Shelter houses hundreds of families over more than 3 decades

HAGERSTOWN, Md. (AP) — What started as an outreach ministry to house homeless families is still going strong after 33 years. And the need has only grown since St. John’s Shelter in Hagerstown opened in 1987.

“I always say we’re a hidden little gem,” said Carla Charles, president of the shelter board.

Bill Soulis is treasurer of the shelter board and has been involved since Day 1.

He said the shelter was the first family shelter in Washington County and the first to keep families intact under one roof.

The duplex on Randolph Avenue just off of North Potomac Street has six apartments, five for families and one for the shelter manager.

St. John’s Shelter was started by St. John’s Episcopal Church in Hagerstown. The congregation raised $150,000 in 1985 during a capital campaign, with one-third to be used on a church renovation project, one-third for the diocese and one-third to go to an outreach project.

A committee was formed and speakers were invited to share their insight into the needs of the local community. Soulis said at that time, the committee was “astonished” to learn there were about 500 homeless people in Washington County, and that many were families.

When the committee learned that there was no family shelter in the county and that many homeless families got split up, they knew they had found the outreach need they wanted to serve.

They purchased half of the duplex in 1986 in close proximity to Washington County Department of Social Services and the social services office of the former Washington County Council of Churches. Renovations began on the three-apartment building and the first family was welcomed on April 15, 1987.

Since then, about 600 families have received housing for 60 to 90 days at no cost while they get back on their feet. When the shelter had the opportunity to purchase the other half of the duplex in 1996, they did so, almost doubling the number of families they could serve.

The shelter can house up to 27 people and each apartment is modestly furnished and has a full kitchen.

“We’re almost always full with a wait list,” said Shelter Case Manager Cindi Messersmith.

Charles said the shelter is a separate entity from the church that founded it. Most of the funding comes from grants, private foundations and groups like the Washington County Gaming Commission to cover the approximately $30,000 annual operating budget.

Last year, the shelter board created an agency fund at the Community Foundation of Washington County. This is the first year St. John’s Shelter participated in Washington County Gives, a 24-hour online giving promotion to help nonprofit organizations raise operating dollars and they were pleased with the results.

They have lost a lot of federal funding in recent years, because their standards are higher than those required by the government to receive funding, all for the safety of the children.

“We just ask for community support wherever we can,” Charles said.

Teamwork The shelter is a mostly volunteer organization. Dean Smallwood, shelter manager, receives housing in exchange for his work. Messersmith receives a minimal stipend for the work she does.

As a result, the bed-night cost in 2018 was $5.16, the lowest of any homeless shelter in Maryland by a long shot, Soulis said.

Smallwood, who started in January, maintains the property with minimal resources and is considered the “Shelter Grandpa,” Charles said.

He ensures that families have a clean, safe place to live. Messersmith started in May and helps families find the resources they need to move forward, whether information about food and clothing banks, how to get a copy of their birth certificate and more.

She also arranges the extra touches, like planning an Easter egg hunt or activities for the children.

“It’s all about the kids,” Messersmith said.

“It basically gives ’em structure, get stable. It gives ’em a real head start if they use the time efficiently,” Smallwood said.

Both encourage the parents to get back on track, use the time in the shelter to find a job if they don’t have one and to save money for a security deposit for a permanent place to live.

“You need a lot of encouragement when you’re down on your luck,” Smallwood said.

Many families have been evicted from previous apartments and arrive with just the clothing on their backs, with all of their possessions discarded on the street.

For people who have been living in their car or a motel, the opportunity to cook meals in a kitchen is a big deal. Those who stay in local shelters are used to having to leave in the morning and find somewhere else to go during the day.

At St. John’s Shelter, families don’t have to leave during the day, which is especially nice for those with young children. School-age children are transported by Washington County Public Schools to the school they have been attending.

“Most people come here in crisis. After two weeks here, they settle down. They have a key to come home, a bed. We notice a big difference,” Messersmith said.

Evictions make it harder and more expensive for people to find a place to rent. Apartment application fees often start at $25 and go up from there and are not refundable if the landlord doesn’t rent to you.

Smallwood and Messersmith remind the adults that if they take good care of their shelter apartment, they can get a good reference from them. That can make a big difference in getting an apartment on their own.

About 60% of families who stay at St. John’s Shelter end up in permanent housing.

“We just keep telling them ‘This is your chance’,” Messersmith said.

Smallwood has high standards for the building to help the homeless families raise their own standards.

“This isn’t the end of the road. You gotta help ’em along a little bit,” Smallwood said.


Information from: The Herald-Mail of Hagerstown, Md.,

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