Families live on shelter cots as income proves too low for housing, study shows


Paulette Morris and her children sleep on cots in a cinder block basement crammed with 40 other people. The theft of a rent check was all it took to land her among the homeless in a shelter at a Park Heights church.

She agreed last month to share her row house in East Baltimore with a young woman who needed a place to stay. Ms. Morris returned one afternoon to find that her guest was gone -- along with Ms. Morris' coat, other household belongings and, most important, the money orders Ms. Morris had bought to pay her rent and utility bills. Her landlord put her out two weeks later.

Now, the 26-year-old single mother rises at 5:30 a.m. to dress the kids and then catch two buses to take her eldest two to their old neighborhood school on the other side of town. Her baby and preschooler still in tow, she gets back on the bus to continue her search for a landlord willing to accept a welfare mother with four children and a recent history of eviction.

"They don't want to rent to me," she said.

Ms. Morris agreed to speak about her situation yesterday as Action for the Homeless, a non-profit advocacy group, released a report with grim statistics about homeless people in Maryland. It found that statewide, almost half the residents of housing shelters were children and their parents. Most residents have a dependable income from welfare, a job or both. But they are staying in shelters for longer periods because affordable housing is so hard to find.

"For me, the single most striking thing is that this shows we do not have housing available for people who have money in their pockets," said Norma Pinette, director of Action for the Homeless.

The report released yesterday was based largely on a survey in July of 147 shelters across the state. Some preliminary conclusions of the survey were released in November, but the final report was completed only recently. Among its findings:

* On any given night, about 2,000 people are turned away from shelters in Maryland because there is no more room.

* Of the roughly 3,000 people who do find lodging at the shelters, 48 percent are children and their parents.

* Sixty-eight percent of those sheltered have some kind of regular income, often from welfare or government disability benefits. But 22 percent of shelter residents have jobs.

* People are staying in shelters longer. In 1985, a shelter bed in Maryland served an average of 70 people during the year. By 1989, the same bed served just 11 people.

Given these findings, Action for the Homeless is urging state and local governments to create 1,000 additional shelter beds over the next three years at a cost of $9 million. Ms. Pinette said the current shortage of beds was likely to get much worse in the next year as people who had lost their jobs in the recession exhausted their savings.

But in addition to funding for emergency services, the group is calling on the state to put more money into housing subsidies that could help low-income families find and keep apartments. Its wish list, in part, includes a doubling of the state's $2 million-a-year Rental Allowance Program.

The report notes that helping families stay in permanent housing can be much more economical than putting them up in a shelter. Emergency shelter and counseling for a homeless family of four can cost $2,000 a month or more, the report states, while a grant of just of $175 a month from the Rental Allowance Program may enable the family to keep the housing they have.

Ms. Pinette said putting more money into subsidies for permanent housing wasn't just cost-effective but was also far more humane. "We cannot allow children to grow up in housing shelters," she said.

Even as Ms. Pinette's organization was calling for more government intervention yesterday, Ms. Morris' story suggested that current government efforts didn't always work as envisioned.

When her money orders were stolen, she was eligible for an emergency grant from the Baltimore Department of Social Services that could have stayed her eviction. But to get it, her caseworker said she had to produce a copy of her eviction notice. When she couldn't find it, she asked her landlord to send her another notice, and he refused, she said. Ms. Morris said she explained the dilemma to the caseworker but got no help.

Ms. Morris says she depends on governmental aid because she has no choice. She is a high school graduate and has done clerical work and cooking at a fast-food restaurant. But she said the jobs never paid enough to provide for her family, and so she relied on a public assistance check of $566 a month. She gets no support from the fathers of her children.

Until she can find another home, Ms. Morris said, she is trying to make life as normal as possible for her children, though it isn't easy. Like many shelters, the one at Brown's Memorial Baptist Church where Ms. Morris is staying requires residents to leave each morning and stay away until 5 p.m. The shelter doesn't have enough money to provide 24-hour staffing.

So when she returns by bus to pick up Nicole, 10, and Jamaar, 6, at the end of the school day, she often stops by a sister's home so that they can work on their homework there. On other days, they do their work as best as they can sitting on their cots.

"Sure, they know they don't have a home," Ms. Morris said. Then, facing another day's search, she took 5-year-old Kyra by the hand, picked up 16-month-old Derrick and headed for the bus stop.

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