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.
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."