As Howard County prepares for Sunday's start of the cold-weather shelter program, local emphasis is shifting toward preventing homelessness, aided by a $253,000 federal stimulus grant and a nonprofit's relaunch.
The money will go first to the county's Department of Citizen Services and then to the Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center, Christ Church Link and Congregations Concerned for the Homeless, which is shifting emphasis with a new name and location.
Much of the money will go toward helping families avoid evictions. More social workers can help in finding roommates to split rent.
"There's not just one answer," said Andrea Ingram, director of Grassroots, which for years has helped homeless people and families stuck in motels find permanent housing.
"As the lead agency, we're basically providing oversight," said Lois K. Mikkila, deputy director of the Department of Citizen Services. "We handle all the administration of the funding."
The county is looking as the grant as a pilot program. Since the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development is putting more emphasis on preventing homelessness, there could be more money available later.
"That's our hope," Mikkila said.
The recession continues to sap state and local revenues and donations to nonprofits, and joblessness and medical problems have swelled the ranks of those in need.
A fire Dec. 30 destroyed Congregations Concerned for the Homeless' offices on Little Patuxent Parkway, along with the 20-year-old group's records and equipment, forcing a re-examination of its mission and future, said executive director Jane O'Leary.
"Out of this tragedy, some new life has been breathed into our organization," O'Leary said, adding that "the board had an epiphany" about expanding the group's mission.
Renamed Bridges to Housing Stability, the group is getting a new home, in an office building at 9520 Berger Road.
O'Leary said the group wants to begin working with people in danger of becoming homeless, to prevent that from happening.
"This is a first step for us. We hope to expand in this area," she said, while continuing to operate 21 homes used to help homeless families transition into stability in their own residences.
The federal grant will pay for one more housing advocate to bolster the group's six-person staff, O'Leary said.
Ingram, whose agency operates the county's main permanent homeless shelter on Freetown Road, said Grassroots will work with Christ Link Church, which gives people in crisis an avenue of communications. Grassroots now refers people and families from the main shelter to transitional housing provided by Congregations Concerned for the Homeless, but the federal money will allow more effort on prevention.
It is much easier to help find solutions to a family's problems before they become homeless, Ingram said.
"You just avoid so much heartache," she said, especially for young children.
"There's an awful lot of job instability," Ingram said, which sometimes leads to home foreclosures as part of a cascade of problems.
The annual cold-weather shelter provides a warm place to sleep, something to eat and a place to clean up for 20 people a night from Monday through late March. A group of county religious institutions volunteer to provide space, food and volunteers for one or two weeks during that period.
Ingram said Grassroots has learned through operating a day center on U.S. 1 in North Laurel for the past year that some chronically homeless people do not trust anyone in authority and that it takes time to rebuild trust so that they want to get off the street.
"The whole population we've become involved with on Route 1 will use the cold weather shelter," she said. The day center, which provides a warm supervised place to clean up, wash clothes and get a sandwich, helps re-establish that trust, she said.
"The resource center is an interim step," she said.