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Churches provide a refuge for the homeless

Churches provide a refuge for the homeless
Pastor Rick Haynes, head of security for the rotating shelter program run by the Harford County Hope for the Homeless Alliance, talks with guest Carolyn Castello Wednesday at this week's shelter at St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Bel Air. (DAVID ANDERSON | AEGIS STAFF)

Temperatures rose into the 60s Thursday, providing a respite from what had been a brutally cold few days and from what is shaping up as another weekend of wintry weather.

Some churches are providing a different sort of relief from winter for Harford County's homeless. Fourteen churches throughout Harford County are hosting homeless men and women each night during the winter months through a "rotating shelter" program, in which a different church serves as a shelter each week.

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The program was in place about a decade ago, before the 33-bed Welcome One Emergency Shelter opened in Belcamp in 2006 to consolidate shelter and its assorted services in one location.

The rotating shelters were restarted this year to help those who could not get into Welcome One when it was full.

"Especially in bad weather, the beds fill up so this is the first year we've reinstituted it," Howard Magness, a member of the steering committee of the Harford County Hope for the Homeless Alliance, said Wednesday.

Hope for the Homeless, which operates the rotating shelter program, is an alliance of churches, government agencies and the business community "each doing what we do best" to help the homeless, Magness said.

The rotating shelter opened Monday evening in the great hall/gymnasium at St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Bel Air; it will be there until Monday morning.

"We make them feel comfortable and at home," Dianna Tilton, the site coordinator, said. "This is their home for a week; it's a warm place to sleep and a warm meal, and a place to feel wanted."

Tilton works with Faith Communities and Civic Agencies United, which operates the Welcome One shelter. She was involved with the rotating shelter program from 1999 until 2006, when Welcome One opened.

"The need is there," she said of the restarted rotating shelters, noting an average of 21 people have stayed at St. Matthew each night.

The guests had to line up for security checks after they arrived Wednesday evening. A guard patted down each person and passed a wand over the outside of their clothes.

Dinner, which was prepared by volunteers, was served around 6 p.m. Guests passed the time before dinner preparing their cots or playing basketball or card games.

Guests Ayanna Coley, 23, and Ronnie Howard, 28, who have become close friends through the shelter program, hung out before dinner, she playing cards and he reading a book.

"It's been OK, pretty good – staying out of the cold is always a plus," Coley said.

She and Howard have been staying in rotating shelters for about three weeks and plan to stay through March. Coley has been homeless for about a month, and Howard has been homeless off and on for two to three years.

Both are employed – he works through a temp agency, and she works in a local manufacturing plant making foam products.

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"What I'm trying to with this whole thing is build a foundation, so when I do leave I have something to stand on," Howard said.

Carolyn Castello, 61, and her fiance, Bob Marcinko, 58, praised those who run the rotating shelters.

"It really is a new start, a fresh start, and we have so many people from the church really caring what happens to us," Castello said.

Marcinko called the program "just a blessing" and noted how volunteers take the time to sit down and talk with guests, to hear their stories and offer help where they can.

"It's been very reassuring and it renews your sense of mankind," he said.

Being homeless is not a crime, Aberdeen Police Chief Henry Trabert said last month.

It is, however, a sad situation that troubles many people, including Aberdeen Mayor Patrick McGrady, who addressed the issue at Monday night's city council meeting.

"It breaks my heart that it's 12 degrees and people are sleeping in tents," McGrady said.

Homeless people are all over the region, including Harford County, where the annual count of the homeless is scheduled for Wednesday, Jan. 25.

Homelessness is highly visible and, therefore, especially troubling in Aberdeen, where an encampment has appeared in a small patch of woods along the heavily traveled Rogers Street roadway and the railroad tracks.

This is not the first homeless camp in Aberdeen in recent years. For several winters, the homeless set up tents in the woods on the north side of the railroad tracks in a larger wooded parcel behind St. Paul's Lutheran Church on Mount Royal Avenue and alongside the eastbound side of the Aberdeen Thruway, also known as Route 22, near its Route 40 overpass.

Passersby can't miss the homeless camp, nor does the Aberdeen city government ignore it.

"We don't want to hear of anyone freezing to death because they're hard-headed," McGrady said.

Aberdeen Police and city government officials are keeping an eye on the encampment, McGrady said, doing what they can to convince people to leave their tents and go inside at a shelter when it's bitterly cold, as it was over the weekend and at the beginning of the week.

"It's tricky," McGrady said about convincing the homeless it's much better for them to be in a shelter than in a tent. "We're dealing with some hard-headed people."

Magness, who is with the Lift Up Jesus Higher Together, a Belcamp-based ministry that is part of the New Life Christian Community in Bel Air, said what churches do best is to "love on people, to be able to shelter them and be able to feed them and offer them some companionship."

The highertogether.org website includes a message seeking volunteers for Harford County's annual point-in-time count of the number of homeless people in the county on a single night, plus a link to Home for the Homeless. Church officials can also provide some case management services to people staying in the shelters to help them overcome issues that caused them to become homeless, according to Magness.

The rotating shelter program started Dec. 19 at Presbury United Methodist Church in Edgewood, and it ends March 13, according to Magness.

The churches involved are Presbury United Methodist, Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Bel Air, St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Bel Air, Joppatowne Christian Church, New Hope Baptist Church in Bel Air, Havre de Grace United Methodist Church, William Watters Memorial United Methodist Church in Jarrettsville, Lord of Life Lutheran Church in Edgewood, the Fruitful Living Christian Center Church in Edgewood, Centre United Methodist Church in Forest Hill, St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Aberdeen, Norrisville United Methodist Church, Ebenezer United Methodist Church in Fallston and Salem United Methodist Church near Kingsville.

Each church hosts the shelter for seven days, starting Monday night and ending the morning of the following Monday.

The shelters, staffed by church volunteers, open at 5 p.m. and close at 8 a.m. the next morning each day, according to Magness.

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The guests get meals and they can sleep on cots that are moved from one church to another, along with clean bedding and boxes in which guests can store their personal items. That frees them from having to carry their belongings everywhere during the day, according to Magness.

Organizers try to limit the number of guests to 15 to 20 people, but a second site can be opened on frigid nights to house additional people.

"We try not to exceed 20 people in a church," Magness said.

People are connected to the rotating shelter program through the Harford Community Action Agency in Edgewood. The Community Action Agency provides an array of services in a "comprehensive approach" to assisting low-income people, according to its website.

People can be referred to the rotating shelter program or another shelter that would better meet their needs, according to Magness.

Prospective shelter guests go through a criminal background screening and then have to go through an additional security screening when they arrive at the shelter – transportation is provided, and new guests are picked up at the Community Action Agency while returning guests are picked up at the organization's day shelter at New Hope Christian Fellowship, also in Edgewood.

Magness noted five churches have donated buses and drivers for transportation. Guests can also get bus passes if they need to use public transit to get around during the day.

Anyone who wants to contribute can send a check to the Community Foundation of Harford County in Bel Air, which collects donations for Hope for the Homeless. Checks should be made payable to the Community Foundation, and donors should write "Hope for the Homeless Alliance" or "HHA" on the check, according to Magness.

The mailing address is Community Foundation of Harford County, P. O. Box 612, Bel Air, MD 21014. More information is online at http://cfharfordcounty.org.

Private security staff are on hand to check the guests when they arrive at the night shelter. They must empty their pockets, and a metal-detecting wand is passed over their bodies, according to Magness.

Alcoholic beverages are not allowed, and any medications must be given to security staff. Guests take their medication as needed at night or in the morning.

Anyone who appears to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs is not allowed in, according to Magness.

"There are a lot of procedures in place to make sure everything is done orderly," he said.

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