Here’s another gloomy sign of the times for runaway and homeless shelters: After 38 years, Baltimore’s only shelter exclusively for youth closed its doors for good in April, preferring to die with dignity rather than continue a perilous financial juggling act.
The Fellowship of Lights was one of the first recipients of a grant through the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act (RHYA) in 1975, using the money to help youths on the streets. It complemented that grant with money from the state to house youth from the child welfare system.
It seemed like a program whose revenue could never run out. Baltimore’s struggles with the drug economy leave the city with scores of youth in foster care, locked up, or on the streets. So how does the only program prepared to serve all three populations go belly up?
Executive Director Ross Pologe suggests two factors.
First, he said, the shelter had not conducted a street outreach program since 2003, the last year it received federal funds for that work. “We didn’t have the capacity to ratchet up a strong outreach,” Pologe said. Without that, “we are just a group of strangers” to street youth.
Another factor was the changing nature of Fellowship’s relationship with the Maryland Department of Human Resources. The department has been referring fewer and fewer youths for shelter services, Pologe said, and those it did send were more often mentally ill.
That wasn’t a problem for the staff at the girls’ shelter, Peggy’s Place. “We had veteran leadership there,” Pologe said. “They could work and did work with anyone.” But staff at the boys’ shelter, Harris House, could not; it shut down 15 months ago.
Unable to attract private money to stay afloat and reopen the boys’ shelter, the board decided to shut down the entire operation in a way that allowed the nonprofit to use its assets to provide severance packages for employees and to transfer some financial support to the city’s budding Homeless Youth Initiative, funded mostly by the federal Compassion Capital Fund.
Other service providers for homeless youth note that long-time facilities are shutting down all over.
“It’s becoming a troubling trend,” said Bob Robertson, vice president of the Valley Youth House in Bethlehem, Pa. “Locally, I’ve run across four [programs] in the last six months that are either closing or merging.”
Fellowship surrendered the one year left on its three-year RHYA grant from the U.S. Family and Youth Services Bureau. Acting Associate Commissioner Curtis Porter hopes to find a grantee in Baltimore to take it over.
Pologe is skeptical that the agency will find a taker. “We tried to find someone to take on grant” ourselves, he said.