For weeks, Francine Morgan of Waldorf has been consumed by an ominous question: "Am I getting evicted today?"
Morgan is a single mother and U.S. Department of Agriculture employee. She also is battling depression, caring for a 13-year-old daughter with multiple disabilities and wondering where she'll live next.
Her options include a motel, for at least $400 a week; a homeless shelter, which rarely has an open bed; or a rental home, if she can persuade another landlord to overlook her past payment delinquencies.
"It's been hell," Morgan said. "It makes me feel like I'm fighting a battle that I'm never going to win because I have a daughter with a disability. It's not like I can't take care of her. You just need help every now and then."
In Charles County and throughout Southern Maryland, hundreds of families are knocking on doors for affordable housing and leaving empty-handed. Sources of aid exist, but waiting lists are long and applicants must navigate a frustrating maze of social service programs.
The remedies designed to ease the crunch in Charles County last year -- such as the new transitional St. Sebastian townhouses in northern Waldorf -- in reality only offset other affordable housing losses in the fire at the Gallery Place apartments or in the April 28 tornado.
"I sometimes turn away four, five, six families, maybe more, every day," said Beth Flynn, program administrator for Angel's Watch Shelter in Hughesville, which serves women and children from the tri-county area. "There's a tremendous need out there. It's pretty depressing. It's very, very challenging to find low-income housing."
Social services workers in Calvert and St. Mary's counties report similar scenarios. Catholic Charities in Calvert, for instance, has had a surge lately in requests for help with rent and mortgage payments, an employee said.
Morgan, 48, is one among myriad individuals wading through social services in search of anything to keep afloat. The down-and-out include widowed or divorced women who use up their savings and lose their homes, youths who age out of eligibility for foster care and have nowhere to go, and men with college educations who lose their jobs and fall behind on rent. Some have mental disorders or substance addictions. Some simply are overwhelmed by the cost of child care, transportation and utilities.
In mid-November, Morgan's landlords told her they were selling their St. Charles house -- her home since 2000 -- and they wanted her out by mid-December.
Morgan's $27,000-a-year job as a license assistant in Greenbelt had been enough to cover the $795 rent she pays for the two-bedroom home in the Wakefield neighborhood. Life started to unravel, however, when her daughter Brittany awoke one night in a pool of blood, hemorrhaging after the removal of her tonsils.
Down syndrome has made Brittany prone to bleeding. Thirteen years as a single mother living paycheck to paycheck; as an outcast from her family because they disapproved of her marriage to Brittany's father, who later abandoned them; and as the sole caretaker of a little girl who requires extensive medical attention have made Francine Morgan prone to severe depression and anxiety disorder.
Her therapist ordered a few months' rest to deal with the stress, which also meant a few months of unpaid leave from work.
When she ran out of money for rent in November, Morgan hoped community aid agencies could tide her over until she returned to work in January. On Nov. 6, she filled out applications for temporary cash assistance and rental assistance at the Department of Social Services and the Department of Community Services, respectively.
Caseworkers promised to call within five days. They never did.
Morgan returned to both agencies Nov. 22. Caseworkers told her she was ineligible for the federal rental assistance program because she was a previous recipient; she had been accepted into the year-long program in 2000 after serious injuries from a car accident kept her out of work for nine months.
This time, the Department of Social Services gave her food stamps and a list of nonprofit agencies to call. They offered to help place her in a homeless shelter.
Morgan says that a housing counselor told her they could give her special attention if she were homeless or lived in her car for 16 weeks. She was appalled. Housing officials said they would not give such advice.
"No one's circumstances take precedence over the next," said Jamie Taylor, housing program supervisor for the Department of Community Services. "Our program goes strictly by waiting list."
The county agency assists approximately 20 families a year through a state-funded rental assistance program for those facing critical or emergency housing needs, said Lisa M. Quill, chief of Housing and Community Development. A limited state allotment of less than $50,000 annually is split into monthly rental subsidies ranging from $250 to $350 per family for up to one year.
The county also administers 604 federal Section 8 housing vouchers. Morgan has been on that waiting list since 2000, along with approximately 1,500 to 1,800 other applicants, Quill said.
A pleasant voice recording for the voucher program relays this message: "We're currently working on applications received from Jan. 1 through June 30, 1999."
One private agency, Melwood Family Support Services, put up money to help Morgan with her rent. The $400 didn't lead Morgan's landlords to reconsider their decision to sell, but it kept them from evicting her in November.
Since then, she has lived on edge, biding time. Her landlords said they would use her security deposit to cover December's rent, figuring she'd clear out by month's end. Weeks of searching through newspaper classified ads for a new place have turned up little for Morgan, so she has not moved.
As a result, she's been summoned to court three times. At a Dec. 31 hearing, Morgan was among a handful of people facing eviction. Brittany, a sweet child oblivious to her mother's plight, sat quietly through the proceedings, bundled in a hat and coat to ward off the cold.
"That's my mom," she whispered proudly, pointing to Francine Morgan as she nervously approached the judge's bench.
Morgan had a minor victory, in her eyes, when she convinced a District Court judge that her landlord had not given her proper notice to move out. As a result, she now has until Feb. 1 to find another place.
Rental possibilities exist in several St. Charles neighborhoods, where Morgan wants to stay so Brittany can remain in the special education program at Benjamin Stoddert Middle School in Waldorf.
One landlord in Pinefield wants $2,800 up front. She put her name on the waiting list for an $800-a-month townhouse in Bannister, where she's behind several other prospective renters. One woman agreed to rent her small home but backed out when she said Morgan's current landlords gave her a poor reference.
Thus, the daily struggle continues. If she pays her rent for January with money donated from co-workers, she'll have no cash for a security deposit on a new place. She hasn't returned to work; she needs transportation to her office in Greenbelt (her car was repossessed) and day care for Brittany.
In the meantime, she has packed her possessions in boxes to put into storage, just in case a sheriff's deputy comes to throw her out.
"I just get so tired of crying," she said. "Sometimes it makes me wonder what I did in my life that I'm being punished for. But, I'm a survivor."