Al Thumel worked out simple sums on a blackboard in his office, showing over and over again how subtracting $18 a month from the typical welfare check adds up to more homeless families in Baltimore this winter.
One woman, even with assistance through the state's rental allowance program, will have $1 left over after she pays rent and utilities, Mr. Thumel calculated. Others will be $10, $20, $50 shy of their housing costs, putting them at imminent risk for eviction.
"The real problem is going to start next month, when people start seeing these reduced checks," said Mr. Thumel, chief of Relocation Services for the city Housing Authority, where upward of 40 people seek help daily.
Calls escalated last week as welfare recipients throughout the state began receiving notices that their checks will be reduced next Sunday, part of the state's attempt to correct its $450 million budget deficit.
Checks for those receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children will be cut back to 1988 levels. Disabled adults will lose up to 25 percent of their monthly checks. While the decreases may seem small when discussed in dollar amounts, Mr. Thumel said, even a shortfall of less than $20 forces some of these families onto the streets.
"I don't know where I'm going to get it from," said Veronica Clarke, 43, an East Baltimore woman who went on welfare last year after a hysterectomy kept her from returning to her job as a bartender. "My total check goes to my rent."
Mrs. Clarke, the mother of a teen-ager, will be $45 short each month after her check is cut -- and that's despite getting $125 a month from Mr. Thumel's office. She receives $206 in food stamps each month, but she does not have cash to afford items such as toilet paper.
In the past, Mr. Thumel and his 11 staff members prided themselves on being able to help such people. The office has been in the relocation business since the late 1960s, when its mission was to place families and businesses uprooted by urban renewal. Later, the office began working with families hurt by economic hard times.
The agency's primary resource is the rental allowance program, a state-funded pot of money used to supplement rent checks for up to 12 months. Households with one or two people receive $125 monthly toward their rent; larger families receive $175. A person is expected to have a reasonable chance of being self-sufficient again to qualify for help.
Over the past few years, an increasing number of destitute people have turned to Relocation Services for help, even as its state funding has decreased. This year, the state has allocated $580,000 to the agency, enough to provide rental assistance to fewer than 600 families. The agency received $864,000 in state money two years ago.
But the grants are only part of the service the agency provides. Because Mr. Thumel and his staff know many city landlords, they can often find housing at reduced rates for people with housing problems. They also help people obtain one-time emergency grants from the Department of Human Resources, up to $250.
St. Jude's, a non-profit group, makes small grants to people who need emergency help.
"He's always been able to cobble together what it takes," Bill Toohey, a spokesman for the Housing Authority, said of Mr. Thumel. "But it's getting more and more difficult."