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Keeping families together


Juli Franz remembers the alcoholic and drug abusive Anne Arundel County woman who came into Sarah's House five years ago, seeking shelter for herself and her baby.

"She had already lost custody of her two other children, a 7- and a 9-year-old," said Ms. Franz, a caseworker for Sarah's House. "She came in with a new child. She was really trying to make a new start for herself. She really needed a lot of help, though."

The woman, now 40, has a job and a place of her own, said Ms. Franz. But because of her addictions and a backlog of unpaid bills, she never got her two sons back. Ms. Franz said she thinks the woman's situation might have worked out better if the woman had a house of her own.

A new program at Sarah's House will provide housing for six families that had been torn apart by problems ranging from drug and alcohol abuse to layoffs. Starting in mid-August they will move into four three-bedroom and two two-bedroom apartments at Fort Meade.

"There are people who have been through rough times and lost their kids, but are ready to get them back," Ms. Franz said. "You have to give people one more chance to get their lives in order."

The renovated World War II Army barracks will be a place the families can call home. Most likely the children will be coming from temporary foster care, while their parents may have been living with friends or relatives, said Peter O'Grady, director of Sarah's House, a shelter for homeless people at Fort Meade. The shelter opened in 1987.

Not all homeless people are on welfare, said Mr. O'Grady. Many become homeless because they don't have enough money to handle an unexpected crisis, he said.

"Medical bills are one thing that often catch people unexpectedly and child care is another expense that runs them short of money," he said. "When extraordinary expenses keep coming up, some people get behind and once they're behind, they can't catch up."

Mr. O'Grady also said he hopes the program can help keep together families that might otherwise fall apart.

"We are focused on trying to preserve families by reuniting them and not break up any family unless it is absolutely necessary," he said. "We want to be there, providing support when a family is in need, not when it is dysfunctional."

The program is part of a partnership of the Defense Department, Fort Meade, the Anne Arundel County Department of Social Services and Catholic Charities of Baltimore.

Families can stay in the apartments for up to eight months, Mr. O'Grady said. Each family will have to pay monthly rent equal to 30 percent of their income and participate in the program's activities.

A clinical social worker will teach adults parenting skills, proper nutrition and health habits. Parents will also be offered help in financial management, job training, reading and writing. A child day care center is also available.

Program coordinators said they hope each family's stay will end with the adults knowing what resources they can use to help them cope with their jobs, transportation, health and home life.

"We don't just want to meet the immediate needs of people over and over again, but instead make them self-sufficient so that they can keep their families together," Ms. Franz said. Not having a permanent home "creates a lot of complex problems for people and when they are trying to get back on their feet and want to get their children back, they need some help."

Edward Bloom, director of the Department of Social Services for Anne Arundel County, said he expects most people to move into low-income housing using the money they will save during their stay at Sarah's House.

Mr. O'Grady says most of the families who seek help from Sarah's House are close to being evicted from their homes and therefore may lose their children to foster care.

Children in foster care before their family moves into Sarah's House remain the legal responsibility of DSS.

At the end of a family's stay, a social worker will ask the courts to return the children to their parents, Mr. Bloom said.

The Defense Department donated the buildings for the new program on the condition that they could be reclaimed in a national emergency. The Defense Department paid $520,000 to convert the buildings.

Federal community development block grants of $30,000 furnished the apartments and $119,999 will pay the first year's operating expenses.

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