Homeless, dealing with addiction and trying to care for an infant, Darcell Harris found herself at the women’s shelter in Westminster almost two decades ago.
“They sure know how to structure an unstructured life,” Harris said of the shelter.
Harris stayed in the shelter for eight months and not only learned parenting skills, but worked towards sobriety. Eventually she was able to secure her own housing and employment. Human Service Programs (HSP) supported her through each phase of her progress until eventually the tables turned and Harris was able to volunteer her time giving back to HSP.
Now a reading specialist for the Carroll County Public Schools, Harris has created a nonprofit that supports tutoring for kids in the Pennsylvania Ave. corridor and her daughter is entering her senior year at McDaniel College.
“I see my daughter as the end product of the programs that helped me,” Harris said. “And look at where she is compared to where I was.”
Homelessness is not a new phenomenon in Carroll County. For many citizens going about their daily lives, they don’t even see it. A recent commenter on Patch asked, “Do we even have homeless shelters in Westminster?”
Human Service Programs (HSP) was founded in 1987 by Sylvia Canon to improve the quality of life and self-sufficiency of Carroll County’s at risk and low income populations. According to HSP, there are approximately 170 homeless people living in Carroll County today, with about 153 of them receiving HSP services.
There are currently six shelters in Carroll County run by HSP; all of them are located in Westminster.
The “intact family shelter” is a facility that houses families. According to HSP Executive Director Cindy Parr, this facility allows families to stay intact while they work to get back on their feet. In FY 2011, this shelter housed 37 adults and 38 children.
There is also a men’s shelter, which housed 40 men in FY2011; a women’s shelter that housed 48 women and 44 children; a safe haven shelter for chronically ill homeless adults with serious mental illness that housed 74 men and women in FY2011; and a domestic violence safe house that supported 38 women and 42 children.
There is also a cold weather shelter, which is open from Nov. 15 to April 1 and provided 154 individuals with shelter, food, laundry and shower facilities in FY 2011.
"Most would be surprised to know the stories that surround some of our homeless residents,” Parr said. “It’s probably not what most would think. Believe it or not, 20 to 30 percent of our cold weather clients are usually working full time or part time. They come to the shelter because they are the working poor. They do not make enough to keep a roof over their head.”
But Parr said the cold weather shelter is not only notable because of the services it provides to clients, but also because of the volunteerism that makes it possible.
“This shelter and the effort required to successfully operate it during our coldest weather months is a text book version of successful coordination of volunteer efforts,” Parr said.
Volunteers start their shift at 6 p.m. and stay until lights go out at 11 p.m. The five hour shifts consist of checking in and greeting people upon arrival, serving dinner and providing an ear with which to listen to the 30 plus adults that seek shelter from the cold, Parr said.
The volunteer efforts are diverse and range from preparing a meal in advance and bringing it to share or coming to the shelter and cooking in the kitchen; helping with laundry and setting up for sleep.
Last year alone, nearly 125 volunteers gave some 8,000 hours to assist in the operation of the shelter, Parr said.
“It is amazing to me the organization and constant preparation that goes into making sure this operation runs smoothly,” Parr said. “Even more amazing is the money saved by this show of volunteerism.”
Parr said that the need for HSP services has grown in the past several years. In FY2011, HSP served 137 homeless people, in FY2010 130 and in FY2009 it was 127. The county provides approximately 23.5 percent of the organization's $3.6 million budget.
Darcell Harris is definitely one of the program’s success stories. She has gone from needing help in every way, to not only being self-sufficient but an asset to the programs offered by HSP.
“I was a part of the program, getting a lot of services,” Harris said. “But all they gave me caused me to want to give it back, and now I can do that.”
Editor's Note: The story was corrected to reflect that the county provides 23.5 percent of the organization's $3.6 million budget. The 19.5 percent as originally reported was for FY2010.