Her old home was a 20-year-old frame rambler set on tree stumps. It's leaky roof bore tin patches and its single source of heat, a wood stove with a faulty chimney which the fire department considered hazardous, barely kept the disabled, 62-year-old woman warm.
Nevertheless, Lucille Brooks says, she never would have sought help from the Prince George's county program that put her in a new, four-bedroom, prefabricated house last June -- had the program not come looking for her.
Outreach workers from the local office of the Community Development Administration in rural Brandywine visited Brooks and encouraged her to apply for the rehabilitation grant that eventually put her in the new home.
But now, in a move critics say will cut off future help to others like Brooks, the Brandywine office has been closed and its staff relocated to Upper Marlboro, where they will work in the Community Development Office instead of traveling the county's rural back roads.
Charles Ross, acting head of the county department of Program Planning and Economic Development, said he closed the Brandywine office because it was not productive. He said his program can reach all the needy people it can handle by advertising in newspapers and on radio and by calling prospective clients on the telephone.
"We get more results by public broadcasting than we can get from someone sitting on their buns in the field office," said Ross.
Critics of the move, including County Council President Parris Glendening and members of the Community Development Advisory Committee, say the elderly, proud and suspicious rural poor will not come to Upper Marlboro on their own to fill out the complex forms, which in many cases require granting the county an interest in their property.
"We stressed that we wanted to improve the outreach aspects of the program," Glendening said. "Closing the field office and bringing everyone to Upper Marlboro doesn't seem to me to help the people in Brandywine or in Colmar Manor," he added.
"The grand plan is to close the offices and consolidate in Upper Marlboro," said John Doskicz, a community adviser to the program. "There's no public transportation in Upper Marlboro. You might as well put it in Siberia."
Brooks' 22-year-old son Michael said the office just a mile from their home was "very essential" in getting aid for his mother. He did not think needy residents would respond to advertising that promised "something for nothing."
"No way," he began. "You have older folks who don't drive. How are they going to get to Upper Marlboro? How are they going to know that somebody wants to help them?" he asked. "You have to come out and show them that you're going to help them, and not rip them off for their land."
The outreach workers who contacted the Brookses now are doing telephone solicitations from a list of potential clients who have become eligible for help for the first time this year, due to changes in program guidelines.
These changes extended the program to qualified households countywide, instead of limiting it to designated poverty areas, as in previous years. At the same time, the new guidelines have doubled the maximum aid from $15,000 to $30,000.
The expansion was planned to meet the special needs of rural Prince George's, where many homes need not only structural repairs but expensive plumbing and septic systems. A 1974 county study found 13 percent of the housing in the Marlton, Acquasco and Piscataway areas -- the largely rural southeastern third of the county -- "dilapidated and deteriorating." The study covered 1,482 homes.
Since the rural office opened in 1976, some 75 dwellings have been rehabilitated in the rural area -- approximately 18 to 20 per year, according to acting community development administrator Robert Simpson. But 16 current rural cases, given the higher aid limits, are likely to absorb the entire amount budgeted for the area, Simpson said.
Ross said he closed the Brandywine office because "We had six individuals that produced less than eight jobs a year. That was hardly productive. These weren't service people, they were paper pushers," Ross said.
Last August Ross sent layoff notices to six program employes, including three from the rural office, as part the reorganization. Five of the six were black. Ross said he was acting in response to a reduction of funds for administrative overhead made when the County Council passed the program budget last July. After a strongly worded letter from Glendening, however, the layoffs were rescinded in favor of a reorganization study of the program.