Shelter coordinator excels in assuaging human misery Bitzer wins state award for work with homeless


WESTMINSTER -- For Kathryn Bitzer, there seems to be no end to the problems she has to cope with each day.

As the shelter services coordinator for the Human Services Program in Carroll County, Bitzer has seen more than her share of seemingly intractable human problems.

Families evicted from their houses with no belongings other than the clothes on their backs, people discharged from state hospitals without money or jobs, and battered women who have nowhere to go but the streets.

"We have seen every problem imaginable and some that are unimaginable," she said.

Despite the daily barrage of problems, Bitzer has been able to keep her sense of humor and her hearty laugh.

To deal with stress, Bitzer and her co-workers have a simple formula: "We yell at each other sometimes, and we laugh sometimes."

The Governor's Advisory Board on Homelessness gave her an award Friday for her contributions to the fight against homelessness.

For the past six years Bitzer has been an employee of the Human Services Program, a private organization that runs the county's emergency assistance programs and its homeless shelters.

Bitzer said she never imagined doing this type of work for a living. A native of Jacksonville, Fla., she had worked for an insurance company, a bank, and Kessler Shoe Co. before landing her job with HSP six years ago.

She was hired as an eligibility interviewer, to determine whether people qualified for emergency assistance.

From that job, she was promoted to case manager for the men's shelter. The case manager oversees the progress of an individual in getting back on his feet and out of the shelter.

For the past two years, she has been overseeing the operation of all the shelters in the county.

At the moment, the Human Services Program runs a women's shelter, a men's shelter and two shelters for families.

Bitzer said a lot of people don't understand the homeless. Many people, she said, believe people who are homeless have only themselves to blame.

"It's not true," she said. "It's people like me and you. They wouldn't be here if they didn't have problems. Life has its ups and downs, and we generally see them during a down time. They just can't deal with it."

Because of the nation's deep recession, Bitzer said, college-educated people show up asking for help.

"It is really sad to see. There are a lot of them [college graduates] walking around out there. They can't find jobs or they have been laid off. The situation has gotten very bad of late."

To illustrate, Bitzer said that since last July 1, HSP has found shelter for 217 men, women and children. In previous years, the number was considerably lower, she said.

There are other signs that the situation is worsening. The average stay in the shelter for women, who usually have children, has lengthened to 39 days. Seventy percent of those women had no income, and 66 percent of the men had no income.

Less than 40 percent were able to find some kind of income while they were in the shelters. In previous years, at least two-thirds of the adults in the shelters were able to secure income.

In the case of men, at least three-quarters used to find jobs while they were in the shelter, but that number has dropped to about one-third, she said.

"We are feeling a lot of stress. The numbers are up and resources are down," she said. "It is amazing how bad things are. The cuts in general assistance and Aid for Families with Dependent Children have taken their toll. There still isn't enough affordable housing in the county. I wish I could say they are getting better, but they aren't."

The increased workload has taken its toll on the people at Human Services Program.

Bitzer said a consultant recently visited their offices and suggested that each of them take a five-minute break each hour to relax. But they don't have the time.

After an hourlong interview, a secretary dropped off more than a dozen messages that needed return calls.

She sometimes takes the worries of her job home with her, Bitzer said.

"Where are the folks that I talked to today? Did they go to the soup kitchen or did they find shelter? You wonder about people who have to live out on the street, particularly when the weather gets cold," she said.

Bitzer has a 21-year-old daughter, Karen, and a 15-year-old son, Chip.

Her husband, Jay, is a correctional officer at the Maryland Reception, Classification and Diagnostic Center in Baltimore.

Her family is very understanding about her commitment to her job, she said. They alert Bitzer to news items from the newspapers or television that affect the homeless.

She said her daughter also works as a relief manager for the women's shelter.

For relaxation Bitzer goes to her son's baseball games, takes long walks, watches television and reads.

Bitzer said she likes nothing more than to sit on her lawn mower and spend some time cutting grass.

"You kind of tune out everything that is going on around," Bitzer said.

She detests housework and tries to avoid doing any, she said with a laugh.

L "I like what I do; it is unfortunate that I have to do it."

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