In Southern Maryland, where frenzied home building has continued for most of the decade, homeless shelters are filled to capacity year-round, and people may wait as long as five years for openings in subsidized housing, shelter directors and government officials in Calvert, Charles and St. Mary's counties said.

Last year Southern Maryland shelters, most of which are funded though a combination of private donations and federal grants, turned away 900 people, up from 700 in 1996, state records show.

Each of the three counties has compiled its own trend in homelessness, but shelter operators in Calvert, Charles and St. Mary's agreed that the increases can be attributed to stricter welfare laws and a regional development boom that has left builders with few incentives to construct Section 8, or subsidized, housing.

In Charles County alone, all 580 Section 8 slots are filled while 1,600 people remain on the waiting list.

During the years of waiting for affordable housing, residents bunk with friends or family members when they find the shelters full, sometimes moving back in with abusive spouses or people with drug addictions, said Denise Capaci, director of the Catholic Charities Angel's Watch shelter in Hughesville. For many minimum-wage workers who live paycheck to paycheck, she said, one emergency medical bill or time off from a job could translate into life on the streets.

In Charles, the number of homeless has increased steadily while the number of available shelter beds has remained virtually unchanged for the last three years, according to figures from the state Office of Transitional Services.

In Calvert, housing for low-income residents is so rare that some social workers no longer attempt to relocate homeless residents within that county, instead seeking places for them in other jurisdictions.

In St. Mary's, the only shelter available is for men. That means homeless women, who often are without transportation, must seek help in another county or live from house to house with friends or relatives in order for their children to remain in St. Mary's schools.

"As population increases in Southern Maryland, we'll continue to see an increase in homelessness and continue to see a marginalization of the poor," Capaci predicted. "We're looking for ways to shore up our resources to continue to care for this needy population, but I wish there were more answers."

Charles County

"This is where I keep six children," Peggy Redman, 41, laughed as she flung open the door to her crowded room at Angel's Watch. Stuffed animals, shampoo bottles and donated board games sit on top of a dresser in the single room Redman shares with six of her eight children.

"They're really great about it," she said of her children, some of whom were reluctant to speak to a reporter for fear of teasing at school. "They know they'll get back into a regular, normal life again."

This isn't the first time the family has had to seek shelter--in 1991, the Redmans were homeless for a year before they found affordable housing in the form of a three-bedroom trailer for $750 a month. But the struggle to pay for rent and help with her longtime boyfriend's cancer treatment became too much, so Redman packed up the children and came to the Hughesville center in August.

Angel's Watch is one of two shelters in Charles County. The other--the Robert J. Fuller Transitional House--is for men only and charges $8.50 a night. That privately run facility has one full-time staff member, director Irene Wallingford, and 16 beds, with about that many on a waiting list at any given time. Wallingford said she sees quite a few clients with substance-abuse problems, but repeats the same refrain heard from other shelter operators when asked the main reasons that men show up at the doorstep of her tidy little Waldorf center.

"They're making minimum wage and they can't find affordable housing," she shrugged.

Redman, at Angel's Watch, is among the lucky. Shelter director Capaci said the center has been "running at capacity forever" and some days she is forced to turn away as many as 15 families. Some women call repeatedly for weeks, waiting for a vacancy at the facility.

As the weather becomes colder, Capaci said, families with no indoor plumbing are beginning to ask for help--it's no longer warm enough to give their children outdoor baths. But all 42 of the shelter's available beds are full, with the rare vacancies filled within 24 hours, forcing Capaci to turn more and more families away.

"You never get used to it," Capaci said. "But there's nothing you can do. These are real people with real lives--they know me by name. It's hard."

St. Mary's County

Patricia Ball is a 40-year-old case manager at the men-only Three Oaks Transitional Center, St. Mary's County's only homeless shelter.

Less than a decade ago, poor money management and a bad relationship left Ball homeless with two young daughters. Her search for a shelter in St. Mary's--where she was born and raised--turned up nothing. Instead, Ball was referred to the Hughesville shelter, where she reinvented her life but continued to miss home. With unreliable transportation, the hour's drive to her mother's place could seem insurmountable.

That was in 1990. Nearly 10 years later, there is still no shelter for women and children in St. Mary's County. Ball and several other area shelter workers met on Thursday to plan an emergency winter facility, which Ball hopes could evolve into a new transitional center serving women.

Ball, who is now renting to own a three-bedroom town house and works full-time, said there is a desperate need for programs to help low-income families learn to manage money and build job skills.

"It feels great," Ball said of the independence and self-esteem boost she has experienced since living on her own. "I had to surrender. I gave all my strength and courage to the Lord and when I do that, I don't have any burdens."

Calvert County

The group assembled in the living room of Project Echo, one of the few shelters in the state that houses both men and women, swapped hard-knocks stories and shared words of support on a recent evening.

An 11-year-girl described how hard it is to make friends at her new school, the third she has attended this school year as her family bounces from county to county in search of shelter. Brian Via, a 29-year-old recovering alcoholic, said he quit his last job because of the insults co-workers hurled after they found out he lived in a shelter. Barbara Adams, 59, said jobs for someone her age are practically nonexistent. She'd like to stay in her native Calvert County, but isn't sure she'll be able to find a place.

"Oh, yeah, there's housing," Adams scoffed. "Can we afford it? No way."

Project Echo offers 25 beds, with six of those reserved for men, said shelter manager Lori Hony. She said low-income housing has become so scarce in Calvert that some social workers no longer even try to keep homeless residents in the county.

"We just don't have [a lot] of apartments here, and the waiting lists are so long for the ones we do have," Hony said. "What's sad is that these people have lived here all their lives and can no longer afford to be a Calvert County resident."

Calvert County Commissioner Barbara A. Stinnett (D-At Large) said the affordable housing situation is dire across Southern Maryland, but more pronounced in her county, which has experienced the most rapid growth in Maryland during recent years. She said former boards of commissioners have discussed offering tax incentives to builders to construct Section 8 housing, but the current board has no such plan in place.

"It's a shame that in a county of our affluence there are so many people with no place to go," Stinnett said. "We need to do something. I couldn't even buy my own home [at today's prices]."