When Karen sought help from Churches Concerned for the Homeless, she and her two young children had moved at least 12 times during the previous nine months.
After leaving an abusive husband and their comfortable four-bedroom home in January 1991, Karen (whose real name is being withheld) had stayed with friends, relatives and in a motel. Five months later she and her children moved into a shelter run by the Domestic Violence Center of Howard County.
Although the shelter staff was helpful and understanding, Karen, 38, said the arrangement was hard on her children.
"We needed a place to call home without walking on eggshells," said Karen, who read about CCH in the newspaper and decided to apply.
Organized three years ago by eight churches, CCH is a nonprofit corporation that helps homeless county families become self-sufficient.
CCH houses the family and a team of volunteers provides support and essential services, such as transportation, day care, and help with household budgeting.
Karen recalls being nervous at her first interview for the CCH program, at which she was questioned by four program board members.
"It was rather unnerving to have these people ask you all these personal questions," she said. "But they took the time to look into what kind of person I was, how goal-oriented I was and if they could really help me."
Karen received public assistance for six months, but then got a part-time custodial job and began taking classes toward an associate degree in nursing at Howard Community College.
She had a second interview with CCH and on New Year's Eve 1991 learned she had been accepted into the program.
Group volunteers helped move her furniture into a CCH-owned town house in Columbia and supplied her with living room and bedroom furniture.
"It was such a boost to my esteem as a person," said Karen, who described her new home as a palace.
After the move, CCH member Fern Loos Beu met with Karen every other week to discuss school, work and family issues and to set monthly goals. When Karen needed help with baby-sitting, budgeting or other services, Ms. Beu would call on CCH members as needed.
tTC To help Karen with her chemistry and math assignments, CCH provided impressive tutors -- a chemist and an engineer from member parishes. And when she needed help doing her tax returns CCH sent a volunteer accountant.
CCH also gave Karen extra money on occasions when her food stamps and salary didn't make it to the end of the month. 'D Sometimes, Karen said, it seemed the harder she worked, the less she had to show for it.
When Karen got a $40 raise, bringing her monthly salary to $640, she lost $40 in food stamp benefits and had to begin paying $26 a month for day care, which had been covered through a subsidy.
"Your are rewarded for doing nothing and penalized for trying to help yourself," Karen said of the public benefits system.
Although CCH families are usually assigned a "contact team" of three persons, Ms. Beu said that Karen was so "functional" she didn't need an entire team.
"She's literate, ambitious and tenacious -- those three qualities really have kept her going under incredible odds," said Ms. Beu, a clinical psychologist.
Karen moved out of the CCH house last June to another Columbia town house with the help of a Section 8 federal housing subsidy. She continues to work and hopes to have her degree by May 1994.
She's become friends with many of her CCH contacts and is able to call on the group in emergencies.
For example, when $800 in scholarship money for her nursing studies fell through last fall, CCH came up with $600.
Karen also remains involved with CCH through her new position on the group's advisory board.
She said the emotional support and friendship she received from CCH were just as crucial to her success as the financial assistance given to her.
"The public systems have gotten to be so dehumanizing. . . . CCH is very different. They treat you like a person and talk to you, not at you," she said.
"When you actually give of yourself it's very special and transcends anything that a dollar bill could ever do."