Calling for better transportation and more affordable child care and housing, dozens of Howard County residents gathered Friday night to voice concerns to social service providers and government officials about county programs for the needy.
Over a free turkey and macaroni dinner at Columbia's Florence Bain Center in Columbia, residents such as Candace Cotton of Wilde Lake village spoke of the struggle to raise children in an expensive county.
"I need day care for my kids," said Ms. Cotton, a mother of two, who told the forum about the high cost of child care. "I'm a college student. I am trying to become independent of welfare. Help me become independent."
Friday night's gathering was part of a continuing evaluation of the county's social service programming.
As a nonprofit agency that helps low-income residents, the Columbia-based Community Action Council of Howard County is required to hold forums every three years to receive its annual $151,000 community block grant from the state.
Seventeen such block grants are awarded to community action agencies throughout Maryland.
"What we want to know is, are we doing what we want to do or are we meeting the needs of the needy people in Howard County," said Dorothy Moore, director of the action council.
With a median household income of more than $60,000 a year, Howard County is one of the wealthiest counties in the state. It has the lowest percentage of residents living in poverty -- 3 percent of its 230,000 residents, compared with an 8.1 percent poverty rate statewide.
Even so, there are problems, County Executive Charles I. Ecker told the forum. "Howard County is known as an affluent county," the Republican executive said. But "we do have needs. We have a lot of needs."
Friday night's forum drew a crowd that included several state and local politicians, a surprise to social service providers. "For a nonelection year, we have a lot of legislators," Ms. Moore said.
The forum began with some general comments by organizers and political leaders, then broke into discussion groups involving interested county residents.
Some of those in attendance, including Mr. Ecker, left before residents expressed their concerns.
Their complaints included the lack of public transportation -- an issue that could move to the forefront when the county Department of Social Services moves from Ellicott City to Columbia in November.
For some low-income residents, it could be more of a struggle to reach the new office.
Then there were complaints such as that of Ellicott City's Rosie Cole, who spoke of the difficulty of buying a home in Howard.
"It's very tough for me," said Ms. Cole, who is studying to be a registered nurse. "Poor people can't buy a house here."
The average sales price for a single-family home in Howard County is about $190,000, and rent for a one-bedroom apartment can start at about $500 a month.
Low-income residents who can't afford such rental costs have turned to the government for assistance and been told they'll have to wait three years before reaching the top of a waiting list for federally subsidized housing.
And while some social service officials spoke optimistically about being able to meet the growing needs of a rapidly developing county, others expressed concern that many problems could get worse.
They pointed to current efforts in Congress to cut federally funded social programs, coupled with a new emphasis on welfare recipients working and helping themselves.
"The resources are drying up," said Leonard Vaughan, executive director of the county Department of Housing and Community Development.
"The future can be very bleak or the future can be very successful, depending on how we use our resources," he said.