Home, in their case, is what others make for them. For one week, it was 18 homeless men, women and children sleeping and eating in one room. For the following week, they numbered 24 and had more posh accommodations.
Families had separate rooms. Sign-up sheets created appointment times for massages and manicures, for showers and help with resumes or finding jobs. They had foosball, air hockey and ping pong tables, televisions and board games.
Home, in their case, is wherever it needed to be — from congregation to congregation in Howard County, one or two weeks at a time — as long as there was a warm place to sleep, the promise of a filling dinner each evening, and the knowledge that a county agency and the congregations would do what they could to help.
"I don't have any other choice," said Lee, a 58-year-old former Ellicott City resident, homeless since November, who didn't want to give his last name. "The other choice is sleeping in the cold."
This is the ninth year that Grassroots, a Columbia-based social-services agency, has run its cold-weather shelter program, opening its doors from evenings to mornings. The shelter program began on the Monday before Thanksgiving and continues for 18 weeks until the final Sunday in March, shifting from church to church. The program began in January 2004 with one congregation, although others subsequently joined in that season.
The congregations provide food, supervision and rides, dropping the men, women and children off at about 7 a.m. at the Columbia mall, then picking them back up at 5:30 p.m. When the shelter switches to another church, the county government pays a private moving company to transport supplies and belongings, said Anna Katz, the program's administrative coordinator.
Last year, a total of 78 people stayed at area churches over the course of the winter, including 39 individuals, three couples without children and 10 families with kids, according to statistics compiled by Grassroots. There were 20 children in total.
Entering its eighth week this year, the program has served 44 people, including 22 individuals and seven families with children.
On a rainy night Wednesday, 24 people were at the Church at Covenant Park in Ellicott City: nine single men, two single women and five families with seven children.
Lost jobs, homes
All of the shelter clients had their own stories. They were all still looking for work or a more permanent home, a pursuit they said takes up much of their days when away from the shelter.
Lee said he had lost his job, separated from his wife and did not have enough money remaining to start a new life elsewhere.
Steve Schwebke said he had been laid off in Iowa in March, taken off for what he thought were greener pastures in Delaware, only to realize there might be more opportunities in Maryland.
Beverly and Michael S., who asked that their last name not be used, sat down with their 3-year-old daughter Jan. 11 over plates of meatloaf, green beans and scalloped potatoes. Their 14-month-old son was with another family member to go to a medical appointment, but would later rejoin them.
They had arrived at the church just the night before, Beverly said, after being homeless for about two months. The family had moved to Laurel in September from Kings Contrivance in Columbia, unable to afford an apartment big enough for their family.
Beverly, 20, had been driving her husband to a job as a custodian in Columbia, but when her car broke down, he missed too much work and was fired, she said. The family stayed with Michael's mother for a bit, then Grassroots put them up in a hotel for a month until there was room in the cold-weather shelter, she said.
"As soon as we can get a stable home, it'll be easier to get a job," Beverly said. "But we can't get a home unless we're working. I don't really know what the plan is."
Jasmine Johnson, 25, had lived in Sterling, Va., with her sons, 8 and 2. She said a roommate had not paid rent after an altercation, and they were evicted in June. They had been in shelters in Virginia and Baltimore, had stayed temporarily with family members and friends, and ended up in the cold weather shelter on Jan. 5.
"It's hard, and it's not good for the kids," Johnson said. "It's rough. I've had times where I cried and didn't think I had anyone else."
She said she soon would be starting a part-time job with the county Department of Social Services, working in exchange for a child care voucher and some money. She spoke of possibly attending classes at Howard Community College and becoming a medical assistant.
"Every day's not a promise. It could be worse right now," she said. "It's tough on my older son. He ain't been in school in about a week and a half. He wants to be stable. He wants his own room. I'm trying to make that happen for him."
In fact, most of the people who stay at the cold weather shelter have a "positive resolution," Katz said, either ending up in permanent housing, a Grassroots shelter or staying with friends or family. Last year, 52 of the 78 people, or two out of every three, went on to one of those places.
Plans and dreams
Many of the men and women at the cold-weather shelter Wednesday night spoke of their plans. Schwebke is applying for jobs. At the least, he wanted to make it through winter, and then he could stay in the woods behind Wal-Mart, he said.
He was worried about running out of money and not being able to afford to keep his property in storage anymore, items he had rented a truck for and driven from Iowa to Delaware and then to Maryland.
"When I was younger, I used to dream about getting a house. Now I dream about getting a room someplace," he said.
Lee said he hoped either to have enough money by the end of winter to move, or at least to be in the process of saving for an apartment. He could stay in his car until then, he said.
He sat on a couch, watching a comedy series on the television, and recalled one night when he couldn't sleep.
"I look around and there are 12 guys on the floor, and I was thinking to myself, 'What the hell did I do to get to this point?' " he said. "Everybody here is in the same boat. Everybody is doing everything to get out of this situation."