ON THE EDGE There's room at the inn, but life is no holiday


The room at the Towson Holiday Inn is neat and orderly and nice. But it makes Sonya Jones so depressed some mornings that she can barely get out of the bed she shares with one of her children. Two other children sleep in the matching bed and her youngest sleeps in a crib.

"I feel like crying most of the time," said Jones, 24.

Instead, she gets up, takes her two older children to school, the younger two to the baby sitter, and heads for her temporary job at Maryland National Bank.

After more than three years of working for Equitable Bank, Jones lost her full-time job last summer when Equitable merged with Maryland National. She was on maternity leave from her job designing forms at Equitable when she found out that the Maryland National employee against whom she had to compete for her position had more experience.

Now she is back on the bottom rung of the job ladder in a temporary position, receiving no benefits and earning less than she did when she started. Her salary of about $190 a week after taxes, including overtime hours, puts her firmly in the class of the working poor -- too much to get welfare, but not enough to survive on.

Jones' problems were compounded when she was evicted from her apartment the same month she lost her job. Her landlord evicted her, she said, because she had lied about how many children she had.

Broke, in debt and without a full-time job, Jones feels she is caught in a cycle from which there is no escape.

As long as her housing is unstable -- the room in the Holiday Inn is provided through Baltimore County's Department of Social Services -- she says she cannot be a reliable employee, making it hard for her to find a full-time job. But, without stable employment, Jones strikes most landlords as an unreliable tenant.

In fact, Jones would be better off financially if she quit work and went on welfare, which would pay her $566 a month, provide her with Medicaid and make it unnecessary for her to pay a baby sitter $260 every month.

"I can't do that," said Jones, who prides herself on making it on her own. Only once, when her older daughter was born, Jones said, has she ever relied on welfare.

Social service workers say the ranks of working poor in Maryland -- people like Jones who struggle to avoid seeking welfare -- are growing almost as rapidly as the ranks of those who are on welfare.

Maryland's welfare caseload rose more than 10 percent during the 14-month period that ended in September. Nearly 70,000 households were receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children in September.

At the same time, social workers are reporting unexpected increases in food stamps and medical assistance -- services often sought by the working poor.

In Baltimore County, there were 3,188 households receiving food stamps in November, without any other form of public assistance, said Nancy Wegman, assistant director of income maintenance. In fiscal year 1990, the average was 2,975 families a month.

The statewide numbers are similarly bleak. In August 1990, there were 184,670 individuals receiving public assistance and food stamps; and an additional 87,149 who were receiving only food stamps. That total of 271,819 is up from 248,688 for the same period in 1989.

And Wegman has a feeling that more and more families, like Jones and her four children, are living dangerously close to the edge. Baltimore County is seeing people who are laid off and qualify almost immediately for welfare, which means they have no savings and nothing of value, Wegman said.

Jones' shelter is better than what the average homeless family enjoys: a standard double room at the Holiday Inn, with two double beds and free Showtime. But when that space houses a 24-year-old woman, four children ranging from 8 months to 8 years, their clothes, their food, a crib, a small refrigerator, a microwave and several boxes of possessions, it can be claustrophobic.

Jones figures she could pay as much as $400 a month for an apartment, but she can't find a three-bedroom apartment in that price range. She candidly admits that her poor credit history -- she says she owes one landlord $2,000 for breaking a lease four years ago and owes another $2,000 in other bills -- makes it tougher to find an apartment.

"It seems like people don't give people a chance," she said.

Yet her children -- Shannon, 8, Dominic, 6, Shawna, 4 and Rodney, 8 months -- seem unaware of their family's odd lot. The two youngest stay with a baby sitter on work days. Shannon and Dominic go to Hampton Elementary each day and return home to check in with the front desk and lock themselves into the room until their mother gets home.

Lately, with Jones taking advantage of the chance to work overtime, she has been coming home at 7 or 8 p.m. By the time she gets everyone fed, washed and in bed, it's 10 p.m. The only place Jones can be alone is in the bathroom.

Not too long ago, she got in late from work one night, exhausted and dragging. She saw a paper bag on top of the television set and snapped at Shannon to throw it away. Jones prides herself on keeping the crowded room as neat as she would keep her own home.

"I said, 'Shannon, take that bag off of there, get rid of it,' " Jones recalled. "And Shannon said: 'No, Mama, that's for the homeless. We're suppose to fill it up with things like food and toothpaste and take it back to school.' " She told her daughter: "Shannon, we are the homeless."

But the 8-year-old refused to believe her. "That's people without food, without a place to stay," she told her mother.

Jones shook her head at the memory. "And I just kept telling her, 'Child, that is us. That's us -- can't you see that?"

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