Expansion for Leah’s House Moving Ahead

By Guy Leonard, County Times

CALLAWAY, Md. (June 7, 2007) - The expansion project for Leah’s House, a shelter for displaced, battered and homeless women and their families, has moved beyond the planning stages and the head of the organization couldn’t be happier.

“This is exciting; we’re finally moving dirt on this project,” said Marguerite Morris, who is also pastor of the New Beginnings Christian Worship Center.

About seven months ago, Morris unveiled her plans to demolish the Happyland Bar in Valley Lee, rebuild it into a family services center and build a shelter right next to it that could house as many as 10 families that are homeless or seeking refuge from abuse.

Morris was busy last week with county health department officials testing the overgrown parcel to see if it perked for water and sewer, which it did.

As one of the requirements to build the shelter, Morris was pleased that the land passed.

In a little less than two weeks, Morris said she plans to go to closing to actually own the property and demolish the abandoned bar, but needs a total of $80,000 to make that happen.

“We’re almost there; we still have room for donations,” Morris said. “We still need the community to get financially behind this.”

Morris said that the problem of homeless women in the county is a growing one that so far only Leah’s House has been able to deal with in a limited way.

“The need for this is obvious in St. Mary’s County,” Morris said. “We get calls on a regular basis of women who need to be placed.”

But Leah’s House can only help about three families at a time, Morris and her staff said, and that meant having to turn people away who needed help.

“Unfortunately this is the one of the only places in St. Mary’s County that offers assistance to homeless women,” said Traci Epps, one of Morris’s employees at Leah’s House.

Leah’s House can provide shelter for up to 90 days and can even provide transitioning assistance to women and their children for one year to 18 months.

They also offer workforce training and counseling to help stave off homelessness in the future.

Epps said that she and other workers there are getting constant referrals from both inside and outside the county to help homeless women.

Since Leah’s House got started only about nine months ago, Morris said they have received at least 150 referrals, many of whom they could not help because of the limited space available.

But they’ve done what they could, Morris said.

“We’ve served 40 plus clients in the home,” Morris said.

According to recent data compiled by research firms in the employ of the Local Management Board, there are fewer shelter beds overall in St. Mary’s County than in neighboring Charles and Calvert counties.

There are also fewer Section 8, or low-income, properties available to house the homeless or disadvantaged than in Charles or Calvert.

The 67 beds that are currently available for the homeless in the county are apparently being taxed to the limit as well, since they provide 34,919 bed nights of use, the report said.

Ella May Russell, director of the county’s Department of Social Services, said Leah’s House would be joined by a shelter program for women and children at the Three Oaks facility in Lexington Park.

The county is still trying to catch up and provide more and better services for the homeless, particularly women and children.

“Because we’re a growing county there’s a growing need for services like shelter for homeless women and children,” Russell said. “We don’t have the capacity to meet the demand.”

The project to build a new shelter with the family services center still has to receive county approval, Morris said, but she is confident that they’ll be able to begin construction on the new shelter by 2008.

Once the Happyland Bar is demolished, it will also serve as a restaurant, day care and temporary shelter to help deal with the demand for emergency housing.

Morris said that so far, about 230 organizations and individuals have supported the project to expand Leah’s House in some way, and that community attention has become focused on the project.

“People are watching because this is so important to the county,” Morris said.

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