Arundel shelter struggles to help homeless

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When her roommate moved out of the Upper Marlboro apartment they shared last summer, Cynthia Williams was sure she couldn't support her child and make ends meet by herself.

But the Louisiana native never imagined she would fall behind so quickly on her bills -- and wind up in the cold just a few months later.

Homeless for the first time, Williams turned to Annapolis' Light House, the only year-round emergency shelter for single adults and families in Anne Arundel County.

The nonprofit facility does something that many other county shelters don't: It houses people, like Williams, from outside the county who need assistance.

"We're just bending over backwards, doing everything we can to help," said Toni Graff, executive director of Annapolis Area Ministries Inc., which operates the shelter. "If you're not drunk, and you're not using drugs and we have the room, we'll take you."

Graff said she and her staff do their best to offer the facility's 22 beds to hundreds of men, women and children -- some repeat clients -- in a year.

'It's hard'

The Light House is packed to capacity nearly every day. But the shelter can't help everyone who comes in, and it turns away many more because of limited space and resources.

"It's hard. It's sad," Graff said. "I hate it when I have to turn away a mother with five kids -- I wouldn't want to sleep out in the cold."

According to Light House records, 81 families inquired about beds in the two apartments last year. Seven were accommodated. And last year, 271 single men and women asked for shelter; 155 were served.

The situation isn't getting any better, Graff said. Across the state, many other emergency housing facilities face the same situation.

Kate Rivelois with the Maryland Department of Human Resources' Office of Transitional Services said the homeless population is larger than what statistics show, and she believes it is increasing despite the department's last published record, which showed a dip in the number served during fiscal year 2003.

"There are many more people who are homeless than we can tell you about. ... What we can tell you about is the tip of the iceberg," Rivelois said.

She said many do not seek help from official resources -- instead "couch-surfing" with friends or staying with relatives -- which leaves them out of the state's yearly tally.

But even the official numbers, which Rivelois called "conservative estimates," paint a grim picture.

State statistics show that more than 45,000 people were served by Maryland's 5,660 shelter beds in fiscal year 2003.

But shelter was unavailable because of lack of space on 47,190 different occasions, situations that the transitional services office label as "turnaways." She said that number increased from 27,290 in fiscal year 2001 as overburdened shelters like Light House struggle to deal with an increased number of clients.

Turnaway rate

At the Light House, which is in its 15th year, Graff said the shelter's turnaway rate increased slightly last year when staff reinforced its drug and alcohol testing policies, an action that led the shelter to deny beds to several potential clients who were dealing with current addictions.

"It's a more difficult group of people to work with, because their problems are so huge," Graff said.

Before the heightened enforcement, Anne Arundel County already had the fourth-highest turnaway rate in the state, refusing nearly 3,000 people between July 2002 and June 2003, state records show.

Funding the facility also presents a challenge, Graff said. The modest shelter's annual operating budget is a hefty $500,000, and more than 90 percent of the funding comes from personal and private contributions.

Besides soliciting and accepting donations of time, food and clothing, the shelter conducts a yearly fund-raising drive -- called the "annual appeal" -- that raises money through a mail-in campaign.

The most recent campaign brought in $55,000, said Graff, who noted that government grants fund only 1 percent of the budget.

Clients such as Richard Casella, 46, say the shelter has been a lifesaver.

Casella had been living in Florida and became homeless because of addiction to heroin, crack cocaine and alcohol.

"I felt like I had nowhere to go, nothing left to live for; I just couldn't seem to get on my feet because I had no base, no home," he said.

He said he has been off drugs and alcohol for two months. Since coming to the Light House shelter last month, he has been attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and made friends. He also has passed the random drug test required of the shelter's clients.

"I moan about the rules, but I'm very grateful for this place," said Casella, who lived in fields and abandoned houses before coming to the shelter.

Several attempts

Casella said he tried several times to get a bed at the shelter before a space opened up. Others, such as Williams, were lucky enough to find space the first time they tried.

But for Williams, the hope of starting over again soon may fade.

Her three-month allotted time for emergency shelter soon will run out, and she'll either have to leave Light House or hope to be granted an extension. Whatever happens, Williams said she's optimistic that her situation is only temporary.

She has been working a full-time job while saving for an apartment. She also is looking forward to reuniting with her 12-year-old son, who has been staying with a friend for months.

"I didn't come [to the state] with the intentions of living in a shelter," said Williams, who relocated to Maryland two years ago. "I'll work two jobs if I can get me a place."

Despite perennial funding woes, Graff said she and the shelter staff will be there if Williams needs help in the future.

"We do have some nail-biting months," she said, "but we're not in the business to make money."

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