Homeless program lacks funds Motel shelter must turn away needy


About 20 to 30 homeless people a month could be turned away from a county program that places them in motel rooms but is severely overcrowded and running out of money.

As of Tuesday, no new clients were to be accepted into the emergency motel shelter program operated by Grassroots, a Columbia-based nonprofit agency that serves the county's 700 homeless, according to county and program officials.

"We have to stretch our dollars," Grassroots director Andrea Ingram said yesterday.

The 4-year-old motel shelter program is intended to provide temporary help for the homeless when Grassroots' 32-bed Columbia shelter is full.

Clients stay at the Copper Stallion Inn in Elkridge or at the Westgate Motor Hotel in Catonsville, which provide discount rooms to the agency.

The program houses 58 clients, but only has enough money to serve 24 on a year-round basis, said Manus O'Donnell, director of the county's Department of Citizen Services, which oversees county funding to nonprofit agencies.

Of the $61,353 allotted for motel rooms through June 30, the agency already has spent about $29,300. That leaves about $32,000 to spend on motel rooms for the rest of the fiscal year.

Worried that they would not have enough money to shelter people this winter, Grassroots officials contacted County Executive Charles I. Ecker last month to discuss the motel shelter program's financial problems.

"We went to them to inform them early that we would run out of money," Ms. Ingram said.

On Monday, county officials told Grassroots to stop accepting newcomers until it reduces the number of motel rooms in use from 17 to eight, which the agency must do by Dec. 1 or run out of money.

"No one will be thrown out," said Mr. O'Donnell. The numbers "will go down through attrition" as people move out on their own, he said.

Ms. Ingram estimated the program would need an extra $60,000 a year to continue providing motel rooms without any restrictions.

Usually, clients move out of motel rooms within two or three weeks into formal shelters. But because those shelters are full, people are staying in motel rooms for four to six weeks, causing a backup.

"They don't have any place to go," Mr. O'Donnell said. "Shelters around the state are full, our shelters are full. There are no [federally-subsidized] Section 8 housing certificates available, and affordable housing is very scarce and almost nonexistent for a family with a very low income."

Grassroots officials say they plan to step up fund-raising efforts in the next two months. In the meantime, they are placing homeless people anywhere they can, including the sofa in the lobby of the Columbia shelter, Ms. Ingram said.

In August, 19 clients moved out of the motel shelter program to jobs and homes in other parts of the state or with relatives in other states, Ms. Ingram said.

Sometimes, clients are discharged from the motel shelter program but stay on at the motel anyway, paying the reduced rates themselves.

Mr. O'Donnell cited overcrowding in the motel shelter program as a warning that the county must pay more attention to county's homeless population.

"Homelessness is still a problem in Howard County, but it's still invisible to people because we take care of it," he said. "The problem is going to be more visible. I would hope the community would become more aware . . . and would become more involved in finding a solution to the problem."

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