Columbia church helps end homelessness one condo at a time

"We don't know how to cure cancer...but homelessness is cured through a house."

For the past 13 years, the Rev. Heather Kirk-Davidoff and members of the Kittamaqundi Community Church have participated in Grassroots' Cold Weather Shelter program, along with other Howard County congregations, to provide homeless people with warm beds, transportation, meals and laundry on a weekly basis from November through March. Now the church is part of a countywide effort to provide a home on a more permanent basis.

In 2006, something struck a cord with Kirk-Davidoff as the Kittamaqundi Community poured their energy, time and resources into giving homeless individuals and families a place to stay for one week.

"The [Coordinated System of Homeless Services] housing locater came three times that week and at the end, everyone who had been here was still homeless," Kirk-Davidoff said. "We felt good about ourselves for about 30 seconds and then we started to feel like crap because for all of the effort — the money, the time, the love and the worry — everybody was still homeless. All the agencies are working together. The only problem is that there's no housing."

Although temporary shelter, food and clothing ensured some relief, Kirk-Davidoff said the congregation's brainstorming session led to the creation of the Help End Homelessness HC 501c(3) organization in March 2012 to establish permanent affordable housing to end homelessness. Their first success: purchasing a Long Reach Village condominium in August 2015, now the residence of a formerly homeless family of three as of Oct. 16.

"The solution to homelessness, remarkably, is well understood," Kirk-Davidoff said. "We don't know how to cure cancer, we're not sure what to do about global warming, but homelessness is cured through a house."

The organization's treasurer, Kittamaqundi Community member Randy Malm, said funds were raised through solicitation and donations from Kittamaqundi Community Church and four other congregations across the county, including Glen Mar United Methodist Church and Columbia Baptist Fellowship — also partners in the project — as well as Bethany Lane United Methodist and the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia.

Project funds included minor and future repairs and furniture.

"In addition to the five churches involved, there were approximately 125 individuals or couples who have also made financial contributions to this project," Malm said. "It was January 2014 when we decided we had enough money to start shopping for a condo."

While the board's search started with a rundown "fixer upper" in Oakland Mills, it ended six months later when the group found a two-bedroom condo in Long Reach that was well within their price range, costing $124,000. Renovations were moderate, organization Vice President Ken Katzen said, as 37 community volunteers helped paint the rooms and replace the flooring.

The board then continued their work with the Coordinated System of Homeless Services to find a tenant that fit their criteria as potential residents.

"It's a two-bedroom unit, so we wanted the tenants to be a family and not a single person," Katzen said. "We also wanted to be sure that the person, essentially, was going to be able to live independently and be a good neighbor."

Most important, he said, the board wanted someone who was working or actively looking for work. In October, a working mother of two young children signed the lease agreement.

Malm said the tenant pays 30 percent of her income for rent and electricity, while the organization's funds contribute toward the condo fee, covering gas, water, sewer, outside maintenance, snow removal and trash collection.

All board members are "optimistic" that the condo will be self supporting between the condo fee and insurance, Katzen said, costing roughly $7,000 a year to sustain.

"Part of this project is an opportunity for our resident to pay it forward," the vice president said. "As she begins to get herself together, she gets to pay back. It won't be hard for her rent to exceed the costs of maintaining the condo. Our goal is to have this tenant begin to fund the next house as she becomes more self sufficient and her income goes up."

Kirk-Davidoff said plans are currently in the making to purchase a second condo some time in 2016. In the meantime, Kirk-Davidoff, Katzen and Malm all agree they're on the right track to helping end homelessness in Howard County.

"It was worth it that we spent those three years we spent making sure that those kids and their mother wake up in the morning on Christmas in their own house," Kirk-Davidoff said.

"This makes me emotional. Not many things do, but this one does," Malm added. "I get choked up a little bit when I talk or think about it that we're actually making a difference. And it's a big difference."

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