‘We give a hand up, and not a hand out’

The first night Jennifer Major finally got to take her then-2-year-old daughter to her own house, she just sat in her daughter’s room at night and admired her as she fell asleep — something she had never been able to do before.

“It was one of the best days of my life,” Major said. “Everything just worked out like it was supposed to.”

When Mia was born, Major, 40, was on methadone and tested positive. Her daughter was taken away from her and put in foster care. But it wasn’t until Major was incarcerated that she took steps to get her life together — and get her child back.

Now, Major has a home through Advocates for Homeless Families, a Frederick-based organization that provides housing, education and support to homeless families.

Major is in her second semester at Frederick Community College with a 4.0 GPA studying to become a paralegal. And she gets to see and play with Mia, now 5, every single day.

She said she owes everything to Advocates for Homeless Families, and never “in a million years” did she expect to be where she is today.

“I’m at a loss for words sometimes because I’m just so grateful for this program,” she said. “If you want to succeed and do better, they will help you 100 percent…I could not do it without them. There’s no way.”

The organization

Advocates for Homeless Families was founded in 1988 by a group of people and organizations led by All Saints Episcopal Parish in Frederick. Now, it includes 15 residences and a waiting list of more than 100 families.

The program places families in transitional housing for about two years. During that time, families pay a housing fee of 30 percent of their income with a cap of $300 per month.

“There are no free rides,” said Ken Allread, the executive director of Advocates.

In the program, participants go to school and get job training in addition to weekly life-skills workshops where they learn about topics like parenting, budgeting and nutrition from experts in the community.

“There’s a bonding that takes place,” Allread said, about the workshops. “There’s a peer recognition that they’re not alone.”

The program has had a success rate of 95 percent, meaning only 5 percent of the families who go through the program return to homelessness. The national average success rate for other transitional housing programs is 80 percent, Allread said.

“I think it’s because we’re truly focused on goal achievement,” Allread said, “and we have monthly milestones that participants are expected to meet.”

Each family in the program goes through about a month-long application process where they are vetted.

“It’s not too often that somebody actually gets to say, ‘Listen, your rent is going to be $200 for the next two years. Don’t worry about working full-time,” said Charlotte Strine, a family advocate for the organization. “Go to school full-time.’”

The average participant in the program is about 32 years old with a high school diploma and an income of $947. Some have criminal records, others have a history with drugs and alcohol and many have dealt with domestic abuse.

Allread said he sees it as a program first and housing provider second.

“The housing is just a means to an end,” he said. “We are a program and not a shelter.”

Advocates also works with many other organizations and services to provide for its participants.

“Frederick County is blessed to have a number of quality nonprofits that are actively working to bring homelessness to an end,” said Alan Christian, media and marketing consultant to Advocates. “It’s a team effort.”

Strine, who organizes the workshops, also meets with the families and helps connect them with resources.

When a family graduates from the program, Advocates keeps in touch to make sure the family doesn’t go back to homelessness. Through its other program, Families Forward, it works with about 10 families who are at risk of homelessness — many who graduated from the transitional housing program — but who live independently.

“We just help to make sure that they stay in their housing and stay on their goals,” Strine said.

Second Chances

Major, from Baltimore, had been on the streets and involved with drugs for about 15 years before getting treatment.

“I was still using and I didn’t have any desire to stop,” she said. “I didn’t even know how to stop.”

Getting incarcerated was what she needed to get her life in order, she said.

She heard about Advocates when she was at a treatment center for drug addiction. She was on the waiting list for the program for about a year before she got accepted.

When she did get that call though, she was able to get her daughter back right away.

During the whole process, she’d get to see her daughter, but not as often as she would’ve liked, she said.

Now, Mia is attending kindergarten at Lincoln Elementary. “She’s my tagalong,” Major said. “Where I go, she goes. I love it.”

Major said the organization really supports the kids. Advocates put on a good grades party and give them backpacks and school supplies. The organization also helps with babysitting and child-care programs.

Even though Major is now about four years clean and is earning a degree, going back to school was a huge step.

“She was really nervous about starting,” Strine, her family advocate, said. “She was going back to school and had not been in school since high school and had 15 years of drug addiction in between and she still did awesome.”

Major said she loves being in school. “It’s like being a little kid,” she said.

She found a community and support-system within Advocates and has clear goals in mind.

Advocates works to make sure people know they are not alone and their situation is not unique, Allread said.

Other families in the program have struggled with issues similar to Major’s, including drug and substance abuse and raising an infant.

Holly Trail, 31, was a recovering alcoholic when she was pregnant with her son, Micah. At the time, she was living with her aunt in a retirement community that didn’t allow children. She said her aunt was just trying to help her get on her feet — but she needed to find a way to support her kid.

In January of this year, she moved into an apartment with Advocates.

“It was like a 1,000-pound weight was lifted off my shoulders,” she said. “I was carrying all that stress and worry around about what am I going to do, how am I going to take care of my son, financially make this work and provide a good life for my kid.”

Without the program, she wouldn’t be financially capable of going to school and making a better life for herself.

“I would probably be scraping to get by,” she said, “just to survive, just to have a roof over my head and food on the table.”

She’s now going to Frederick Community College to become a licensed clinical social worker and gets close to straight As, with hopes of pursuing bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the future.

She said being an alcoholic helped her understand what she needed to work on.

“I feel like if I wasn’t an alcoholic,” she said, “I wouldn’t care to change and better my life the way I care to do today.”

Rate of Homelessness in Frederick County

Frederick County’s rate of homelessness went up this year, according to the Point-in-Time Count of people experiencing homelessness in the Metropolitan Washington Region. The study was conducted by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ Homeless Services Planning and Coordinating Committee.

But Allread said overall, the rate has been fairly static. According to the study, there were 246 literal homeless people in 2014 and 311 in 2015. Because the numbers are so small, they may not be statistically significant though, the study says.

Still, even a small increase has an effect, Allread said, because there is a limited amount of housing.

The Future of the organization

Allread said he hopes the organization continues to expand and keeps up its high success rate.

He wants to acquire more transitional housing properties and establish permanent housing in the community for people who complete the program.

Allread said he also wants to establish a housing locator position who would serve all the housing and shelter providers in the county.

“There’s a roadblock with public housing,” Allread said. “They have 300 units. If they’re full, where are people going to go?”

There are private landlords and vacancies — so the housing locator would work with landlords to find vacant units and house people hard to place, he said.

In the short-term, the organization will host more fundraisers and make more connections with the community.

Allread, who’s also the chair of the Frederick County Coalition for the Homeless, said the coalition has a new strategic plan, which has been in the works for years and was recently approved, Allread said.

It outlines four main goals: increasing housing options, preventing homelessness, improving leadership and communication, and improving services for homeless people.

He said the plan is an important step to combat homelessness.

Allread said he’s excited to see where Advocates goes in the future but overall, he said he knows the program works.

“Our operating philosophy is that we give a hand up, and not a hand out,” Allread said, “and we really mean it.”

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About the Author

Rebecca is a social services reporter at The Frederick News-Post. She graduated from Northwestern University, where she studied journalism and political science. She served as Managing Editor, Summer Editor-In-Chief and Campus Editor at The Daily Northwestern and previously interned at The Miami Herald.