Anne Arundel House of Hope's Winter Relief program offers meals and shelter to the homeless. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun video)
Joe Clausen has been without a home for more than five years — a period of time he has often spent cold, lonely and wracked with stress.
But as the 34-year-old Howard County native sat at a folding table in a church assembly hall one night this week, digging into a plate of pot roast and potatoes, he reflected on all he has to be thankful for.
There’s the job he recently got in a warehouse at UnderArmour. There’s the chance he might soon qualify for subsidized housing for formerly homeless men.
Then there’s the kindness of people such as the congregants at Our Shepherd Lutheran Church in Severna Park, who are hosting and feeding Clausen and 33 other homeless people this week. On Thursday, the church will serve guests a Thanksgiving dinner with all the fixings.
Our Shepherd is one of about 70 houses of worship taking part this year in Winter Relief, a program offered by the Arundel House of Hope in which churches and synagogues combine forces to shelter and feed about 100 homeless people through the coldest months of the year. Each site acts as host for a week at a time; three congregations are active during any given week.
Gene DeSantis has spent the past four decades doing volunteer work almost every day. During a typical week, Gene will work two shifts at Our Daily Bread. On Fridays and Saturdays, he fixes breakfasts and sandwiches for homeless people at a food pantry sponsored by his church. Most nights, he works
Economists say the national and local economies remain in a state of recovery from the Great Recession of 2007-09.
The spike in homelessness recorded during that period has largely leveled off. Unemployment, which peaked at 10.2 percent in October 2009, fell to 4.1 percent last month. And the number of U.S. households facing food insecurity is down, if slightly, over the past two years.
Franklyn Baker, president and CEO of the United Way of Central Maryland, says his agency’s most recent study showed that nearly 750,000 Marylanders can’t afford the state’s cost of living and don’t earn enough to afford basic necessities such as childcare, let alone pay for the groceries for a celebratory meal for Thanksgiving.
The number of needy people has fallen since the recession, Baker says, but that’s far from the full story.
“All of this improvement is very fragile,” he says. “We’re one public policy change away from these numbers going south.
“[Charitable organizations] have to remain in the public eye, and very vigilant.”
As Thanksgiving arrives, relief agencies are offering an array of sit-down dinners, carry-out meals and even job-resource services — and, in many cases, with fewer resources than in the past.
Goodwill Industries of the Chesapeake planned to offer a free Thanksgiving dinner to about 3,000 low-income Marylanders at the Baltimore Convention Center Wednesday.
It’s the 62nd year of the local tradition. Spokesman Jonathan Balog said more than 350 volunteers signed up to pitch in. Martin’s Caterers provided the food, and the convention center donated the space.
The agency planned to host its annual resources fair after the meal. Dozens of organizations will offer information on services, including health screenings, housing and legal support.
The United Way of Central Maryland has conducted its annual Harvest of Plenty campaign for the 25th consecutive year, providing turkeys and other fixings for local families who called the organization’s year-round 2-1-1 help line.
The agency met its goal of providing 4,000 such meals, offering 3,892 and 250 roaster chickens at 25 distribution sites, but had raised only about $85,000 of its $125,000 goal early this week.
Baker attributed the shortfall to the unusual number of natural disasters that have drawn charitable dollars this year.
Baltimore County has experienced a similar dynamic.
The Community Assistance Network Inc. operates the county’s two largest homeless shelters. The nonprofit houses 335 people between the Eastside Family Shelter in Rosedale and the Westside Men’s Shelter in Catonsville.
The network will feed about 220 clients at “big Thanksgiving dinners” at the two shelters on Thursday, director of homeless and housing services Megan Goffney said. The rest plan to dine with family.
Economic strains have limited the day’s services, Goffney said. One local business that long donated 50 turkey baskets per year has stopped for financial reasons, for example, which means the agency can no longer provide dinners for clients who have recently moved out and found their own housing.
"Even though we do get some turkeys in, we don't get a lot of them like we used to be able to do,” Goffney says.
The news is also mixed in Baltimore City. Thanksgiving services will abound, but in many cases on a leaner budget.
The Bea Gaddy Family Center in East Baltimore, a nonprofit that feeds needy families and houses homeless women and children, was established in 1981 when the late Gaddy, an advocate for the poor, used $250 in lottery winnings to serve 49 neighbors a Thanksgiving dinner.
Now directed by Gaddy’s daughter, Cynthia Brooks, the center has become a holiday mainstay, providing free meals for tens of thousands of people in Maryland and Delaware each Thanksgiving.
The center planned to do so again on Thursday for the 36th straight year, and Brooks said last week she hopes to be able to serve the 50,000 it did last year. But donations have been lagging.
“I think the need is greater than it has been recently,” she said. “The minimum wage has gone up, but it’s still a struggle to afford the rents in Baltimore City on that. And many families have been hit by the opioid crisis.”
Brooks said the spirit of charity remains, but donors appear to be suffering “giver’s fatigue” after the hurricanes in the Gulf Coast and the Caribbean and other natural disasters this year.
The Govans Ecumenical Development Corporation, or GEDCO, works with faith-based and community organizations to provide affordable housing, emergency help and financial and other services to residents of North Baltimore.
The agency served a hearty Thanksgiving dinner Monday for more than 70 residents of Harford House, a shelter for formerly homeless men, and for volunteers.
At GEDCARES, a GEDCO food pantry and services center for low-income residents, director of community services Rachael Neill says the center is providing grocery bags each month for only about half as many families as it did during the recession. But the number — about 335 — is still high, she says, and the need for other services remains great.
“We’re seeing a greater need for eviction prevention assistance, and not many places have the financial resources for that,” she says. “We can help people for [only] a month, but we get requests for it every single day. It’s a heartbreaker.”
Through the all-volunteer Winter Relief, meanwhile, the Arundel House of Hope — an ecumenical nonprofit that provides emergency, transitional, and permanent affordable housing for the poor and the homeless in Anne Arundel County — continues its mission of easing the pain of homelessness in the coldest months of the year.
The program began at a handful of churches in 1992.The congregations open their buildings up a week at a time, offering qualifying homeless individuals a place to sleep and two meals per day, prepared by volunteers in their homes, spiritual guidance and counseling services.
The immediate goal, Winter Relief director Pam Biddlecomb says, is less to offer long-term rehabilitative services — other programs serve that need — than to “keep people from freezing to death.”
In the wake of the recession, the program expanded operations for the winter of 2012, increasing from two to three the number of host sites open at a time and boosting the number of men and women served from 65 to about 100.
Though homelessness remains a problem in Anne Arundel County, it has eased since the start of this year.
More than 320 people were homeless in the county each year between 2009 and 2016, according to figures released by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The number peaked at 400 in 2013 and fell to a nine-year low of 281 last August.
Still, the need is acute this time of year, at least in part due to the emotional nature of the holidays.
Three churches have asked to volunteer during Thanksgiving week: Eastport United Methodist Church and Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Annapolis and Our Shepherd.
About 160 of Our Shepherd’s 250 members volunteer as drivers, cooks or chaperons during the week, says longtime congregant Eric Elser, the site coordinator.
The scene was mildly chaotic Monday afternoon when Elser helped welcome the guests to their home for the week. The 22 men and 12 women set up cots, learned the locations of the bathrooms and visited a tent set up for those who wish to smoke.
There was a stir shortly before 6 p.m., when Elser announced it was time for dinner and the guests lined up to receive their plates of food.
The roast was hot and delicious, said 52-year-old Eric Fish, a handyman and recovering addict who works as a landscaper during the day.
Fish was a guest at Our Shepherd last year and remembers Thanksgiving well.
“The dinner is really good,” he said. “And these people are like the family I haven’t had since my mother died. You’re never lonely when you’re here.”
Clausen, with his new job, hopes to save enough money to qualify for permanent subsidized housing with the Arundel House of Hope, and to end the nightmare of living in a tent most of the year.
In the meantime, he says, the gift of a Thanksgiving dinner will be priceless.
“The people care for you here,” he says. “They leave their own families to take care of us. Some people see it as just another day of feeding. But it’s not.”