Laurel nonprofit marks three decades of helping 'get back on track'

Laurel Leader

Rose Young, of Laurel, says the death of her parents changed her life.

"I went into a depression. The funeral costs were too much. Housing payments were too much. I couldn't get another job. Everything just went downhill," she said.

Young became homeless at the age of 39 and said she lived in the woods along Martin Luther King Jr. Highway in Landover with a friend for the last 17 years.

"If it wasn't for the people who helped us, [me and my friend] would still be in the woods," said Young, now 56.

Young and her friend are among dozens of homeless individuals who received housing and financial help from Laurel Advocacy and Referral Services, or LARS. This month, the nonprofit organization is celebrating 30 years of service to the community, highlighting the theme: "Old Roots and New Routes."

"This is a time to look at LARS' past, present and future," said Alli Milner, emergency services case manager at LARS.

The celebration, on June 10, will honor founders, volunteers and board members. Attendees can explore the history of the organization and learn about new initiatives.

"We have the opportunity to help [people] get back on track," said Leah Paley, executive director of LARS.

From July 1, 2015 through June 30, 2016, LARS helped 1,730 households with things like food, rental assistance, substance abuse, mental health services and more.

During that time, workers placed 14 families, including 30 children, in transitional housing. Out of those families, 11 secured permanent housing. Thirteen people who were chronically homeless and disabled were placed in permanent supportive housing. LARS has a total of 19 supportive housing units and two transitional housing units that are federally funded.

By November 2016, Young moved into a permanent supportive housing unit in Laurel.

"It makes me feel like I am blessed and highly favored. Praise God. I feel great and LARS has my blessings everyday," said Young.

Young says there are those who still need help.

"There are so many homeless people. They are everywhere," Young said.

According to statewide statistics from the 2016 Annual Report on Homelessness, Prince George's County had the highest homeless population. The number increased from 1,263 in fiscal 2015 to 1,921 in fiscal 2016. In Howard County, 909 people were homeless in FY 2015 compared to 875 in FY 2016. Anne Arundel County recorded the biggest drop; there were 1,471 homeless in FY 2015 compared to 991 in FY 2016.

"There are still so many people that don't know about us and we've been around for 30 years," said Paley.

Richard Cole, director of client services and community relations at LARS, said many clients who come in for help are "in between poverty and middle class."

"If a family has a medical emergency or their kid gets sick and they have to take off a week from work, they may lose pay. Families don't have a backup plan. It can cause a spiral," said Cole.

Antwone Hunt, a LARS client, said he didn't have a backup plan. He was working full-time, but in January he says his pay was reduced.

"I was a paycheck away from being homeless," said Hunt, 60. "I always thought homeless people mismanaged their money. That's not the case."

Hunt says LARS gave him with a one-time payment to prevent eviction. He said his pride nearly stopped him from asking for help.

"The choice is your pride or going on the streets and being a person with all of your worldly possessions. You must take that same pride, that same self-sufficient attitude that you have and ask for help," Hunt said. "To ask for help doesn't mean you are a failure. It means that everyone will at some point need help. Allow someone to help you. If you don't, then that pride becomes your downfall."

Nearly 600 volunteers help LARS fulfill duties in the office, at special events and in its basement food pantry. The pantry is stocked with donations from churches, schools, grocery stores and the community, said Milner.

"We would not be where we are today without our volunteers," said Milner.

Staff members say as demand for services grew, so did volunteers and donors.

Paley says LARS was also able to develop a new program that aims to help clients become self-sufficient.

"We motivate them to set their own goals. We help them develop short-term tangible results to achieve goals," said Paley.

Paley said the goal of the program is to encourage recidivism in the homeless population.

"I'm still struggling today, but I'm doing what I have to do to stay in my own place," said Hunt.

Young says she's looking forward to reclaiming her life and developing job skills so she never has to return to that place in the woods she once called home.

"All we cared about was having someplace to live," said Young.

LARS 30th Anniversary Celebration

When: June 10

Where: 311 Laurel Ave.

Time: 10 a.m.-1 p.m.

Contact: 301-776-0442

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