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Federal grant to aid homeless, working poor


Carroll County has won a new federal grant that will enable it to initiate a housing program for the disabled, fund its homeless shelter and help those recovering from mental illness or substance abuse find places to live.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded the county $306,979 last week, money that will boost local efforts to end homelessness. Nearly $100,000 of the grant will help several disabled people to move into rental apartments. The grant also will help pay for support services they might need to remain independent.

Another $86,000 will keep Safe Haven, a homeless shelter the county opened last year in Westminster, operating through next year. The remaining funds will go to projects of the Carroll County Circle of Caring Homeless Board, a coalition of nonprofit and faith-based organizations and government agencies.

"The grant will help us with the chronically homeless and with others who need the services, particularly the working poor and those with no health benefits," said Michael Ritter, deputy director of Carroll's Department of Citizen Services, who helped write the grant application.

In a highly competitive process, jurisdictions submit grant requests that detail existing programs and outline plans for future initiatives. To gather much of the required information, the county surveyed those who work directly with the homeless and conducted focus groups, often at soup kitchens or shelters. The Department of Veterans Affairs also assisted with the survey, helping to locate and interview area veterans who might have encountered problems finding housing.

"We asked what services we need here to prevent homelessness and people were very forthcoming," said Jolene Sullivan, director of the county's Department of Citizen Services. "Finding affordable housing and transportation were the most pressing issues, especially for folks who are trying to get their lives together. There is also a lack of services for mental health and addictions issues. And we need better discharge plans for those released from institutions."

The county must find ways to provide permanent housing for those at risk of being homeless because of mental illness, Sullivan said. A housing study the department will undertake this year should help identify more rental units, she said.

The working poor face many housing obstacles, Ritter said. The average monthly rent for a one-bedroom unit in the county runs about $600. Add a security deposit of at least one month's rent and leases become too costly for many. "The survey of housing will tell us what is available to rent and where," Ritter said.

Ritter's staff will also conduct its annual homeless census at the end of this month. Although the effort is as comprehensive as possible, an accurate count may be unattainable, he said. Last year's census identified 79 homeless people in the county.

"We go to shelters and soup kitchens, and we walk along the railroad tracks and under bridges," Ritter said. "We go every place homeless people might be."

Kathy Brown, director of the Shepherd's Staff, an ecumenical ministry to the county's needy, said the number of people who seek assistance daily are evidence of a need for housing assistance services.

She often refers people to the county shelters.

"People come to us all the time for help with housing," Brown said.

Sullivan said she would like to draft a 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness in the county.

"We have done well, but there is still much to work on," she said. "I know we have had homelessness forever. The question is how do we end it."

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