For the four coldest months of the year–and at a time when shelters were full–dozens of homeless in Howard County still had a place to stay at night in area churches, according to figures released this week.
The homeless included twice as many children as in past years of Grassroots’ cold-weather shelter program.
For the 18 weeks between Nov. 22 and March 28, a total of 78 people stayed at churches around Howard County, according to the Columbia-based social services agency.
Each of the 16 congregations hosted them for one to two weeks, giving food, doing laundry and providing transportation, clothing, medicine and a place to sleep for between 20 and 25 homeless people at a time.
This past winter’s number is in line with what Grassroots has served in the past several years, according to Andrea Ingram, the agency’s executive director. Grassroots organizes, helps run and provides some staff for the program. The churches set up temporary shelters inside their buildings and staff them with volunteers.
“I think the most we’ve served is 100 and the least we’ve served is about 70. There’s some turnover,” Ingram said. “We’re trying to move people out into permanent housing or other opportunities that are really a more stable situation than being in a cold weather shelter.”
The cold-weather shelter guests are driven each day from The Mall in Columbia to the church that is hosting them. They stay there from 5:30 p.m. until about 7 a.m., when they are brought back to the mall. Special arrangements are made for those who need to go to work early or must be taken to school.
“There is not a place designated for people to be during the daytime,” Ingram said. “A lot of congregations have people stay all day on Sundays, and if the weather is terrible, some congregations allow people to stay, and they arrange for other volunteers to come in.”
This winter’s 78 guests included 39 individuals, three couples without children and 10 families with children, according to statistics Grassroots compiled. The program served 20 children, which is twice as much as the highest number in previous years.
Seventeen of the 78 were repeat visitors from years past.
“There’s a certain population that really are chronically homeless,” Ingram said. “These are folks who are going to tend to have addiction or mental health issues, that are resistant to treatments.”
That doesn’t mean that some people are destined to be in the program each year, she said. One person came in for six straight winters before she finally moved into a full-time shelter and then into permanent housing.
A majority of those who were in the cold weather shelter program this year – 59 people, or 67 percent – left the program with what Grassroots calls “a positive resolution of their situation.”
Those positive resolutions include 24 people moving into permanent housing such as apartments, 17 people moving in with family members or friends, 11 people entering Grassroots’ full-time shelter, and seven people entering another shelter. Two people were hospitalized, and officials aren’t certain of the fate of the remaining 17.
The number of people using the program doesn’t really depend on how bad the winter is. “Cold is cold,” Ingram said. But the number of families stands out to her.
“Starting in 2008, we started to get more hotline calls related to financial stress and financial needs,” she said. “Even people in Howard County were affected by the recession, just like everybody else. There were families that were more vulnerable.”
The cold weather shelter program began last decade.
“We were just experiencing so many people that we couldn’t serve,” Ingram said. “It’s hard on the people we can’t help, and it’s hard on staff. You want to put something together quickly. Nobody’s coming to you and saying ‘Here’s all the money you need to expand.’ ”
Partnering with local churches was a natural move.
“It’s a very big investment, but it’s also for one week and it fulfills part of their mission as a faith community,” Ingram said. “I’ve had congregations that would say to us that just doing this program has transformed their congregation.”
Those in the program also get help with food stamps, medical assistance, social-service referrals, resume preparation and tax returns, according to Grassroots.
“We don’t give up hope on those who are chronically homeless,” Ingram said. “If we see them again next year, we have another opportunity to engage with them.”
According to Grassroots, the congregations that participated in this winter’s cold weather shelter program were Atholton Seventh Day Adventist Church, Bethany United Methodist Church, Columbia Community Church, Covenant Baptist Church, Christ Memorial Presbyterian Church, Cornerstone Community Church, First Presbyterian Church, Gary Memorial United Methodist Church, Glen Mar United Methodist Church, Grace Community Church, Kittamaqundi Community Church, Linden-Linthicum United Methodist Church, Owen Brown Interfaith Center, St. Paul’s Catholic Church, St. John Baptist Church, and St. John Evangelical Lutheran Church.