The Mean Season
Small Charles Village shelter for the homeless facing early closure due to funding shortage
Heart's Place, a 20-bed homeless shelter in the basement of St. John's Methodist Church in Charles Village, is nothing fancy. Particle-board partitions separate the men's and women's beds, and a semi-circle of mismatched couches and chairs draped in afghans serves as a living room. The dining and sleeping areas are right next to one another and there is little privacy. Yet the people who stay here--the "guests," in the shelter's parlance--describe the place in terms usually reserved for more upscale ventures.
"This is the Cadillac of all missions," says Richard Jackson, 59.
"If shelters got ratings like restaurants, this would be a five-star," says Gary Lincoln, 48.
In interview after interview one snowy Thursday, the current tenants of Heart's Place gave it glowing reviews, with many judging it based on their experiences at the large city-sponsored shelter on 210 Guilford Ave. "This has been the closest thing to home that I've seen in over a year," says Derryl Wilks, 45. "The other place is more like a warehouse, where they warehouse people."
But donations and grants, not popularity, are what keep a private shelter afloat, and Heart's Place isn't getting enough of those. The emergency winter shelter--a mission of St. John's Church--is open three nights a week from November through mid-April. If the weather is especially bad, as it was this last week, the shelter extends its hours. But this year, unless money comes in, the shelter will close in early March. Director Carol Berman--who started Heart's Place with her late husband in 1988--hopes to reopen as usual next November, but as of now, the coffers are empty.
Money is scarce this year for a number of reasons, including the obvious one: the economy. "We rely very heavily on donations from individuals and the money just hasn't been there," Berman says. Last year individual donations fell by 35 percent and donations from churches--another important funding source--were down by 60 percent. It's as dire as it's ever been, she says. The seasonal operating budget for Heartís Place is about $80,000. Yet the shelter has only ended the season early once before, a decade ago, and then just by a few weeks.
But another reason funds are low is the loss of an important grant. Nearly a quarter of the shelter's budget comes from an annual grant administered by Baltimore Homeless Services. Heart's Place has received as much as $20,000 a year in state money through the grant since the early 1990s, according to Berman. But this year, for the first time, Heart's Place was not awarded any money.
Berman blames her antiquated computer. She says the last funding cycle was the first time Baltimore Homeless Services required applicants to send a form by e-mail along with the customary hard copies in triplicate. As she was filling out the application on her computer, Berman noticed some fields seemed to erase themselves when she scrolled over them. And when she read the review panel comments that accompanied the grant denial, she realized the agency had not received all of the information she'd intended to submit. "I have an older computer at home, a Mac with dial-up," she says. "It was an error on my part that when I was having the problem, I didn't contact them." The three hard copies were, however, complete, she says. Berman wrote two appeal letters and received no response.
Kate Briddell, acting director of Baltimore Homeless Services, would not comment on the particulars of the Heart's Place grant. "They submitted an application and it didn't meet the threshold requirements for the grant," she says. "If we require hard copies, we would certainly look at them." Briddell says the agency does not act on appeals.
So Berman is trying to make up the deficit through donations. "I was not a happy camper," Berman says, "but it is what it is."
During a recent visit by a City Paper reporter, Heart's Place clients voluntarily shoveled the walks outside, pausing to smoke cigarettes and chat. Inside, damp towels hung from the partitions, and a small group had gathered around a day-time talk show on TV. It felt more like a hostel than a homeless shelter.
Still, staying there requires commitment. To secure a spot for the week, those looking for shelter must arrive at 8 a.m. on Sunday. They must agree to follow an "individual service plan," created with a case manager. The plan serves as a template for moving out of homelessness, and may include obtaining identification, following up on referrals to addiction treatment or job training, and applying for entitlement programs like Section 8. Each resident also has a daily chore, ranging from preparing sack lunches to mopping the bathroom. If--and only if--they follow through on these duties, residents are guaranteed a bed for the next week's cycle. Since the shelter is only open three nights a week, due to financial constraints, residents spend the remaining nights with friends, at the city shelter, or in what they jokingly call "abandominiums."
If Heart's Place closes, the city's homeless will lose just 20 beds that are only available three nights a week. But, says Kevin Lindamood, vice president of external affairs for Health Care for the Homeless, it's a loss Baltimore can ill afford. "There is a troubling disconnect between the number of shelter beds and the number of people experiencing homelessness on a given night," he says. "Anytime you take away from something that's already limited, it becomes a problem." In a 2009 census, over 3,400 homeless people were counted in one night in Baltimore. Yet the city has only some 2,400 beds to serve them on a given night.
And most shelters can't compete with the staff to "guest" ratio at Heart's Place. Four paid staff members, including one case manager, look after about 20 residents. The city shelter, in contrast, has only three case managers on staff, for some 350 clients. "We do more of a referring process to other agencies," says Linda Trotter, director of programs for Jobs, Housing and Recovery, the nonprofit that operates the city shelter. And the extra attention at Heartís Place seems to work. Last winter, 36 of the 97 individuals who stayed at Heart's Place had moved into permanent housing by June. Another 45 were on a waiting list for public housing.
But it's not just the housing assistance, the hot meals and the showers that keep people coming back to Heart's Place.
"This is the best shelter in the city and I think I've been to just about all of 'em," says Gary Lincoln. "I'm treated like a man, which is what I am. I'm treated like a human being." Lincoln hopes to move into his own place by the end of the month.
Sarah Kreager, 28, sleeps on the bus rather than stay at the city shelter, even though it brings back bad memories. Two years ago, Kreager became national news when she was badly beaten on a city bus by a group of teenagers. Heart's Place, where she's stayed for three months, is one of the few places she's felt safe since then. "This is a small shelter, but it's working," she says. "You can tell [the case manager] anybody's name, and he'll know their situation, their birthday, their family. That's how personal it is."
That sort of familiarity is vital, says program manager Catherine Hudson. "For so many people it's been such a long time since they felt respected," she says. "They tend to blossom once they . . . realize they can come back week after week and they're still gonna be treated well."
As the shelter's bank account shrinks, the Heart's Place staff has taken to volunteering. They worked for free during the recent blizzard, when the shelter was open for five days straight. Some of the homeless occupants have even donated a little money. Hudson, for her part, is focusing on the long-term. "We've been here for 22 years," she says, "and we're gonna keep being here."
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