The weather is turning chilly and the crowds are building at soup kitchens like the one at Essex United Methodist Church on Baltimore County's east side. About 150 diners take advantage of the hot meal served every Wednesday. Many ask if coats or blankets might be available and wonder where they will spend the winter.
"I would definitely stay here, if there was a shelter," said Chris Jones, 51, who was unsure where he would spend the night. "I think a lot of guys would. There are about 200 of us homeless just in this area. There are camps of homeless everywhere."
Pastors Richard and Kimberly Brown-Whale called Jones' numbers accurate. They are seeing more and more people at her congregation's weekly Table of Grace, which offers warm food and fellowship. They know men who died last winter from exposure to the cold — one was living in an abandoned car, and another was found under the porch of a vacant home.
This year, a group of 50 east-side churches formed Streets of Hope, an organization that has started a rotating men's shelter among four of the larger churches that are accessible by public transportation. The shelter will provide meals and about 16 beds per night, which organizers say is a start in dealing with a critical problem in the area.
Homeless men can often find a free meal on the east side of Baltimore County, but there are few places to sleep on cold nights. In light of last year's deaths, the Brown-Whales tried to open a winter shelter at Essex United Methodist, but they quickly found that bringing the aging building up to county code and fire safety regulations would be far too costly.
So, the Brown-Whales turned to their colleagues, who agreed to take part in what she called "a mammoth effort in the hope of lives saved."
"Many of us knew these men and were devastated by their deaths," Kimberly Brown-Whale said. "They were not strangers to us. Out of this came a resolve that this would not happen again, and the shelter idea was born."
Baltimore County's Office of Community Services expects to contribute about $65,000 in grant funds to help with operations and to hire staff to assist volunteers in overseeing the shelters, officials said.
"We know there is a need on the east side," said Mary Harvey, community services director. "The Essex-Dundalk area has more homeless than other areas. We are excited about this new resource and the passion of these volunteers."
Faith Brethren in Christ Church began the first weeklong rotation earlier this month and housed about a dozen men most nights.
"We are basically a small church that is willing to open its doors and let these men stay," said the Rev. John Melhorn, pastor of Faith Brethren. "They need our help, and we must show them our compassion."
By the end of the first week, the shelter's 16 beds were filled and five more men are on a waiting list, organizers said.
The hope is that more churches will join the effort and that a permanent site will be found, organizers said. Many congregations have discovered they must tread carefully when introducing homeless services into their neighborhoods.
Kimberly Brown-Whale said her congregation will host homeless men in a house it owns a block away from the church when its turn in the rotation starts this week.
"We don't want to cause any upset for those living around our church," she said. "We all have to live together in our neighborhoods and serve all of our neighbors at the same time."
Men who use the rotating shelter must abide by arrival and departure times and rules that prohibit weapons, alcohol, smoking and drugs.
One of the sheltering churches in the group refused to provide information about where it would offer services, concerned about a backlash from nearby residents. Baltimore County, like many neighboring jurisdictions, does not make public the location of its shelters.
All requests for a bed in a county shelter go through a screening process at the Department of Social Services. The process helps the county track the numbers and determine need, Harvey said.
The rotating shelter is definitely needed, said Jeff Shue, 49, who lives in a tent. "When it gets real cold, I'll be here. There is no other men's shelter on the east side, and there are lots of us living in camps in the woods."
Streets of Hope has made many other smaller congregations, like Richard Brown-Whale's Camp Chapel in White Marsh, partners in the effort to provide dinner, breakfast and housing for the men. Volunteers have signed up to cook, move cots, launder linens and donate supplies.
When volunteers conducted the county's one-day snapshot of homelessness in January, they counted 115 homeless people on the east side, compared to about 20 on the west side, said Sue Bull, the county's homeless coordinator.
In Catonsville, a 120-bed men's shelter is constantly full and can be a two-hour bus ride from Essex. In Rosedale, a 150-bed shelter is available for intact families or single fathers, and another facility for victims of domestic violence is located in Dundalk. Men, who make up 95 percent of the east-side area's homeless, cannot find public emergency housing, Bull said.
"This is where we have the highest number of street homeless, and there is a huge need to bring these people inside," Bull said. "Churches on the east side are already making a concerted, collective effort to help. There's more than 20 days a month when the homeless can get a free meal somewhere in this area."
"This is really an ecumenical alliance of churches," said Karla Schaefer, chairwoman of Streets of Hope. "We know we have a homeless problem, and we are working to address it."
Volunteers at the church dinner have discreetly asked guests to sign up for the shelter. More than a dozen, including Jose Rodriguez, 47, gave their names and contact information.
"I have a temporary place, but I don't know for how long," he said.
The dinner crowd usually grows as the evening wears on. Many children, including infants and toddlers, fill the tables. The church also provides guests with a bagged lunch and any leftover food and encourages everyone to look through stacks of donated clothing.
"It keeps getting larger," said Richard Brown-Whale, who assists his wife's congregation with the dinner. "We can say it's great that we fed 125 today, but it is horrible that so many have this need. At our monthly grocery giveaway last week, we had lines around the block."
Rotating the shelter lessens the burden on everybody, said Kimberly Brown-Whale.
"Our hope is to keep these men warm through the winter," she said. "Maybe, we can help them overcome obstacles and find more permanent situations. For now, it is an honor to invite them into our church homes.
"We are looking at this as a rotating of house guests," she said.