Denial last week by the Charles County commissioners of an emergency shelter task force's request for $8,000 has sent private agencies in the county scrambling to find alternative sources of money before winter sets in.
The task force wanted to use the money to set up a voucher system to facilitate use of motels, which now are asked by service groups to house most of the county's displaced persons. Motels are currently paid with funds raised by the private groups to shelter families for up to three nights.
There are no permanent shelters for homeless or temporarily displaced persons in Charles, St. Mary's or Calvert counties.
Currently, private groups in Charles send homeless people -- many of whom are women and children -- to vacant rooms at motels along Rte. 301, social workers said. The motels used to brim with visitors from up and down the East Coast before gambling on slot machines was banned in 1968. Since then the motels have fallen on hard times.
Rooms without kitchens at the facilities cost an average of $25 a night, said Barbara Hitt, a social worker with Catholic Charities.
"At least we have the motels. Calvert and St. Mary's have nothing," said Lindy Ward Chinault, head of food distribution and emergency housing at the Tri-County Community Action Group, a private organization that uses some state and federal funds for food distribution and other services. She is also a member of the task force.
Last year private service agencies spent $12,000 on emergency shelter for 148 families in Charles, said Paco Blake, director of Catholic Charities for southern Maryland. In St. Mary's and Charles, 264 families sought emergency shelter during the same period, Chinault said.
Chinault and others testified a month ago before the Governors' Advisory Board on Emergency Shelter and succeeded in getting first-time grants of $6,000 for Charles, $5,300 for St. Mary's and $7,400 for Calvert, to be used for a variety of services for poor residents.
Charles County Commissioners Eleanore Carrico and Loretta Nimmerrichter said they voted against the $8,000 request because the county is already funding programs for people in need.
"We fund programs for alcoholics and drug users. We can't fund every request," Carrico said. Charles also funds a private $14,000 program for battered women and their children, but only about $1,000 of that is used for emergency shelter, the program's director said.
"The transients are not covered," she said. "I honestly don't know where they go," she said.
While Charles agencies have to help a number of homeless transients who have come to the area looking for work, women with children who are evicted because they cannot pay heating or rent bills make up the vast majority of the displaced persons in the tri-county area, Chinault said.
"We do have people living in chicken coops and wooden lean-tos, and tents, until it gets too cold," she added. Men just out jail or deinstitutionalized persons who find themselves thrown out by extended family members are other groups Chinault says she frequently sees.
Most single men are referred to shelter in the District of Columbia, Blake said.
"Our people are watermen and farmers. The last two tobacco crops have not been good and when you don't fish you don't pay the rent. . . . It often comes down to the 'heat or eat' issue, Chinault said.
The $8,000 was to be matched by contributions from local nonprofit groups, task force members said.
Nimmerrichter said she voted against the funding because it "would have been like opening up Pandora's box for already besieged taxpayers. . . . If private charities want to do more for these kinds of people, that's admirable and Christian."