Jim Donaldson is 38 years old, the separated single father to 8-year-old Jacob and “5-going-on-35”-year-old Lily. Until recently, he had a good job with a large oil company. But when his son got croup that developed into pneumonia three years ago, all that changed.
Donaldson asked for time off and was denied.
“I had to choose between the job and the child,” he recalls. “It was a very easy decision. You can replace a job, but you can’t replace a child.”
But losing that job started a downward spiral that was hard to stop. Donaldson found another job, but the salary barely covered his day-care costs. In September 2013, Donaldson and his children left their rental apartment and became homeless. As the weather turned cooler, “we did a couple of days in the car, some couch-surfing,” he says.
A social services organization referred him to Harford Family House, and on Dec. 5 the same year, he and his children moved into a fully furnished apartment in Aberdeen. “It’s a stable place to raise the kids,” he says.
He pays rent equal to 30 percent of his salary (after deductions for child care and other expenses) and no utility costs, giving him financial breathing room to plan his next step. In February, he was hired as a materials handler for Frito-Lay. He got a car through a program called Wheels for Work, which accepts donated cars and provides shuttle transportation to people in residential programs throughout Harford County. As June turned to July, he felt confident he’d soon be able to move into a market-rate apartment and finish his degree in international business.
Harford Family House, marking 25 years since it was founded, remains the only transitional housing in Harford County that “can accommodate a family with a dad,” says Joyce Duffy, executive director and CEO. Currently, two single dads, including Jim, are living in the housing with their children, she says.
If Harford Family House did not exist, those children would be separated from their fathers — many homeless shelters house only men, or women and children, not both. In some cases, says Duffy, even teen sons would be split from their families. “We never have to take families apart,” she says.
Harford Family House operates the 25-unit apartment building where Jim lives, as well as seven larger housing units throughout Harford County.
Harford Family House clients are referred by social service agencies and can stay for a year, paying 30 percent of their adjusted income as rent. (Families without income pay nothing.)
To qualify, tenants must have children who are living with them, be clean and sober at least six months, and agree to work with Harford Family House’s case managers to create a plan for living on their own. The case managers can help with housing, credit, employment, education and transportation, but it’s up to the clients to use those resources to move toward independence. “They’re not just getting a free apartment,” says program manager Ryan McIntosh.
Harford Family House also provides permanent housing to families that have at least one person with a diagnosed disability.
Duffy says most clients are hard-working and responsible parents who have fallen on hard times, as Donaldson did, because of a lost job. “Often people think of homeless people as the person on the street corner,” she says. “This is the face of homelessness today. Just a regular guy. The families are more like the rest of us than people think.”
Adds McIntosh: “You see a lot of folks — especially in this economy — they had good jobs, and they’ve been downsized.” Intact and father-led families are becoming more common at Harford Family House.
Nine local Episcopal churches worked together to found Harford Family House in 1989. Back then, it was called Holy Family House, but its mission has not changed: to provide housing for homeless parents and their children. In 2004, the nonprofit organization purchased the 50-year-old Delle Grove Apartment Building. The same year, Holy Family House became Harford Family House.
The building’s 25 apartments have all been renovated, says Duffy, who has overseen such details as tearing out worn, ugly carpets, installing laminate floors and upgrading bathrooms.“They’re not fancy, but they’re all decent, clean places,” she says.
Each apartment unit is sponsored by a church, individual or civic organization that helps set up the apartment and provides contact and support to the family, particularly during holidays. Groups also donate diapers, paper towels and other staples to a supply closet families can access.
Families move into fully equipped units, down to the linens and utensils, and are allowed to take everything with them when they go. “The family comes from living on the street, living in the woods, being in an unsafe environment,” Duffy says. The goal is always to move them to independence and a better life. Whatever we do, it’s all directed at that.”
Not every unit serves as transitional housing — some apartments are offered to the public as rentals for a low, fixed rate. A cozily cluttered book-filled one-bedroom is home to Laura Milcarzyk, 40, and her 9-year-old son, John. Milcarzyk moved to a two-bedroom Harford Family House apartment in 2009, referred by a shelter after leaving an abusive environment. Even though she was working as a grill cook, her situation left her with no cash for a deposit on an apartment.
At Harford Family House, she paid 30 percent of her adjusted income in rent and felt safe for the first time in years.
“When I came here and walked into that apartment, it was so big and so filled, and [the abuser] was not there,” she says of leaving a decade of physical and emotional mistreatment. She stayed one year, then got an apartment in Havre de Grace and enrolled in Harford Community College. It seemed she was back on her feet — until she lost her job.
Milcarzyk called Duffy, seeking advice. Duffy offered her a low, fixed-rate rental apartment at Harford Family House and a part-time job sweeping the halls and taking out trash. Graduates of Harford Family House, like Milcarzyk, don’t get priority for these rentals, but if they rent a unit, they are allowed to use case management services and donated items.
“Some of the people who live here are ready to go and don’t need help, and some are shakier,” says Duffy. “This is just a way we’ve developed to help them stay independent, and then eventually they move on.” Rental residents typically stay two to three years, she says.
Milcarzyk has been in the apartment two years. She graduated from community college and will attend Towson University in the fall. With Duffy’s help, she got a job as a housecleaner at a local hotel.
Her goal is to be a children’s librarian, and she’s back on the path to accomplishing it. “I feel very safe here,” she says, relaxing on a chair in her small living room. “John and I have no family. This is our family.”