She was fired from a 7-Eleven. She was evicted from her townhouse in Waldorf. She called a women's shelter in Hughesville, but it was full. She bounced around motels in the county. And now she lives with her three young children at friends' houses or in her van.
So on Monday morning, along with hundreds of other county residents who are just scraping by, Stephanie Smith came to the Department of Community Services office in La Plata looking for help. She was there to put her name on the newly reopened waiting list for the county's subsidized housing program, which had been closed to new applicants since a fire in May 2003 ruined the old community services building in Port Tobacco and destroyed many of its records.
"It's just been a struggle; it's really hard," said Smith, 45. "I don't know what else I can do."
The line to sign up began to form just after 6 a.m. Monday and two hours later stretched down a sidewalk in front of the building. By 2 p.m. 300 people had signed up for the housing choice voucher program, known as Section 8. When the waiting list was shut to new people last year, it had about 2,500 names, and officials advised applicants this week that they would have to wait three to five years to receive a voucher. The county is allotted 704 housing vouchers by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, local officials said.
"We're seeing an increased demand [for subsidized housing]. It is difficult to find safe and sanitary housing in the county," said Margaret E. Cheseldine, the director of the Department of Community Services. "There aren't the units. It's a supply issue."
This month, the department will present a community development housing plan to the county commissioners that recommends increasing the supply of affordable housing. An executive summary of the report, created by the Annapolis-based consulting firm Environmental Resources Management, found that "it is becoming evident that the housing needs of important sectors of Charles County's population are not being met."
The report found an "extremely tight" rental market, with close to 100 percent occupancy, almost no housing for sale at lower price ranges and a shortage of housing affordable for young professionals, such as teachers and police officers.
An "affordable" housing unit is defined as one in which the occupant pays less than 30 percent of his or her income for the rent or mortgage. In Charles County, 26 percent of renters and 15 percent of homeowners spent more than 35 percent of their income on housing in 2000, the report found.
Gwen Avery used to have one of those single-family homes. She and her husband lived in a three-bedroom home in St. Charles with a garage, laundry room and spacious yard, supported by an income of more than $60,000 a year, she said. But after they split up three years ago, she moved into a nearby townhouse.
Avery, 47, said that if she loses any income, she might have to move in with her parents in Clinton. She signed up for the subsidized housing waiting list but is not hopeful that help will arrive soon.
"Why it takes so long [to get a voucher] I really don't understand," she said. "I feel kind of discouraged by that."
While the line inched forward, Avery moved her hand from eye level down to her waist to describe her fall from stability to the possibility of losing her home.
"It's a little demeaning having to be out here," she said. "But I don't have much of a choice."