The joy of completing a Frederick drug rehabilitation program was short-lived for Lorraine Jackson after she realized she had nowhere to stay.
Jackson didn’t want to return to Baltimore, a place filled with habits and people from her life as a crack cocaine addict. Instead, she turned to the Religious Coalition for Emergency Human Needs’ Alan P. Linton Jr. Emergency Shelter.
Tuesday marked two weeks since Jackson started staying at the overnight emergency shelter, the first time in her 58 years she was homeless, she said. Asked where else she would go if not for the shelter, she didn’t know.
It was a hypothetical situation, but one that could have been reality for others seeking refuge at the shelter Tuesday night. The 90 overnight residents — 70 men and 20 women — tested the 80-bed shelter’s maximum capacity.
Prior to the final count when the shelter closed its doors at 9 p.m., Brenda Bell, the coalition’s assistant shelter assistant director and case manager, feared they would be forced to turn prospective residents away because there was not enough room. That scenario was narrowly avoided; the 10 men for whom there were no beds were able to squeeze into the makeshift sleeping area set up mattresses and blankets.
Asked on Monday what she would do if and when the shelter couldn’t house all those seeking a place to stay, Bell answered, “I can’t even imagine.”
“I guess that’s a call we’ll just have to make the night of,” she continued.
Though the coalition has never had to turn clients away from the shelter because of capacity problems, it was a scenario organization leaders were already anticipating, given already higher-than-normal attendance.
Winter typically brings more people to the shelter seeking refuge from the frigid temperatures, snow and ice, according to Nick Brown, the Religious Coalition’s executive director. By the same logic, the coalition usually sees shelter numbers drop when the weather warms — in prior years attendance hovered around 40 or 50 people during the warm season, according to Brown.
Attendance this year spiked in September, despite what has continued to be an unseasonably warm fall. The increased demand has created challenges particularly for the women’s section of the shelter, which has only 20 beds. On several nights recently, women have stayed on mats in the overflow area, Brown said.
Bell pointed to newly homeless clients, like Jackson, as part of the reason why more people were staying at the shelter earlier on in the season. Unemployment, the rising cost of housing, and other unexpected circumstances continue to force people out of more permanent locations and into shelters or on the streets, she said.
Ricky Jones, who was eight months in to his third stint at the shelter, echoed her conclusions.
“All these people are coming in from Baltimore and D.C., and the rents are going up,” he said. “It’s not the Frederick I grew up in. People can’t afford to live here.”
Brown also credited higher numbers to changes in the coalition’s admission policies for the shelter. Since Brown took over as organization leader at the beginning of the year — first in a temporary capacity and later on as the full-time executive director — requirements that shelter clients must prove residency and participate in mandatory case management services have been revised.
Previously, shelter admission was limited to county residents, proved by a previous address, a license, paperwork associated with services received from another county agency, or participation in the Frederick Community Action Agency’s mailbox program. Since March, those without any of these documents could still be admitted as long as they prove intent to stay in Frederick and meet with the coalition’s case managers first.
In years past, anyone who stayed at the shelter during its warm-weather season — typically April through October, although this year the season has been extended because of warm weather — was also required to meet regularly with an assigned case manager for help accessing other services and creating a plan to find sustainable housing.
Warnings were issued when someone skipped a meeting. Five warnings would bar that person from staying at the overnight shelter, at least temporarily.
Under revised policies, only chronically homeless clients, as defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, must use case management services. For others, services are encouraged but not required.
More training for shelter employees and better advertising were other reasons why Brown thought shelter numbers had spiked.
“I think we’re doing a good job of getting the word out,” he said.
The employee training, which emphasized homelessness sensitivity, might have attracted homeless clients who previously chose to stay outside because they didn’t like the shelter, Brown said.
“Resistance is down, we think,” he said.
Once 30-degree lows hit, the shelter will implement its cold-weather policies. Hours remain unchanged, but unlike during the warm-weather season, intoxicated clients are not turned away. The cold-weather season also renews the coalition’s agreement with the Frederick Rescue Mission to let people stay at the Rescue Mission when demand exceeds capacity.