Youth shelter in city to close after 38 years

The Baltimore Sun

The Fellowship of Lights, a Baltimore nonprofit that has provided about 10,000 runaways and homeless youth a temporary place to stay over the past 38 years, will permanently close by the end of the week.

"We are unable to sustain our operations based on the number of referrals we receive from juvenile services and child welfare," Ross Pologe, executive director for the past 31 years, said yesterday.

The shelter's budget was based on being reimbursed by the state for temporarily housing homeless youths, primarily teenagers.

"We are quite sad for the loss of the Fellowship of Lights. It has been a very positive facility for youth and very much needed," said Rhonda Lipkin, one of two lawyers representing foster children in a federal class action suit.

Lipkin said she is concerned about what will happen to those youths without the shelter and wants to know how the Maryland Department of Human Resources will make up for its loss.

Referrals from the department have declined, said spokesman Elyn Jones, because of a shift in its philosophy. Instead of putting children in temporary shelters, she said, the agency tries to place them immediately into private foster homes.

The Fellowship of Lights closed its shelter for boys 14 months ago. It had been unable to accept many of the agency's referrals, who were boys who had serious mental illnesses or histories of violent behavior. The staff was not equipped to handle youths with such backgrounds, Pologe said.

The Fellowship of Lights had intended to reopen its boys shelter. Instead, the nonprofit told its staff yesterday that the girls' facility would have to close, too.

The three girls living at Peggy's Place learned they would move by Friday. They will be reunited with their parents or go to a different temporary facility.

The two houses were licensed to hold up to 18 youths. Pologe said the two houses, one in upper Fells Point and the other in Mount Vernon, would be put up for sale and the 14 staff members will lose their jobs. The remainder of the resources will be shifted to a new endeavor for homeless youths in Baltimore. Pologe will work as a staff member on that project.

Pologe said when the two shelters were operating, the nonprofit had a budget of about $1.3 million. When it was unable to raise private money to fund a position, it chose to close rather than go into debt.

"I feel like we did some amazing things over the years," he said. "We served thousands of young people and their families. I feel a sense of pride."

Pologe and others who work with homeless youths in the city said they can't fully explain why the referrals from social services had declined. They said they don't believe there are fewer children who need help or that there is no longer a need for temporary shelters.

"We do know that the kids are out there," said Lipkin. As recently as last fall, children were still being left on a short-term basis at a downtown state office building on Gay Street that had no facilities for bathing and was not operated legally.

Many homeless teenagers decide to live in friends' houses, moving from couch to couch rather than seeking help.

In many cases, city youths fear foster care: It usually means being sent away from their schools and friends because there aren't enough places for them in their communities.

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