Jammed into his in-laws' home, Antonio Gardner dreamed of a fresh start for his family but needed to find a shelter that would allow him to get back onto his feet and wouldn't separate him from his wife and their children.
In mid-July, after searching among the dozen homeless shelters in Baltimore, the Gardners got the call: Sarah's Hope in Sandtown-Winchester had a private room available for the family after an $8 million renovation that doubled the capacity at the city's largest shelter for men, women and children.
Now, as his family's four-month stay winds down, Gardner said he can see a new life filled with possibilities. He's in training for a job as a contractor, his wife works at Subway and they're looking at homes on the east side.
"I've been waiting for it; I wanted to do this with my family," said Gardner, 24, as the shelter celebrated its grand reopening Thursday inside a fully renovated century-old school. "It's a whole new beginning."
Sarah's Hope, run by St. Vincent de Paul of Baltimore, expects to serve around 200 families this year — up to 150 people at any given time, said Toni Boulware Stackhouse, the shelter's senior director.
The renovation — paid for with a mix of public and private money — added a large dining hall, community spaces, a "hot room" to kill any bugs, a therapeutic nursery and classrooms to teach financial literacy, nutrition and life skills.
But most importantly, Stackhouse said, the shelter's now able to provide private, family-style living units that can house families, including those with teen boys and single fathers, helping to stop what she called a "heart-wrenching" practice of splitting up families over safety protocol.
"Every family is able to have their own room, their own privacy, and that helps to restore their dignity while they're going through such crisis," she said.
Kevin Lindamood, one of Baltimore's leading homeless advocates, said families make up one of the fastest-growing segments of the city's homeless population, but much of the shelter space was designed for single men with large, open rooms filled with bunk beds and cots.
The latest survey of the homeless in Baltimore found about 210 families living on the street or in shelters. Nationally, families account for about a third of the homeless population.
"When contemporary homelessness emerged 30 years ago, the majority were single adult men," said Lindamood, who runs Health Care for the Homeless.
Sarah's Hope "is a great improvement to our overall continuum of care for vulnerable people in the city," he said. "It provides exactly the kind of supportive environment that helps families get off the streets and back into the mainstream."
Before the expansion, Sarah's Hope had to turn away about 500 people a year.
Vidia Dhanraj, director of the city's homeless services program, said the shelter is part of a network of support services in the city that also includes a 24-hour emergency shelter, outreach workers and permanent housing vouchers.
A homeless count conducted in January found 2,800 people living in city shelters and on the streets.
The city contributed $1 million toward the expansion of Sarah's Hope. Other funds came from the state, the estate of Willard Hackerman, former head of Whiting-Turner Contracting, and private donations such as the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the shelter is one of several investments intended to help stabilize West Baltimore. It's located in the neighborhood that was at the heart of April's rioting in the wake of Freddie Gray's death.
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"Since last spring's unrest, we have seen a wide variety of efforts to invest resources in new and expanded programs to assist West Baltimore in such areas as housing, job training, community services and more," the mayor said in a statement. "Many of these have been city initiatives, and we have also actively sought resources from partners in the nonprofit, private and government sectors. I am pleased that the opening of Sarah's Hope will add to this community in such a positive way."
Stackhouse said about $1.5 million in upgrades also are being made to the shelter's exterior to better connect it to the community. They're adding landscaping and two to three playgrounds, and offering a large room for community members to hold meetings or host birthday parties or other special events.
Families may stay at Sarah's Hope for 120 days, she said. When they arrive, they go through assessments for mental health needs, substance abuse and financial hardship to tailor a recovery plan to their individual needs. During their stay, they attend various classes and work with case managers on a permanent housing plan.
Gardner said the support he's received at Sarah's Hope will give him and his wife, Cierra, the foundation to support their family.
"I am afraid of failing again, but who doesn't have fears?" he said.