On a recent sunny morning at the Unsonia Children's Shelter in Bethesda, the immediate concern of the dozen teen-aged residents was what to do with rest of the day.
The youths, who were referred to the shelter by social and juvenile services workers throughout the state, finished their morning chores. Classes at Baptist Home for Children, where the Usonia shelter is located, had ended a week earlier.
But underlying the pleasant problem of finding a way to spend a summer day ran a greater concern: Unsonia, struggling with the growing gap between state payments and operating costs, has run out of money. The shelter, which houses teen-agers for up to 60 days, will close July 1.
The question of where the youths will go in an already overcrowded child-welfare system remains unanswered. Teen-agers in the shelter have been taken from their homes because their families cannot or will not take care of them, or because they have a history of truancy or running away.
Jeff Beck, the bearded counselor who serves as liaison between the shelter and the teen-agers' social workers, fears that "Some kids will go home way before they're ready, just because there's no room in any facility in the state to take them in.
Usonia has housed more than 200 youths in the two years since it opened, and it has had a waiting list of twice that number.
"It's not just the kids we'll lose right now," said Eva Vincze, Usonia's program coordinator. "In the next year, 100 kids won't have a place to go. They'll just stay on the streets."
The state Social Services Administration director, Ruth Massinga, agrees that, "Our (shelter) supply is very thin, and this will be a sizable loss to the community."
"We got into this (operation of Usonia) with a lot of high ideals," said Wayne Crosby, administrator of the 16-bed shelter and a 20-bed, long-term residential facility that will remain in operation. "About three years ago, we did a study of the area between Baltimore and Washington and realized a temporary shelter was desperately needed."
Usonia receives about $31 a day for each child from state agencies, but the real cost, Crosby has estimated, comes closer to $47. A 10.5 percent increase in state support, effective July 1, was signed by Gov. Harry Hughes this spring.
But it will come too late for Usonia.
Even with the increased funds, only about 60 percent of the annual operating budget of $500,000 would be covered by state payments. The shelter's budget deficit has already reached $70,000.
"We've been subsidizing the program from the word 'go,'" said Ted Wilson, director of program development for the Baptist Home, and designer of the shelter. "The only thing that's changed is the gap between what the state gives us and what we have to pay. If we continue to use our endowment, we'll be jeopardizing our other programs.
"My frustration has grown," said Wilson. "It (the frustration) belongs in the governor's house, or whoever it is that says, 'We're going to take care of the children in this state' and then turns around and spends money on renovating a stadium, but not on the kids.
"After we realized that the 10.5 percent increase wouldn't cover enough, we tried to ask for an emergency grant from the governor's office," he continued. "The state knows the problem. They've responded with sympathy, but no funds."
He leafed through a stack of letters from state and local officials, an accumulation of hundreds of pages. "Everyone is very sympathetic," he added.
State social services director Massinga acknowledged, "We desperately need more shelter care. But the budgetary cycle has been completed, and the next time we can act is January."
The Usonia shelter is a temporary stopping-off place for the teen-agers, but one with a good deal of structure. The youths attend group problem-solving sessions nightly, and classes in academic and vocational subjects are held during the school year. They are supervised 24 hours a day. s
Meanwhile, during the two-month period, the teen-agers' social workers try to find a more permanent solution: reunion with the parents, a stay in a group home or with a foster family.
"We have a creative program with a lot of trained staff people," Crosby said. "That's why we thought of the place as Usonia.'" The term was coined by architect Frank Lloyd Wright to describe a building that would disturb the natural environment as little as possible.
"It's always been a real crisis-oriented place," said Beck, gulping down a cup of coffee. "But now, with the end in sight, it's an effort to keep things going. We've told the kids the problem from the start, and we're all feeling tense."
"It's a big deal to us," said one 14-year-old from Baltimore as she needle-pointed a sampler that read, "Be Happy." "If we keep moving from place to place, we get so tired."
"This is my sixth home," sighed another 14-year-old girl. "I haven't heard from my social worker yet, and I'm worried.
"I like this place," she continued. "They buy the things you need, like combs and brushes. And there are always things to do, instead of just sitting around, like at other places I've been."
According to Vincze, both girls have lived in a string of foster and group homes, but they need the structured Usonia program.
"Kids come to us in little brown bags," she said. "Often whole parts of their history -- the bad parts -- don't even show up on their records. The social workers might gloss over the bad parts, especially when the kids have been through six or seven placements."
At any given time, about half the teen-agers using the facility come from Balitmore. Another 25 percent live in Montgomery County; the rest are from elsewhere in Maryland. None of the current residents is from Prince George's County.
Mary Lou Hurney, chief of welfare services for Montgomery County, does not envision a serious problem for county children when Usonia closes.
"We have few kids at Usonia," she said. "There are other resources available, though in general, we do see a need for more shelter space."
Five of the teen-agers at Usonia are scheduled to enter other residential facilities; a sixth may return home. But the other six don't know where they'll be in two weeks.
"People are harder to live with now, because We're all thinking about what will happen to us," said one boy.
"It's so hard to keep traveling," added another. "It's so hard."