Need for aid moves to suburbs

The Baltimore Sun

The main hallway in Baltimore County's emergency shelter is a place where the hungry wait in line for food. A couple curse at each other. Children run around. Babies cry.

And when it is time for sleep, blue gym mats are placed on the floors, and dozens of people lie side by side, leaving barely enough room to walk.

The shelter, in a brick building near Franklin Square Hospital Center, wasn't always so crowded. But the number of people who have stayed there in the past year has increased drastically - as the number in Baltimore County seeking help with food, heating bills and other needs also has surged, according to county officials and advocates for the needy.

The rise in requests for help seems to be tied to increases in rent and other costs of living, exacerbated, some say, by the demolition of low-income housing units in the county. And it seems to follow a geographic shift in poverty from cities to suburbs that, according to a report released last week, is being seen across the country.

Advocates for the poor say the increased demand in Baltimore County - geographically, a likely first stop for poor people moving out of the city - is staggering. They worry that they might not be able to keep up with the requests.

"We apparently have hit the wall," Richard Doran, executive director of the Community Assistance Network, said of his charity's ability to handle requests for help. "We've always been able to take that next walk-in client and just deal with it. We just can't do it anymore, and it's a rude awakening for us."

Officials in Howard, Harford, Carroll, Anne Arundel and Montgomery counties also report rises in demand for services for the needy.

"We are seeing more evictions, more homeless people," said Marcia Kennai, social services director for Anne Arundel County. "The shelters tend to be full, especially in the cold weather."

One night this month, Carroll County's 30-bed emergency shelter was 29 people over capacity. And the quasi-governmental Community Action Council in Howard County reported this fall that it was spending money on eviction prevention at nearly twice the rate as the previous year.

Advocates for the poor in Baltimore County say the growing need for help in the county is reflected in the numbers.

In the 12 months ending in June, occupancy at the Rosedale shelter increased by 54 percent from the previous year. The average number of people staying at the shelter remained at 179 - or 29 above capacity - through the summer, prompting the county to open its winter shelter in Catonsville a month early. Since then, the Catonsville shelter has consistently been overflowing.

Also in the 12 months ending in June, the county social services department distributed $474,500 in emergency aid for rent, electricity bills and medical care - a 26 percent increase from the previous year. The county expects to spend a similar amount in emergency aid this year.

The Assistance Center of Towson Churches, made up of 44 churches, reported handing out food items to 6,586 people between January and October - 1,338 more people than in the same period last year. While the charity has not updated statistics in recent weeks, leaders say the number of people seeking help at the organization has not abated.

A smaller charity, the Perry Hall United Methodist Church, reported this fall that it was receiving twice the number of requests for food in the past year. The church was serving about 20 families per week, a church official said.

"The need for food has increased considerably," said Lida Diller, a church leader. "I just think, 'Oh my gosh, the shelves are empty again.'"

Officials say they cannot be sure of what is causing the increased demands, but they point to higher rents and home prices, an increase in utility prices and other expenses that are outpacing wages.

At the same time, the landscape of poverty seems to be changing, according to a new study. For the first time, there are more homeless people living in the suburbs than in major cities, following a trend that began in the 1990s, the Brookings Institution reported in a study released this month.

The report, which covered 1999 to 2005, did not show a pronounced difference in the landscape of poverty in the suburbs of Washington or Baltimore. But Montgomery County officials say the number of people seeking financial assistance and shelter this year has increased significantly.

And advocates for the poor report an increasing number of people in poverty from Baltimore City moving into the region's suburbs, especially Baltimore County, and they say the effects have been most noticeable only in the past year and a half.

About 60 percent of the people who show up at the emergency shelters in Rosedale and Catonsville used to live in Baltimore, shelter managers say.

Many of the people come to the shelter after a disaster - such as a fire or unexpected illness - pushes them beyond their means.

One of them is Denise Rogers, 44, who on a recent night hung Christmas lights inside an office at the Rosedale shelter.

Rogers, who said she gave up heroin 12 years ago, and her 12-year-old son had been living in the basement of her mother's home in Northwest Baltimore. Then one day last winter, her mother said she was selling the house and moving to a senior residence, giving Rogers and her son two weeks to move out, Rogers said. Because Rogers had been baby-sitting children at the house, she lost her job, too.

For a while, she slept on a porch while her son stayed with a relative. In April, the pair came to the Rosedale facility. Rogers said she wakes up every morning at 4:30 from the pain of sleeping on the floor. She has made few friends.

"You can't even leave a bar of soap around without it getting taken," Rogers said.

Her son, Stephen, said his DVD and CD players were stolen. "I can't stand it here," he said.

Rogers said she makes money by watching children at the shelter. She is waiting for social workers to place her in affordable housing.

She and her son seem to be part of a trend. More and more of the homeless in the city and the county are women and children, homeless advocates say.

One night last week, half of the shelter's 139 occupants were children, including infants.

"Three years ago, if we had 10 kids, that was a freak accident," said Rob Quigg, manager of the Rosedale shelter.

He was once homeless, checking in at the shelter after years of dealing with bipolar disorder. He began seeing a counselor and working at the shelter as a volunteer, and he now works full time for Community Assistance Network, which runs the shelter.

"It's a job getting out of homelessness, getting people to listen to you, getting what you need," Quigg said.

Rents and home prices in Baltimore County, as in the rest of the region and country, have skyrocketed in the past five years.

As older neighborhoods have been revitalized in Baltimore County, the affordable-housing stock has shrunk, housing officials say. A number of affordable-housing complexes have been torn down or are being converted into condominiums: the Villages of Tall Trees, Villa Gardens, Dulaney Valley Apartments, Kingsley Park.

Countywide, nearly 10,000 people are on a waiting list for Section 8 vouchers - a 26 percent increase from five years ago.

A rise in utility expenses and gasoline prices has had a major impact, homeless advocates say.

"Many people live from paycheck to paycheck," said Cathy Burgess of the Assistance Center of Towson Churches. "When you have a huge increase that you're not expecting or people just don't have the extra cash for, that will send people into a tailspin."

She works out of a small pantry in a parking lot behind a church in downtown Towson, handing out plastic bags containing canned fruit, beans, small boxes of cereal and granola bars.

On a recent day, a married couple walked in asking for bus tokens to Baltimore.

The charity had paid for the couple to spend the night at a nearby hotel, where an employee told them not to make a mess, the woman told Burgess.

"I was like, 'Just because we're homeless doesn't mean we're slobs,'" she said.

Many people who pick up food at the pantry during the day end up at the Rosedale shelter at night.

On many nights, Quigg can be found ambling through the hallway and the two main rooms, joking with the occupants. He calls them by their first names and asks how their days went. He seems to know everyone's story.

One night this fall, 185 people showed up at the shelter.

"It's so packed - you might have 2 inches of space," one single mother said as she pointed to the spot where she and her three children would sleep for the night. The woman, who did not want her name used, said she came to the shelter after her husband put a knife to her throat in front of her children one night.

The shelter's occupants wake up every morning at 5, spray the mats with disinfectant, and sweep and mop the floors.

Quigg said beds are too expensive and cots break too easily.

Linda Galinski, a substitute school nurse who volunteers at the Rosedale shelter two nights a week, said she hates seeing people sleep on the floors.

"If you get people off the floor," she said, "it gives people their self-worth and self-dignity."

Sun reporters Justin Fenton and Mary Gail Hare contributed to this article.

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