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When Janet Spillan sold her Columbia home of 18 years, she had to sell most of her belongings too, she said. They would not fit into her car, which would be her new home for the unforeseeable future.

"I saw my whole life spread out on the front lawn for a yard sale," she said.

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Spillan, 60, had been a stay-at-home mom, and when her husband lost his job the two fell behind on their mortgage payments, she said. She said that this put a strain on their marriage, and that eventually her husband left.

"He took what he wanted from the house, and he left the rest for us to deal with," Spillan told students at Ellicott Mills Middle School on Friday.

Spillan and her 27-year-old son, Chris Lyle, shared their story with sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders as part of the school's kickoff event for Change Matters, a fundraising campaign for the Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center in Columbia.

From left to right, Janet Spillan, who shared her story of homelessness with students at Ellicott Mills Middle School, Cathy Smith, coordinator for Change Matters, and Chris Lyle, Spillan's son.
From left to right, Janet Spillan, who shared her story of homelessness with students at Ellicott Mills Middle School, Cathy Smith, coordinator for Change Matters, and Chris Lyle, Spillan's son. (Staff photo by Lisa Philip)

"We wanted kids to see beyond the stereotypes of the homeless," said Cathy Smith, a coordinator for Change Matters. "This county is so affluent that kids are living in a bubble, which can be a good thing. But we also need to teach them certain values, like empathy and understanding for those who are less fortunate."

Along with a hotline providing counseling to individuals in need, Grassroots operates a shelter for the homeless. It has 50 beds and a constant wait list, Smith said.

On a single night in January in the county, there were 166 people living in transitional and emergency shelters, or in no shelter at all, according to the 2015 Point-in-Time survey.

Spillan told the middle schoolers that after selling her five-bedroom, three-bathroom house in 2011, she lived out of her car for about six months before a spot opened up at Grassroots.

During that time, she called the Grassroots hotline every day before 10 a.m., hoping that the shelter had an opening, she said. The hotline provided her with over-the-phone counseling and found her a place to stay when she needed it most, either in motels or cold-weather shelters.

"Every time we had exhausted our resources, they were there," Lyle said.

Finally, when Spillan was on her last leg — she could no longer sleep in her car because it had been totaled in an accident, she said — a room opened up at Grassroots's women's shelter. She lived there for a year before moving into an apartment with her son, and then renting her own room, she said.

Janet Spillan, Cathy Smith, and Chris Lyle speak to Ellicott Mills Middle School students about homelessness and the Grassroots Crisis Intervetion Center.
Janet Spillan, Cathy Smith, and Chris Lyle speak to Ellicott Mills Middle School students about homelessness and the Grassroots Crisis Intervetion Center. (Staff photo by Lisa Philip)

"They helped me get back on my feet," she said. "They gave me job training, counseling, financial planning — any kind of support that I needed. And having that stability of having a roof over my head and food in my stomach were two of the most pleasant things while I was going through all of that."

"I can't describe the feeling I had, knowing I didn't have to worry what she would eat that night, or where she would shower — the basics that we take for granted," Lyle told the students at Ellicott Mills Middle. "I was able to think beyond where she was going to sleep that night."

Students from Howard High School founded Change Matters in 2008 after noticing a growing number of homeless people in the county, according to a press release. The students raised money for Grassroots by collecting loose change from their classmates.

Ten elementary schools, 11 middle schools, and all 12 Howard County public high schools have since gotten involved in Change Matters. This is the fifth year that Ellicott Mills Middle has participated in the fundraising campaign.

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Over the past seven years, the schools have collectively raised $186,106 to help the homeless, Smith said, "And that's all loose change."

During the kickoff event, she reminded students that Grassroots relies on donations of money and supplies, but that there are other ways to contribute.

"Everyone can help," Smith said. "If it's not money, then it's time, it's compassion. Sometimes people just want to be noticed. 'Hey, I hope you have a good day today': That doesn't cost you anything."

Brice Dawson, service learning coordinator at Ellicott Mills Middle, said that he wanted to get the school involved in Change Matters because, "This is something that everyone can relate to. It's human."

Twelve student leaders from Ellicott Mill Middle toured Grassroots on Thursday and joined Spillan and Lyle on stage on Friday to talk to their fellow students about what they had seen.

"It made me sad, because there was not much there for [homeless children]," sixth-grader Miles Bell, 12, told his classmates. "There was a tiny room with toys in it. I run all over my house, so I felt bad that there was not a lot of space for that [at Grassroots]."

The Howard County school system identified 494 homeless students attending its schools in the 2013 to 2014 school year, according to its fiscal year 2015 operating budget.

"I learned that it's important to help homeless people because you never know when you could become homeless and need help," said another sixth-grader, Jordan Becker. "Some people are like, 'Homeless people are dirty, we shouldn't help them.' But Howard County is one of the richest counties, so we should give back to people who aren't as fortunate."

Miles, Jordan and 10 other students who visited Grassroots re-created a "tent city" before school started on Friday. More than 700 Ellicott Mills students arrived at school to see the 12 students standing next to tents representing homeless encampments, holding signs that posed questions and statements about homelessness.

One student's sign read, "How do people become homeless?" Another read, "Homelessness could become an issue for YOU."

"I like to tell the kids that no one can promise that they'll never be homeless," said Dawson.

Sixth-grader Alisha Service, 11, held a sign up that read, "How does homelessness impact kids?"

She said that visiting Grassroots taught her how fortunate she is.

"I learned how privileged we are to have all the luxuries we have in our lives," Alisha said. "A lot of people have to worry about finding a place to sleep, and a warm place to stay. We should be thankful for what we have, and help the people who need help, and not be selfish and keep what we have to ourselves."

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