WASHINGTON - The adults in Stephanie Williams' life were getting her down. She had a troubled home life and her aunt criticized her for being gay. So the 18-year-old ran away. She slept on friends' couches for a time, but that made her sad, too, she said.
Williams eventually found help, including counseling at Covenant House Washington, a 24-hour shelter for youths ages 17 to 21.
"I love it here," she said of her new life at the shelter, a renovated apartment building that houses about 20 people.
Covenant House is part of a national, faith-based network of shelters that provide housing, education and job training to homeless youths. The Covenant House model is being considered for Baltimore, where state officials are scrambling to come up with emergency housing for foster children who have been ejected from group homes for misbehaving or have refused placement.
Since January, at least 100 foster children - most of them difficult to place youths with mental and emotional problems - have spent nights at a downtown office run by the Baltimore City Department of Social Services. The de facto shelter is illegal, but state officials say it is better for the children to sleep in the office than to roam the streets.
Nationwide, there are about 530,000 children in foster care because of neglect or abuse, according to the federal Administration for Children and Families. Of those, about 11,500 are from Maryland, with the majority, roughly 7,000, from Baltimore.
Samuel Chambers Jr., director of the Baltimore DSS office, is a strong proponent of bringing a 24-hour shelter such as Covenant House to the city. Although he has not visited Covenant House Washington, he said he had frequent contact with the staff of Covenant House Michigan in Detroit, where he worked for many years before coming to Baltimore.
Chambers said that shelter life might appeal to teenage foster children more than group homes or foster families, which tend to have more restrictions. In Michigan, he said, most youths viewed Covenant House as a place where they would have more independence, something they craved.
"Shelters have house rules but they don't have the same level of rules as a group home," Chambers said. "Kids are more free to come and go than they would be in a group home."
At Covenant House Washington, youths must arrive by 5:30 p.m. during the week and 8:30 p.m. on weekends unless they have permission to be out later, said residential manager William Pitts. He said the curfews help residents get the rest they need to lead more responsible lives, including taking care of their children and preparing for work and school.
Lena Kelley, an 18-year-old from Prince George's County who has lived at the shelter in Southeast Washington for about eight months, said the curfew allows more time to unwind with her son, Romel, 3, at the end of the day.
"I got curfew violations when I first got here, but you get used to it," Kelley said. "You know the consequences. You accept it."
Although some teenagers show up at the shelter on their own, Covenant House Washington also uses a minivan to reach troubled youths. On a recent night, staff members Leonard Watson and Stephon Hopkins handed out bags of potato chips to teenagers at a basketball court in a public housing compound. As the crowd grew, Watson barked: "We're from Covenant House. You guys know anyone in crisis?"
Although none of the youths seemed to have an urgent problem, Watson and Hopkins offered advice, traded cell-phone numbers, and passed out dozens of business cards.
"We go out and let young people know that we care for them," said Judith L. Dobbins, executive director of Covenant House Washington.
The D.C. program, which operates on a $6 million annual budget, served about 900 youths last year through an array of services, not all of them shelter-based, she said.
Baltimore's shelter, in contrast, would probably provide short-term, emergency shelter only, Chambers said. Like a group home, the proposed shelter would provide a communal living situation for its residents, but it would not provide the long-term therapeutic treatment services that are available in a group home.
"It would be a stabilizing placement that would be used pending our being able to work with the youths to get them into a facility that meets their needs," Chambers said. "Their long-term needs cannot be met in a shelter environment."
Christopher J. McCabe, who oversees foster care in the state as head of the Maryland Department of Human Resources, has vowed to work with Chambers to come up with a shelter solution. McCabe's office contacted Covenant House officials last week to set up a tour of the Washington shelter.
"We are going to show them everything we do here," Dobbins said. "We are always looking for partners."
State officials say they aren't sure whether they will work with Covenant House to build a shelter in the city or whether they will contract with another group to create something similar. However, they say they are anxious to move forward with a plan to ensure that foster children have a place to stay - no matter what.
As it is, there are only a handful of shelters in the state that will take in youths at night, according to foster care officials and local shelter managers. Those that do often fill up fast. Some will not accept a juvenile at night even though their contract states they must, social services officials said.
And while state officials have promised to step-up contract enforcement, they say a 24-hour shelter such as Covenant House Washington would add a new layer of care that is much needed.
"We know that there is a need to create something that doesn't currently exist," said Norris P. West, a spokesman for the Department of Human Resources. "We need an insurance policy to make sure that we are always going to have a surplus of beds to cover emergencies."