Howard County's cold-weather shelter opens Monday, two months earlier than last year's inaugural effort to provide homeless people overnight refuge from winter.
Thirteen churches in the county have agreed to take turns setting up mattresses and blankets at their facilities, providing meals, laundry and transportation for up to two weeks for as many as 20 men, women and children. Organizers believe the shelter's early opening this year comes none too soon.
"I think we're going to start out with more families this year," said Andrea Ingram, executive director of Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center Inc., which operates Howard's only year-round homeless shelter. "There are dire family situations. People are kind of holding on for the cold-weather shelter."
Operating a moveable shelter involves complicated logistics among the congregations. Ingram estimated that 1,800 volunteers eventually may be involved in the 18-week shelter operation, which has a budget of about $43,000 for administrative staff and supplies.
Ingram, a chief organizer of the cold-weather operation, said Grassroots already is receiving frequent requests from families needing places to stay.
With 32 beds available, Grassroots' shelter off Freetown Road is usually full during the winter and often turns people away. The organization also places some families in a handful of motel rooms paid for by the county.
"There is not a housing solution in Howard County right now," Ingram said. "There's no turning back from this unless we reach the point that we absolutely don't need it."
Shelter organizers believe the number of visitors will be higher from the start than it was last year. Last winter, the cold-weather shelter began Jan. 18 with two overnight visitors, who stayed in the annex of Glen Mar United Methodist Church in Ellicott City. By mid-March, however, the shelter was at capacity, sometimes housing more than 20 people a night, according to figures compiled by Anna Katz, the cold-weather shelter's administrative coordinator. During the 10 weeks it was open, the shelter housed 61 people, many of them repeatedly. Nine of those were children.
This winter, the Horizon Foundation, Howard's largest philanthropy, has provided money for a part-time case manager at the cold-weather shelter. The case manager will help shelter visitors obtain services at public agencies and receive counseling.
The manager also will help track what happens to people after they leave the winter shelter. At Grassroots, said Ingram, case workers often try to help people find places to live outside Howard because there is a dearth of affordable housing.
"We are not pretending we are going to resolve people's homelessness in Howard County with permanent housing," Ingram said.
Mary Dennis, pastor of caring and mission at Glen Mar United Methodist, said the initial apprehension of a few neighbors to last winter's cold-weather shelter quickly dissipated. One resident even brought cookies for shelter visitors.
"They could see what good was being done. There was no backlash," said Dennis, whose church will host the shelter once more for two weeks this winter. "We had no qualms about signing up again."
Ostein Truitt, assistant pastor at St. John Baptist Church in Columbia, described her church's experience with the cold-weather shelter as a "real Biblical moment."
"It teaches you not to have any preconceived ideas about people," Truitt said. "When you hear 'homeless,' you have a tendency to categorize people. We found many different kinds of people. It was a family of sorts while it operated."
Kittamaqundi Community Church of Columbia has agreed to be the shelter's first location and will host the operation through Thanksgiving.
"It is more work, but my husband loves to cook," said Ellen King, Kittamaqundi coordinator. Already, 15 members of the small congregation have signed up to have their Thanksgiving meal at the church with shelter residents.
King, however, has been scrambling to find volunteers who can staff the shelter though the post-holiday weekend.
"You know what? It will work," she declared. "I just have faith it will be fine."