out about 15 bags. One homeless man she met that day made a strong impression on her. He was probably in his mid-30s, slim, with a smile from "ear to ear," she says. Asked his name, he said, "They call me Harold."

She saw him again a few weeks later, on a cold day in January, and asked him what he needed most. He said he needed a hat. Her daughter, Ashley, knitted one for him, and suggested to her mother that she might start some sort of organization called "A Hat for Harold."

She saw him several times in the weeks that followed. Once she bought him a bus pass. Then he said he and his girlfriend needed a night or two "off the concrete," so she paid for a motel. The last time she saw him was February of last year, in the lobby of the Econo Lodge on New Hampshire Avenue, when she handed him $300 for a room he said he had found that he could rent.

He smiled and said, "We'll use this to rise."

She told him she couldn't do any more, she said.

"I walked out and drove away, and I haven't seen him since," she said. "I would love to know what happened to him. And I would love to help him."

Instead, she's trying to help his peers among the homeless. It's an unusual approach. She hasn't found another organization doing precisely the same thing.

Neil Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said he's never heard of A Hat for Harold, and said the approach is unlike anything he knows about. He likes the idea.

"What I really appreciate is that homeless people are part of the decision-making," Donovan said. He said it seems a good alternative to giving money to sidewalk panhandlers or "giving to an institution where you don't know how the money is going to be used."

Voting for change

On this night, the voting goes quickly enough. Conroe, who has made his request several times before, prevails. Seeing this, McCulley revises his request from $132 for two nights to $66 for one, leaving no conflict between his request and the man who needs the work boots.

"I'd rather drop it down so he gets his boots," McCulley said later.

"That's work," he said. "This is supposed to be about a hand up, not a handout."

That makes 14 grants since the meetings began in early November, for a total of $1,212.

Using an iPhone mobile app from the PexCard company, Ingram-Hudgins moves money electronically from one account to the debit cards. She programs the cards to pay no more than the amount granted, and only for the product category that the person requested. For instance, if someone asked for something to buy from "automotive dealers," the card would deny an attempt to buy something in "retail stores," or "travel and transportation."

Since the program started, two charges have been denied. In one instance, the person tried to spend $70.20 at Walmart when the grant was for $35. In another, the person thought he had enough money left over from his purchase of cellphone time for a $5.71 sandwich at Subway, but the charge was denied.

She's still not sure how these cases should be handled, but she'll take it up with the group at the next meeting.

She hasn't started applying for formal grants, but she has been raising money through a Facebook page and a website, http://www.ahatforharold.org.

"We're a long way from being sustainable," she said, heading back out to her car in a cold rain, her day's work completed at the Day Center. "But I have to try."

arthur.hirsch@baltsun.com

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