Baltimore County

New housing program in Balto. Co. aims to shorten shelter stays

Tana Poff ran out of cash soon after arriving in Baltimore County from York, Pa., hoping to start a new life. The pregnant 23-year-old was working at the checkout lane at Food Lion, but her part-time wages weren't enough.

"It didn't work out the way I planned," said Poff, 23, who slept in motels before she ended up at the Sarah's Hope at Hannah More Emergency Shelter for women and children in Reisterstown.


Now, with a 2-week-old baby boy, she's hoping to move into a Cockeysville apartment with the help of Front Door, a program that started in the city and recently expanded to the suburbs, where experts say poverty is growing. The program is aimed at providing more than just food and shelter, by teaching financial planning and other skills and quickly moving residents into housing where rent is covered for a time.

"Homelessness has a new face and new place," said Mark Furst, president of the United Way of Central Maryland, which helps to fund the program.


Experts say across the country, jurisdictions such as Baltimore County increasingly need the types of social services traditionally concentrated in cities to keep up with growing suburban poverty. The population of poor people the Baltimore suburbs grew 58 percent between 2000 and 2011, compared to 4 percent in the city during that time, according to the Brookings Institution, a national think tank.

"Often, suburbs don't have the same sorts of infrastructure and supports in place to meet the needs of a growing poor population," said Elizabeth Kneebone, a fellow with the metropolitan policy program at the Brookings Institution. "If you can't afford a reliable car, it can be difficult to connect to those kinds of opportunities."

County officials estimate that 550 people stay in shelters in the county nightly, and another 200 are sleeping on the streets.

"We get calls every day and we have to turn people away," said Toni Boulware, director at Sarah's Hope at Hannah More. "Every day, Baltimore County is inundated with calls from people who are looking for shelter."

"Now, more poor live outside the city than in," Kneebone said.

The poverty rate in Baltimore City is higher than in its suburbs — 25 percent compared to 8 percent — but the total number of suburban residents living below the federal poverty line, defined as an annual income of about $23,500 for a family of four, is higher than in the city.

St. Vincent de Paul Baltimore began the Front Door program in the city in 2009 at its Sarah's Hope Mount Street shelter, funded by federal stimulus dollars, said Mary Rode, senior vice president of program services for the organization. That money dried up, but the program's current form took shape in January with the help of funding from the United Way, the city and private donors.

The county program differs slightly from the city version, but both focus on "rapid rehousing." During stays that average 90 days, clients receive case management, job-readiness training, and can attend a host of classes on topics such as financial literacy, parenting and nutrition. They can also get help setting up a savings account.


"The whole focus of this program is moving families from dependency to self-sufficiency," Rode said.

When clients find housing, they sign the lease, but St. Vincent de Paul acts as the guarantor, giving landlords "some confidence in renting to families that have a history of homelessness, who have poor financial records," Rode said.

"The family, from day one, begins building credit," she said. "It's their lease, and their place to live."

St. Vincent de Paul initially pays the rent, then gradually decreases aid. It also provides help with security deposits and furniture. And clients may get help paying off debt, such as unpaid utility bills, that had been barriers to building credit.

"We have some money for families to help clear up those issues," Rode said.

The program can also help some residents with the day-to-day challenges of parenting.


For Brittany Branch, a resident at the Reisterstown shelter, finding day care for her 4-year-old son Malik has been a major obstacle to finding a job and a permanent home. The 24-year-old was scheduled to start the Front Door program this month.

"My son is going to Head Start, so that will give me a chance to go look for jobs," said Branch, who hopes to find housing in the county.

About $165,000 from the county and the United Way helped launch the county program.

Last year, the Reisterstown shelter received about $800,000 from the county. This year's countywide budget also includes $650,000 in emergency funds for needy families to help with expenses such as medical and utility bills, up from about $507,000 two years ago.

Kneebone said while the recession played a part in driving up the number of poor people in suburbs, the trend predates the downturn.

Suburbs have grown more economically diverse as they have gained population. Kneebone also noted that most foreclosures have happened in the suburbs, and "some of the most suburbanized jobs are those that pay low wages," such as those in the retail and service industries.


The changing demographics have created friction. Many people have misperceptions about homelessness, especially in the suburbs, said Mary Anne O'Donnell, director of the community services division at Catholic Charities, which recently opened Hosanna House, a program for homeless women in Edgemere.

Some residents had tried to fight the program, even taking the case to the county Board of Appeals, which ruled in favor of Catholic Charities this summer.

"Most people — I think more typical in some of the counties — have this view of a homeless person being a drunk, being someone who doesn't want to work, and that's not necessarily true," O'Donnell said. "The face of homelessness is very different, I think, than what most people have in their minds."