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THROUGH DISCIPLINE, A NEW LIFE

For Tarsha Fountain, 21 and mother of an 11-month-old daughter, a brief stay at a Baltimore County homeless shelter actually was an improvement in her shattered life.

"All the pain and stress fell away when I went in there," she said.

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After her stay at the shelter, Ms. Fountain found a place offering a longer-term solution: Baltimore County's Elan Vital Center, a residential program for women and their children.

While Congress debates welfare reform, places like Elan Vital are finding ways to free women from welfare.

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The program -- two Owings Mills buildings housing 21 Baltimore County families -- is part of a national movement to "transitional" housing, giving families a stop between emergency shelters and a home of their own.

At Elan Vital, residents get job training and are encouraged to continue their education. But they also must sign a contract agreeing to the strict terms outlined in a 12-page booklet concerning care of apartments, visitor guidelines, dress, attendance at classes and rules governing virtually every other aspect of their lives.

Failure to meet the standards results in demerits, and a specified number of demerits results in dismissal.

The goal is to give residents the discipline and personal skills they need to make it in a middle-class world.

"We're somewhere between those who believe these women should be punished for their misbehavior, and the bleeding hearts who say they should be rescued without their accepting the consequences of their actions," said Sandy Stewart, executive director of Elan Vital.

Of the program's emphasis on discipline, Ms. Stewart said: "I'm sure there's nothing like this in the state, and I believe it's a model for the country."

The first three families to enter Elan Vital in 1993 still are there and making progress toward independence, she said.

One woman has earned her high school equivalency -- she is training to become a bank teller -- and the other two soon will.

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They will be the center's first graduates sometime this fall.

Tarsha Fountain's story is typical of others at the Owings Mills center, where the mothers and their children can live for a maximum of two years.

She grew up with four generations of her family in a home in the Liberty Heights area, going to school and working in food service and housekeeping jobs. She graduated from Milford Mill High School in 1993.

Shortly after, she found out she was pregnant.

"I couldn't tell my mother; I got my older brother to tell her," Ms. Fountain said. "She was disappointed. She had wanted me to go to a community college. We argued constantly."

The baby was born last May, and Ms. Fountain said she bounced between her mother's and grandmother's homes until her mother put her out at Christmas.

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By then, there was no room for her at her grandmother's house, so she went to a county homeless shelter on Reisterstown Road. She entered Elan Vital on Feb. 21, on referral from county social services.

"I get counseling here, and I understand better my family's point of view," she said. "I don't want to talk to them out of anger."

Ms. Fountain is receiving training as a bank teller and in business administration, but she wants to become a registered nurse and will start on that goal in September at a local college.

"I feel like I actually have a life now," she said.

Elan Vital residents must be on welfare and be Baltimore County residents to qualify. Most also get food stamps and medical assistance. Ms. Fountain gets $292 a month in Aid to Families with Dependent Children funds, and $200 in food stamps, which is about average for the residents. She has to buy food and clothing, and pay for transportation.

She pays Elan Vital $85 a month in fees, and $21.50 a month for day care.

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Children ranging in age from 6 weeks to 5 years spend their days in a new, $250,000 day-care center while their mothers take classes and participate in work internships.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development pays the $1.8 million annual operating cost for Elan Vital.

Ms. Stewart, the Elan Vital director, said 78 percent of the Elan Vital residents previously had been raped or sexually abused and 90 percent had been beaten.

Personal use of drugs and alcohol rarely is a factor.

"They come here angry, disobey direct orders, are so untidy that their children's health is threatened, and they are verbally abusive," Ms. Stewart said. "They've led horrible lives, and you wonder how they got through it. They come here resentful, crying, stressed out, smacking their kids around.

"Some women are addicted to the street, the men and the music, and need the excitement, and don't fit in here."

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Five families have had to leave since the program began.

Rachel Smith, 18, came to Elan Vital three months ago with her two daughters, 11 months and 2 1/2 .

"She was a basket case," Ms. Stewart said. "She had a serious kidney ailment, and her two children were very sick. She was on the run from her problems, and had lost her benefits."

The center got her emergency food, and other residents contributed milk, cereal and other necessities until the benefits were restored. She was a 10th-grader at Kenwood High School when she became pregnant. She dropped out of school and had her first child.

"My mother said, 'It's your choice. You have children and you're an adult.' "

Ms. Smith said she lived in a Dundalk apartment at $410 a month until she was evicted for complaining about the dilapidated condition of the unit.

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She is good at mathematics and physics and expects to pass her high school equivalency test easily. Darrell Johnson, from Baltimore County's Project Independence program, holds GED classes every day at the center.

"I have my head on straight now, and I have no regrets," Ms. Smith said. "What's past is past, and now I want to become a teacher."


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