Helping obtain housing for all

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By Robert Friedman

Woody Collins is one of 75 volunteers with Bridges to Housing Stability, a nonprofit group that works to reduce homelessness in Howard County. Collins, who coordinates the organization’s main fundraising event (an annual chili cook-off), is pictured in front of one of the apartment buildings where Bridges offers units to needy families based on a percentage of their income.
Photo by Christopher Myers

Charles Townsend, his wife, their 18-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter were left homeless after a fire last winter destroyed their Howard County home. They escaped the fire with nothing but the pajamas they were wearing.

The family eventually was referred to the nonprofit organization Bridges to Housing Stability, located in Columbia.

Although Townsend (not his real name) had credit issues and was under too much stress to return to work right away, Bridges was able get the family affordable housing and provide some furnishings and move-in assistance. 

Townsend, who is now back at work, said that, “If it wasn’t for Bridges, I don’t know where my family would be.”

When Mary Norberg (also a pseudonym) visited Bridges in September 2014, she was a single mother with three children and a part-time job, who lived with her family in a cheap motel off a county highway.

With Bridges’ help, she was able to clear her debt with a previous landlord and find a full-time job and an affordable place to live. She is currently completing an associate’s degree in nursing. Her children have been able to remain in the same school.

Those are just two of the many success stories reported by Bridges, which has been working with government agencies and religious groups since 2010 in what is called the Howard County Plan to End Homelessness.

Homelessness amid plenty

But Bridges has been around far longer. In fact, it recently celebrated 25 years of service helping homeless families transition to permanent housing and a stable life.

The celebration was a bittersweet occasion for Jane O’Leary who, after 40 years of social work and eight years as executive director of the organization, will retire at year’s end.

O’Leary, 67, oversees some 15 case workers, program directors and other human services employees, as well as about 75 volunteers “of all ages, many of them seniors,” in efforts to reduce homelessness in Howard County, where the median family income is $110,000 — among the highest in the nation.

Despite the county’s relative wealth, more and more area families find themselves in dire straits when trying to pay for housing, O’Leary said.

To give an idea of the scope of the problem, O’Leary noted that in the year ending June 30, a total of 920 Howard County households qualified for support from the county’s system to end homelessness. To be counted in the system, the families have to be either literally homeless or present documents showing they will lose their homes within 14 days.

Furthermore, O’Leary said that more than 3,750 families with incomes between $30,000 and $50,000 live in county housing units, and that just 270 of those units are considered to have rents that are affordable for working families. Current standards say that workers should not be paying more than 30 percent of their wages for housing.

The 3,000-plus other families living in units they really can’t afford “are at continual risk of losing their homes,” O’Leary said.

While subsidized communities exist for older retired residents, and there are federal rent subsidies for the poor, O’Leary noted that low-income workers fall between the cracks: “We have to find new ways to [enable] low-income workers to live in the county.”

O’Leary pointed out that service industries are growing all over the county, and that Columbia is currently expanding its downtown area and starting new retail businesses. This will mean more workers, but not enough affordable housing for them to live in the area, she said.

When community planner Jim Rouse founded Columbia in 1963, his vision was of a city where citizens of all races, religions, economic and social groups could live together, she pointed out.

O’Leary noted that Howard County, and Columbia in particular, “continues to be a place where everyone, regardless of their economic condition, can get an education, have access to free libraries and good roads. But low-wage earners cannot live in stabilized conditions here.

“I have seen folks in low-wage jobs who have a crisis in their lives, then have trouble making the rent, and everything is at the risk of falling apart,” she said.

Much of Bridges’ work now has to do with trying to make living conditions more affordable for such low-wage workers.

How Bridges helps

O’Leary noted that when Bridges began its work in 1990, homeless families were being offered transitional housing of two years, along with counseling.

But that was not the real solution, said O’Leary. “Giving people a temporary place to stay doesn’t solve instability. Today, we understand that permanent, not temporary housing, is the key to resolving homelessness.”

At the same time, O’Leary noted that “most of the ‘affordable’ housing now being built in Howard County is for households with incomes well over the 60 percent median.” This means that new housing is primarily going to families who earn more than $66,000 annually. 

In response, Bridges recently started Bridges Alliance — a program to offer housing to families earning between 30 and 60 percent of the county’s median income, with rent based on a family’s income.

So far, Bridges has acquired 14 living units for the program from the Howard County Housing Commission. All are currently occupied.

Bridges is currently carrying out a campaign to raise $300,000 over the next three years to help expand the Alliance program. The goal, O’Leary said, is to have 40 units by 2018.

Bridges does not provide shelters for the homeless, she added, although at times it arranges for temporary housing while its case managers work on long-term solutions.

Rather, Bridges provides case management to some 80 households at any given time, “focusing them on long-term housing stability.” It also administers some financial assistance and housing provided by the county, serving about 350 families a year.

Volunteers are essential

In addition, Bridges volunteers offer many types of assistance to clients of the program. They help maintain the group’s housing units, move furniture for families, assist in office work, and coordinate special events. Volunteers may sign up for short-term projects or make longer commitments.

Jackie Eng, of Cooksville, has been a Bridges volunteer since 2000. She has served as a member of the nonprofit’s board of directors, raised funds for its work, and done research that helped convince the county to adopt its current program to end homelessness. 

Eng, 68, retired after doing health policy work at the Food and Drug administration for seven years and at nonprofits for 25 years. She started volunteering at Bridges with the goal of bringing her federal government and other work experience to her local community.

“While [Bridges] volunteers do not have a lot of direct contact with the clients, because of the anonymity the clients deserve, it has been an absolute joy and privilege to do work for the organization,” Eng said.

She urged others to volunteer with Bridges, saying, “This is such an interesting organization. There is such a wealth of retired and mature talent in our county, those resources of professional maturity and life experience should be tapped into.” 

Tenants in the program work with volunteers like Eng, who, according to a Bridges statement, “provide social support, leadership development, advocacy opportunities, and civic engagement for tenants. Tenants and volunteer allies are involved with property maintenance, welcoming new members, as well as social and educational events.” 

County Executive weighs in

The Beacon asked County Executive Allan Kittleman his views about homelessness and its relationship to affordable housing in the county.

He replied in a prepared statement: “I’ve long believed it’s vitally important to make housing affordable and attainable for all levels of the people who live and work in Howard County; we’re making steady progress toward that goal by working with housing advocacy groups and the builders and developers who are creating new housing stock here.”

Praising the work of O’Leary when marking her retirement, Kittleman earlier said, “It takes a big heart, and it takes a lot of dedication to be the executive director of an organization that does such great work.”

Kittleman also said, “Some people sometimes talk about, ‘Oh, these people are homeless because they’ve done something bad.’ That’s just not true. Things happen in people’s lives.”

The homeless or those about to lose their homes may contact the county’s Grass Roots Crisis Intervention Center in Columbia at (410) 531-6006; website: grassrootscrisis.org; 24-hour crisis hotline: (410) 531-6677.

For more information about Bridges to Housing Stability, or to volunteer, call (410) 312-5760 or visit www.bridges2hs.org.