After nearly two years of wandering among Howard County motels, Cynthia Marshall and her three children finally have a place to call home - thanks to a new, one-time county grant designed to help working families.
Marshall's family of four, left rootless after a marital breakup, is living in a three-bedroom Columbia apartment, aided by a federal housing voucher.
"They [Howard County] helped me with my first month's rent and the security deposit. I just jumped on the first place I saw," said Marshall, who added that she had trouble in a tight rental market finding a three-bedroom unit where the landlord would accept a federal rent subsidy.
Although she had her housing voucher before the county program got rolling in mid-August, she could never have gotten the apartment without help, she said, "because I don't have any credit." Working with Grassroots - a Columbia homeless shelter that administers money the county set aside this year to help people one step from homelessness regain permanent homes - "was a wonderful experience for me and my family," she said.
And because helping Marshall cost less than expected, Grassroots administrator Andrea Ingram said she hopes the county can stretch the $30,000 grant to work with more families.
"It took $900, not the $2,000" it was estimated each family would need, she said. Past rental bills, bad credit, old utility bills and other debts can sometimes be paid with money available from existing funds, Ingram said. "We're using every other source available before we use our money."
Scott Knox, 48, of Catonsville was hired recently as part-time coordinator of the Grassroots program. Knox has worked more than 10 years for the Red Cross in disaster relief and relocation, he said. Ingram knew he was leaving that job and needed part-time work, "so I grabbed him," Ingram said.
On the job since Aug. 14, he is working with six families who are living in motels, he said, including Jamie Bowen Sr., Jody Darnell and their three young children, who were featured in a Sun article in mid-July about working families the county is trying to help. The family members have spent the past few months living in the Pin-Del motel on U.S. 1 in North Laurel, which costs them about $900 a month, plus storage fees for their furniture. Bowen was laid off from one of his two jobs during the summer, but picked up the second shift at the other one to make up the lost wages.
Bowen, whose family was forced to give up an apartment in March after an illness caused him to lose his job, works 80 hours a week at a Laundromat a mile from the motel. He rides there daily on a donated bicycle, and he is working to qualify for the county's help in getting a place.
"He's been wonderful," Bowen said of Knox, who has driven family members to several appointments and has helped him with paperwork and instructions.
Bowen's eldest child, Jamie Bowen Jr., who turned 4 last week, wore a bright blue T-shirt and brandished a tiny transparent water gun Friday as he played in the Laundromat.
But Bowen and Darnell are looking for an affordable place that is big enough for their three children, ages 4, 19 months and 4 months, and close enough to get to work without a car. They are hopeful, Bowen said.
To be eligible for county help, families must have lived in a motel - paying their own way - for at least three months and must agree to a year of follow-up "as intense as needed," to make sure they stay on track, Ingram said. In addition, drug testing is required, though a positive test doesn't necessarily disqualify someone. Instead, if a person seems a good risk otherwise, Knox will help arrange for counseling or treatment for addiction. Still, to be eligible, a person must first test drug-free for 90 days, Ingram said.
"We don't want to make the investment if they can't maintain an apartment," Ingram said.
Despite how quickly Marshall found a place, Knox said the process can take weeks, if not months. It's not as simple as just writing a check, he said.
"Most folks will be in for a long haul," he said. "A housing search under duress is a tough thing," he said, and costs such as application fees can tie up a family's limited money supply and lengthen the process. In addition, if transportation is an issue, finding a place close enough to walk to the workplace or to a bus line can be tough in Howard County, where housing is expensive and most people drive their own vehicles.
But families that own a car can find it as much a problem as a help.
Typically, said Ingram and Kathy Dinoto, Grassroots shelter director, families that have a car feel they need it to get to work. Consequently, "their money keeps going into their car," Ingram said. One person had a leased car and couldn't end the lease without incurring a huge cost.
Others see cash eaten up by furniture storage fees as high as $100 a month. As hard as it may be to part with furniture, "it kills you to see that money going out to storage," Ingram said. But furnishing a place with thrift shop or donated pieces isn't that difficult or expensive, she said.
So far, The program is seen as a one-year grant, but if the need persists that could be re-examined, grants coordinator Sharon Dawson said.