Men seeking shelter are often turned away and women and children face waiting lists in Carroll County, where the agency that operates four homeless shelters is running out of money.
Until last fall, the Human Services Program of Carroll County never had reached capacity, except for a day here or there, and had never had a waiting list. Since then, its shelters have been full, exhausting its budget.
For the first time since opening its first shelter in 1985, Human Services last week sought private donations. The program needs about $12,000 to keep operating until Nov. 1, when federal funds will be available as the government begins a new fiscal year.
"We're the front end of the safety net," said Sylvia Canon, executive director of Human Services. As such, the program indicates the direction of the local economy, where hard times have spread through a once booming rural and suburban county.
The wait to get into a shelter was a fearful one for Sarah, 35, who withheld her last name. She and her 17-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter entered a Westminster shelter for women and their children Sept. 18, after about a week on the waiting list.
Many women want shelter immediately, either because they have been deserted by someone whose income they depended on, or because they are escaping a life of abuse.
Sarah said she and her children had fled physical and sexual abuse in Philadelphia, and thought they had found a safe haven in a Westminster household. But the behavior of others in her new surroundings led her to new fears.
"I feared for my children," she said.
Human Services estimated the shelter for women and their children, with 14 beds, and two shelters for families, with 10 beds between them, have waiting lists that lengthen sometimes to almost 30 people. At a third shelter, with 12 beds for men, the staff turns men away, said Canon, in the belief that single men have an easier time finding people to take them in than women with children.
Human Services is a private, non-profit group under county contract to provide social services in Carroll. Its shelter budget of about $200,000 -- almost all federal, state and county government money -- is about the same as last year.
"The difference is the demand, the need, is much greater," Canon said.
Over the past three years, Human Services has sheltered 330 women, 254 men and 471 children. Agency records show that the more recent arrivals are coming to the shelters with less money, having a harder time finding work and staying longer at the shelters, all of which delays others trying to get in.
This is a reversal of the pattern of the late 1980s when rapid suburban development in Carroll created a wealth of low-skilled jobs. When shelter clients sought work in those days, said Lynda Gainor, the deputy director in charge of the shelter program, "all they needed was a permanent address to get a job."
Shelter staff noticed the foundering of the economy last fall, as employers began laying off fast-food workers, building trades laborers and others with low skills, Gainor said. Those still working may have only part-time hours, she said, often for little more than the minimum wage of $4.24 an hour.
Human Services figures show that during the fiscal year that ended in June 1989, while times were still good, 26 percent of the women found jobs before leaving the shelter, compared with 18 percent in the fiscal year that ended in June. For men, the figure dropped from 77 percent in fiscal 1989, to 34 percent in fiscal 1991.
In Carroll, the pick of jobs is narrowed by proximity to home. "Our folks don't have transportation," Canon said. "They have to have job they can walk to."
As the economy has declined, the shelter program has begun to see more intact families, people with more education but less money. In fiscal 1989, the average education level among women in the shelters was 10.4 grade years and the average income was $308 a month when they arrived. By fiscal 1991, average education was 11.9 years. Average monthly income was $142.
Among men, the changes were less pronounced -- 11 years' average education in 1989 and 11.9 years in 1991. Average income level upon arrival at the shelter dropped in that period from $203 to $135. Men's income was lower than that of women because they are less likely to qualify for public assistance, though men typically left the shelter with higher paying jobs than women.
Through the shelter, where they may stay a maximum of 12 weeks, clients may seek public or subsidized housing or other cheap quarters. But a diminishing supply of low-rent hotels and trailer courts makes their search harder.
Gainor said the rapid development of some parts of the county encouraged cheap hotels to go "upscale," beyond the reach of their former clientele.
Sarah, the woman at the shelter for mothers and children, tried to find her own apartment after she started working as a nurse's aide. But landlords insisted that they couldn't rent her anything smaller than three bedrooms because of the age of her children.
On her take home paycheck of about $350 every two weeks, she thought she could afford a two-bedroom place, which would cost $350 to $450 a month. But $500 a month or more, plus utilities, for three bedrooms was out of the question, Sarah said.
So far, she finds the Westminster shelter to be far more comfortable than those in Philadelphia, which she said tend to be inhabited by deranged and dangerous people. But because the shelter requires her to be present when her children are there at night, she has had to change her work shift from nights to days. Her employer could only offer half the hours during the day, she said, so her pay has been cut in half.
Sarah is applying for public housing. She likes Westminster and wants to stay, but doesn't see how just yet.
"This was our great escape to come down here," she said.