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The Light House, MAJ Trial Reporter (Fall 2018)

We all have preconceived notions – the words “homeless shelters” conjure images of dingy buildings, crowded spaces, and a cold and impersonal air. For the more than 2,000 individuals who rely on services from The Light House Homeless Prevention Support Center (“TLH”) annually, those images couldn’t be further from reality.

Located on a quiet Annapolis street, TLH presents visitors with creative art and landscaping on the outside, and a spacious, well-lit lobby on the inside. The sign over the door is hopeful and bright, just like the successes of clients whose lives have been changed by TLH.

Started informally as Annapolis Area Ministries more than 25 years ago, TLH was founded by local churches to help homeless individuals in downtown Annapolis in its original shelter at 206 West Street. About ten years ago, TLH raised $8.4 million from public and private sources to build its current home at 10 Hudson Street, and raised more money to refurbish the old shelter into the Light House Bistro, which provides employment opportunities for TLH’s clients and transitional housing units on the second floor.

Currently, TLH is the only shelter in the greater Annapolis area. As it evolves and continuously improves its programs and services, TLH seeks to be a national model for how communities care for their own people. Its mission is: “Rebuilding lives with compassion by providing shelter and services to prevent homelessness and empower people as they transition toward employment, housing, and self-sufficiency.” In a time of seemingly constant economic change, TLH’s holistic approach to homelessness is a necessary breath of fresh air.

For this article, the authors met with TLH Executive Director Jo Ann Mattson, who highlighted the issues that arise when people “fall through the cracks.” Underprivileged individuals are most vulnerable to circumstance, and a single bad event can spiral quickly to become a vicious and unending cycle: incarceration, addiction, job loss, serious injuries, and mental illness represent some of the many ways citizens quickly can become homeless.

In the words of TLH, “Homelessness results from complex circumstances and is solved through a multi-system approach.” To address the root causes of homelessness, TLH offers many opportunities and uses varying approaches.

First, and most immediately, everyone gets access to food, clean clothing, and a hot shower. TLH serves nutritious hot lunches daily. In 2017, TLH served over 4,000 hot meals and dispersed over 85,000 pounds of groceries. Bagged lunches are available to community members daily, twenty-four hours a day. The Fresh Market is open three days a week, providing fresh produce, bread, and numerous perishable items. Pantry bags are given out monthly, and the Client Choice Pantry is a grocery store experience for people experiencing food insecurity, allowing clients an opportunity to learn about nutrition. The pantry is a co-op, so people who consume the food give back by stocking the shelves. TLH receives donated goods from churches and local businesses, such as farmer’s markets and grocers when they have surpluses. TLH teaches clients to read and understand food labels, and even uses a color-coded system to help diabetics plan healthy menus.

In its capacity as a shelter, TLH houses up to 45 people and 5 families (with up to 20 children), with separate residential areas for men, women and families within the 24,400 square-foot building. Clients who leave the emergency shelter can be placed in transitional housing, which offers supportive living assistance for clients not yet ready to live on their own. Another multi-generational building provides a living space for up to five women. For a men’s home nearby, TLH offers short-term leases to protect itself in case clients start using illegal substances and need to be removed (all clients in the program must pass regular drug-testing). In 2017, TLH housed 187 people and 18 families (with a total of 34 children altogether). TLH strives continuously to “create successful outcomes through assessment, goal setting, shelter, and program support.”

The gap between wealth and extreme poverty has become a dangerous sinkhole for many citizens and undocumented workers. America now has an estimated 553,742 homeless people annually – for every 10,000 people, 17 are homeless. On any given night in Annapolis, 350 unsheltered people live on the street or in encampments. TLH provides an imperative lifeboat for people who might otherwise remain disadvantaged throughout their lives. It reports that 79% of its clients are able to leave with “a housing solution, increased income, and improved life skills.”

To “meet clients where they are,” TLH provides a range of services. For clients who need educational support, TLC offers GED training, programs that teach skills and trades, tutoring, literacy programs, enrollment at the Anne Arundel Community College, and parenting classes. If a lack of affordable housing is the problem, TLH case workers may contact landlords, formulate ‘creative leases’, pair-up clients, and provide furniture. When eviction and foreclosure becomes a major obstacle, TLH offers credit counseling, rapid rehousing funds, financial literacy, escrow accounts for savings, and legal support.

To combat unemployment – a significant driver of homelessness – TLH offers the B.E.S.T. (Building Employment Success Training) Program, with provides job training, clothing, job coaches and mentors, soft skills, and workforce development. Open to clients and community members with a potential to become homeless, the B.E.S.T. Program offers sixteen weeks of intensive training in Culinary Arts or Facilities Maintenance and Management, with up to twenty-four students per class. B.E.S.T. graduates are then placed in internships in the surrounding area, and an Employment Resource Center is available at TLH for their use.

A testament to the B.E.S.T. Program is the journey taken by Lakesha, who has worked as a Sauté Cook at the Bistro since graduating from the B.E.S.T. Program in April 2017. Describing her experience, Lakesha said, “I’ve learned so many skills since I started the B.E.S.T. Program. Even though I had been cooking most of my life, Chef Beth, and my B.E.S.T. instructor, Chef Linda, have taught me so much more. I’ve learned a lot about different styles of cooking, how to get flavors to complement each other, and how to make something incredible out of any ingredients on hand. Out of this whole experience, I was able to gain my independence. I have never seen an organization that does the amazing things that you do for people. I’m grateful to everyone who contributes and works with us to rebuild our lives and help us feel whole again.” Currently, Lakesha has a full time job and reliable housing, and she hopes one day to have the financial stability to send her daughter to college.

Absence of affordable health care is a hot topic for everyone, regardless of political party, race, gender, or age. Volunteer nurse navigators and health care workshops at TLH assist clients to access and coordinate health care. TLH also offers mental health assessments and counseling, medication funding, and anger management. Counseling and anger management classes are also available for those who are struggling with domestic abuse. TLH hosts support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, to help clients battle addiction, and private substance abuse support groups and counseling are also available for struggling clients. Finally, for clients with criminal convictions and incarceration in their backgrounds, TLH offers a legal clinic, identifies employers willing to hire, offers counseling, teaches skills and trades, focuses on court advocacy, and provides reentry services.

After a tour of the TLH building, it was clear how vital the staff is for the daily functioning and success of the entire operation. TLH takes care to assign one case manager to only a handful of clients at a time, which allows case managers to get to know their clients. As stories from once-homeless individuals attest, the closeness between staff members and clients immediately gives the clients a sense of peace, respect, and belonging. A man named John explained how his Light House Client Advocate helped him overcome obstacles: “Without my client advocate, Karen, I wouldn’t be where I’m at today. She never let me down; she was always there for me. The first few weeks I was at the Light House I was in bad shape. She set me up with medical appointments, helped me get my birth certificate, whatever I needed to move forward.”

As impressive as TLH and its programs and people are, it can always use more help. A vast network of community volunteers supports the many services provided by TLH. Teachers and tutors help clients attain additional basic education and knowledge. Church groups organize and serve bagged lunches. Others bring ingredients to prepare and serve breakfast or dinner for TLH residents. Volunteers sort clothing, provide childcare, and organize events; trained volunteers, known as Safe Harbour Resource Center Hosts, help oversee the laundry and showers, help to distribute pantry bags, and collect necessary data. Trained volunteers also work as career coaches or instructors in the B.E.S.T. Program. Mentors for financial success are always needed. Interested volunteers can contact the Director of Programs at TLH for more information.

For those unable to volunteer time, TLH also accepts financial donations, both great and small. From $50 (the cost of a technology upgrade in the Career Resource Center) to $1,000 (the cost of caring for one family for a month), TLH treasures all gifts. Donations of dry and canned goods are also greatly appreciated. Many volunteers sponsor food drives, and others donate working bicycles for adults. One man walked two hours each way to get to classes at TLH; his dedication paid off, and he never missed a class, but an alternate form of transportation would have been a blessing.

On a subject of particular relevance to the audience for this article, TLH has a limited capacity to assist clients with legal issues, and a great need for assistance from lawyers willing to donate their time. Even something as simple as a letter written by a lawyer can be extremely helpful to a TLH client with a legal problem. Lawyers with experience advising clients on criminal, bankruptcy, landlord-tenant, and family issues are also in particularly short supply. TLH would love to offer a “Law Day” where clients and less fortunate members of the community could get free legal advice on a variety of subjects. Of course, lawyers who could teach TLH’s clients to advocate for themselves would always be welcome.

Although TLH recognizes that lawyers can’t change the entire legal system, Executive Director Jo Ann Mattson reminds people of the particular challenges that the justice system presents to poor people. Often, individuals who simply cannot make enough money to live find themselves in a world of trouble if they cut corners. Ms. Mattson stresses the importance of a justice system that gives people convicted of minor crimes a chance to become productive citizens again, after their debt to society has been paid in full.

In a world riven with hardship and negativity, TLH is a breath of fresh air. 10 Hudson Street is a remarkable and inspiring place for clients and volunteers alike.

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