When women and girls rise, their communities and their countries rise with them. – Michelle Obama

When Ms. J. was 22 years old, she had already overcome significant adversity. Following her high school graduation, Ms. J. and her newborn son had been kicked out of the only home she has ever known due to her mother’s struggles with addiction. With no other housing options, she moved in with her boyfriend, the father of her child. This would allow her to begin schooling and obtain her Medical Assistance certification.

Unfortunately, this living situation became volatile, and Ms. J. had to withdraw from school and flee to a domestic violence shelter with her son. Now, from the shelter, she was marshalling her strength and all resources available to her in pursuit of a stable life for her family.  

Violence is a leading cause of homelessness among women, and is of many factors that contribute to women being in greater need of affordable housing. Other factors include continuing gendered labor market conditions that result in women’s pay being consistently lower than men’s pay. Gender based social norms also force women to take on unpaid work as well as significant expense related to childcare. Trans-women face particularly tremendous barriers to well-being such as increased discrimination that limits housing options and greatly increased levels of violence.

These realities cause women to be more likely to have lower income and wealth when compared to men, and to therefore be in greater need of housing that is affordable. Approximately 75% of those living in affordable housing are women.

But no state currently has an adequate supply of affordable rental housing. An estimated 12 million renters and homeowner households are cost-burdened and pay more than 50 percent of their annual income on housing. Having adequate safe, affordable housing is a central and actionable way to redress the trauma and exploitation that disproportionately impact women.

When Ms. J. was referred her to St. Ambrose’s Rental Services Program her case manager helped her find a job and an affordable rental property.  “The home was so big and beautiful! I never had anything like that before. It means everything to me that I have a nice home to raise my son in.” Looking to the future, Ms. J. planned to get a more permanent job, start college and see her son begin school.

In the face of destructive setbacks and barriers, women like Mrs. J are building better worlds for themselves and future generations. Women are doing the essential, largely unpaid and unrecognized work of healing themselves and their families from systemic harm. Women are also more likely to be involved in grassroots change movements, advocating for transformation and justice in their larger communities.

 St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center works toward a vision of the future in which everyone in our community has a place they are proud to call home. We stand with our clients, supporters and partner organizations in the continuing pursuit of economic and social justice for women and for our communities as a whole.

This article was written with information from the following sources:

Tax Resources

AARP:  

Offers free state and federal tax preparation services. Customers can choose between in-person and remote tax assistance depending on site availability.

Eligibility: Anyone with low to moderate income, with a special focus on taxpayers who are 50 or older may qualify.

Contact: Call 1-888-AARP-NOW (1-888-227-7669) or go online to the AARP Foundation Tax Locator. The caller has to call in, go through the menu options, type in their zip code and they will get forwarded to a specialist. 

CASA:

Offers free state and federal tax preparation services.

Eligibility: Individuals/families who made less than $58,000 in 2021, specifically Spanish speakers. May also be able to assist persons who speak other languages, call for information. 

Contact: Call 1-866-765-2272 to schedule an appointment. Someone picked up within a minute. They take down your information and have someone reach out to you from your area. 

CASH Campaign of MD

Offers free state and federal tax preparation services. Customers can choose between virtual appointments or drop-off tax preparation.

Eligibility: If you live in the Baltimore area and made $58,000 or less in 2021 you may qualify for free tax preparation. You must have an appointmentto receive services.

Contact: Call 410-234-8008 Mon-Fri, 9AM-2PM. Appointments are filled for now, but they open up slots with time. 

CASH Campaign of MD Partners:

Offers free state and federal tax preparation services. Customers can choose between virtual appointments or drop-off tax preparation depending on site availability.

Eligibility: If you made $58,000 or less in 2021 you may qualify for free tax preparation services.

Contact: Call 1-800-492-0618 or check out the list of tax partners offering free tax preparation services. See the attachment for a full list of sites.

VITA:

Offers free state and federal tax preparation services for 60+.

Eligibility: The filer made less than $58,000 in 2021.

Contact: Call 1-800-906-9887 and ask to find a location or go online to the IRS VITA locatorThey will need their area code, and the specialist will provide them with a location near them and help them set up an appointment. Someone picked up within minutes.

IRS:

Offers free federal (sometimes state) tax preparation services. Online services only or independent filing.

Eligibility: The filer must have made under $73,000 in 2021 to qualify for free online filing services. If the person made over $73,000 they offer free fillable tax forms for the filer to complete independently.

Contact: Go online to choose an online free filing service.  

Comptroller:

Offers free state tax preparation services. Virtual appointments available.

Contact:  For general information and free Maryland income tax assistance call Taxpayer Services at 410-260-7980 from Central Maryland, or 1-800-MD-TAXES (1-800-638-2937). Assistance is available Mon-Fri, 8:30AM-4:30PM. You can also schedule an appointment online.

A Legacy of Black Leadership, Community-Building and History in Winter’s Lane

In Catonsville, just two miles from the Baltimore City line, is a community called Winter’s Lane. Here churches, businesses, and historic homes stand witness to an important piece of Black history, and a legacy of Black leadership, community-building and resilience.

Because of the work of historian Louis S. Diggs, much of the history of the community is readily accessible to us. Through years of documentation and genealogical research, Diggs outlined the history of this community in his 1995 book, It all Started on Winters Lane.

The Winters Lane Historic District is the largest and most intact mid-19th century African American neighborhood in Baltimore County. The community was founded in 1867, just over a year after the end of the Civil War, and many of the original founders were formerly enslaved people.

Despite widespread violence, exploitation, and systemic racism, Black community members rallied together to build a thriving community. A school was created within a year of the community’s founding. Black businesses, such as a community grocery store, sprang up and flourished. 

The business community was bolstered by support from The Catonsville Cooperative Corporation, formed by Black Winter’s Lane residents in 1890. Cut off from access to intergenerational wealth because of slavery, the Co-op allowed community members to pool their resources to support new businesses in the community and to purchase homes.

Throughout the 20th century Winter’s Lane prospered, and was well known as a civically engaged community full of beautiful neighborhoods, sports, and social clubs. The Concerned Citizens of Catonsville, founded in 1980, continue to advocate for investment and preservation of the community and uphold the community’s strong legacy of leadership.

A photograph from the late 1980’s showing one of the homes before renovation.

In the late 1980s, a group of 15 homes in Winter’s Lane on Roberts and Shipley Avenues were rental properties in disrepair, with outdated features, like dangerous staircases and no central heating. The homes had been built in the early 1900’s and were in need of extensive rehabilitation. In a partnership with Baltimore County, St. Ambrose purchased the houses and renovated them with the goal of keeping as many original tenants in the homes as possible.

St. Ambrose brought the houses up to code and did substantial work to modernize the interiors. Great care was taken to maintain the original exterior appearance of the homes to preserve their historical legacy.  These homes are representative of the architecture of the time, and they are some of the few remaining examples of this type of structure in Winter’s Lane. 

In 2016, in partnership with Baltimore County and the State of Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development, St. Ambrose began a second renovation of ten of the historic homes, essentially doubling the size of the homes and updating with more modern amenities.

 “When I look at those houses, I see the history there. It can take you back and you can imagine the people in the past, while also looking at the new generation moving forward” says Leah Mason-Grant, Lead Property Manager at St. Ambrose. 

One of the homes after the most recent renovation.

Today, the 15 homes stand as living pieces of history in our region. They also are beloved homes rented at affordable rates, with many housing families that have been in the community for generations. St. Ambrose is honored to offer safe, affordable housing in this community and to have been able to rehabilitate and preserve buildings as they originally looked. We encourage you to visit Winter’s Lane, look into the work of local historian Louis S. Diggs, and enjoy this song about the community by the R.J. Phillips Band. 

This article drew heavily from the work of many more comprehensive articles which are listed below.

It’s like a huge weight off my shoulders

Theresa had will preparation on her to-do list for a long time. An upcoming surgery made the task more urgent. So when we she heard that St. Ambrose Legal Services was coming to her senior apartment community, Essex Co-Op, for Wills Wednesday, she was thankful for the opportunity to cross it off her list.

This Wills Wednesday event was one of seven offered by St. Ambrose in the fall of 2021, serving 44 clients in total. Woodlawn Senior Center and St. Ambrose partnered to put on many of the Wills Wednesdays events.

Wills Wednesday events bring attorneys into the community to meet residents where they are and prepare critical documents like wills, advance directives, and power of attorneys at no cost. Many attorneys charge $500 – $3,000 to prepare a will, a figure that is prohibitive to many older people.

St. Ambrose attorney Jeffrey Hayes hands Theresa her newly created will.

“If someone has a home and passes away, for a lot of families – especially for those in Baltimore City and County – it is incredibly important to keep that home in the family to maintain home ownership.  This program helps people avoid the probate process. It makes the end of life process, which is hard and financially challenging already, a little easier for folks,” explains Katherine Donnelly, a St. Ambrose attorney.

In 2021, the St. Ambrose legal team helped community members prepare 121 wills. Legal services like these increase housing stability by supporting families to build and preserve assets and take greater control of their financial legacy.

As she took her newly created will in hand, Theresa stated, “It’s like a huge weight off my shoulders, it frees my mind from being worried and concerned…peace of mind is what it is.”

As always, if you are have any questions regarding estate planning, please call the Legal Services Department at St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center at 410-366-8550, ext. 209.

Small dollar fund supports struggling homeowners

In March of 2020, the federal government issued foreclosure and eviction moratoriums, orders that helped secure housing for renters and homeowners alike during the COVID-19 pandemic. While these policies prevented millions of residents from losing their homes, they expired during the summer and fall of 2021, threatening the housing stability of millions of renters and homeowners who were still behind on bill payments. Community members facing eviction in Baltimore turned to agencies like St. Ambrose for help.

As the pandemic unfolded, our attorneys observed that the forbearances and deferments that lenders offered were helpful stopgaps but they were not permanent solutions and have the potential to create longer-term problems.

Homeowners like Lynne Frankel felt the impacts of this process acutely. Ms. Frankel attempted to work with her lender on her own to resolve her mortgage default and avoid foreclosure. For two years, she struggled to make payments that were double her normal amount, and ultimately could not sustain them. “I felt set up for failure and let down,” said Ms. Frankel, “because they literally said I could afford the payment without a modification.”

This led Ms. Frankel to St. Ambrose. She worked with attorney Owen Jarvis, who helped her secure approval on a loan modification, which would resolve the mortgage default and give her affordable monthly payments. Payments on the new modification were set to begin in a month, and things were looking up; Ms. Frankel was going to save her home from foreclosure once she finalized the modification by making her first payment.

But then disaster struck. In the month before her first payment came due, Ms. Frankel’s sister passed away. She had to fly out of state to help make arrangements and provide care for her nieces. The financial aspect was difficult, but emotionally, Ms. Frankel was dealing with an even greater weight.

“This was a very sad time for our family, coupled with the stressful burden of fighting foreclosure for a second time,” she said. At this point, she had already tried everything to make her finances work. “I had to get a second job again, which caused medical issues, so I had to quit that second job.”

However, just as things seemed dark, St. Ambrose was able to provide a bit of light. Through the SHOW Fund, St. Ambrose was able to pay money directly to Ms. Frankel’s lender to help her afford her other expenses. Upon first hearing that this was possible, she was brought to tears.

“I received assistance with a partial payment of my mortgage so that I could pay for my flight to Wisconsin in support of my nieces and their mother, who was using at-home hospice care due to cancer,” she said. “Owen Jarvis helped stay on top of my lender and helped get my home loan modification approved with an affordable payment.”

Since then, Ms. Frankel’s situation continues to improve. The home she had lived in for 13 years was able to avoid foreclosure.

While the impact of the pandemic will continue to be felt for months and years to come, St. Ambrose will remain an innovative and steadfast resource and navigator for those in need.

Stable Housing Adds Up for Youth Experiencing Homelessness

“Now that I’m in a stable place, I do want to go back to school. I think I want to go back to school for accounting. Because I’m really good at math. That’s a goal of mine, to get my degree or certificate.”

At the age of 19, Selena* found herself kicked out of her home with no stable alternative. Using what she had, she was able to stay safe and mostly sheltered despite her new circumstances. Still, her situation was by no means easy; Selena’s home life was riddled with constant disruptions, forcing her to continuously seek new shelter arrangements and employment opportunities.

“I got kicked out of my mom’s house when I was 19 years old,” she said. “I bounced around from house to house, couch to outside. Oh my goodness, I moved probably 12 times one year; every year I moved a lot. I stayed in homes that were roach infested. That was just crazy. I worked at Dollar General, I worked at Amazon as a delivery job, I worked at Amazon inside of the warehouse, I worked at Firehouse Subs in southern Maryland.”

This unstable lifestyle certainly wasn’t ideal, and Selena was looking for a way out. Homeless shelters became an important resource for her, especially in Baltimore, providing a more reliable place to stay. On a given night in Baltimore, over 1,100 people rely on emergency homeless shelters. But this is only a fraction of the almost 12,000 people experiencing homelessness in the city. For many, shelters can be uncomfortable, insufficient, and occasionally even dangerous. Finally, Selena stumbled across St. Ambrose.

“I walked into the shelter one day, and I seen the sign on a billboard that said, ‘St. Ambrose: we help teens 18 to 24,’ and I said ‘you know what? I’m going to get this a try.’ They reached out to me, and told me that they had a spot for me. And I was happy. I moved into a home and then I eventually moved into the Hope House.”

Selena entered into St. Ambrose’s youth Homesharing program, where young people experiencing homelessness live with a St. Ambrose-partnered host. These hosts volunteer to offer space in their home for these youths to live and get themselves back on their feet. After a while, some participants, like Selena, move into Hope House, a home where participants in the Homesharing program live together, supporting one another, caring for the house, and preparing themselves to return to an independent lifestyle.

“It was nice being there,” she said about her experience in the program. “The house was clean. It felt so good to be able to just lay my head on a clean bed and take a shower and stuff like that. I was just so happy that somebody opened up their home to me and other people as well. It changed my life. It helped me become more stable. My mind was everywhere, but just to have somewhere stable, it helps the mind calm down a lot.”

Selena entered St. Ambrose’s Homesharing program in 2019. In the early months of 2020, Selena and the other residents of Hope House were faced with the COVID-19 pandemic. Selena was facing a unique wave of setbacks and frustrations, but she was able to lean on her newfound stability and weather the storm.

 “I lost my job on March the 9th, and then the pandemic came on my birthday. They shut the city down on my birthday, March the 13th, I was like ‘wow,’ I couldn’t even believe it.”

Despite the initial shock of the pandemic, Selena stayed active in her pursuit for a more independent life. Homelessness can be a major barrier to employment for many. While 61% of homeless adults in Baltimore want to work, only 5% are currently employed. Getting stable housing allowed Selena to seek out new opportunities. After securing a new job in May, Selena graduated from the Homesharing program in June of 2020 and now lives in her own apartment. She credited her current situation to the resources she was able to make use of during her time with St. Ambrose.

“Me having my own room; me being able to get on the computer and look up different jobs was great,” she said. “There were little educational programs; I was also enrolled in a Civic Works program when I was there, I completed that while I was in St. Ambrose. I wasn’t just staying in the house, I was always doing something.”

Selena has continued to find new job opportunities and now owns her own car. She even hopes to return to college to pursue further education in the near future.

This Is Home

Mary Ellen Jensen has a master’s degree in social work and has worked at Child Protective Services for 16 years. This work, she explains, is her way of giving back to the community that has supported her.

“I’m really grateful to be where I’m at in life,” she said. “I will work as long as I can work, as long as my health permits. I know that my goal is just to give back, because even now, if someone asks me to do something in regards to young folks, I have no problem to volunteer. Even if I stopped working, my goal is to bring to the table my knowledge.”

Twenty-four years ago, having a master’s degree and a steady, purpose-driven job might not have seemed possible. When Ms. Jensen first came to St. Ambrose, she had been dealing with chronic homelessness, housing instability, and addiction for two decades. Now that she has been living in a St. Ambrose home for nearly the same amount of time, she reflects on the way her life has changed.

“I was a person on drugs for 20 years. And I felt like drugs were more important than paying rent,” she said. “Once I got off the drugs, I got a job at a restaurant. And while in the shelter, I saved up $1,200. I got a house that’s in the same block as the house I’m living in now, across the street.”

After conquering her substance use, Jensen was also able to stabilize her housing. Housing and addiction often co-occur; around 38% of people experiencing homelessness are dependent on alcohol while 26% misuse other harmful drugs. Sometimes, addiction can contribute to housing instability or lead to homelessness, but often, substance use develops as a way to deal with the harshness of experiencing homelessness. Ms. Jensen’s journey toward stability had only just begun; even with her new house, the work didn’t stop.

After starting a new job in 2011, Ms. Jensen took the next major step in her search for a more stable home: a section 8 voucher. A section 8 voucher, otherwise known as a housing choice voucher, is a government assistance program that allows low-income residents to live in a home of their choosing with subsidized rent. But when Ms. Jensen went out to look for a home that qualified, she was left unsatisfied.

“Me and my two children would walk around in this neighborhood looking for someone who would accept my section 8 housing voucher and I was not able to find anyone,” she said. “I didn’t have credit for one, and the homes were not as immaculate the homes I thought I was going to be able to get, so I got frustrated; I was running to the end of my rope.” Her current home was run down, but her job was not bringing in enough money to upgrade her situation. If the housing choice voucher could not meet her needs, Ms. Jensen had few options.

Although her initial housing choice voucher search wasn’t providing satisfactory leads, St. Ambrose was able to secure a home for Ms. Jensen and her family. “It gave me stability,” she said. “And St. Ambrose would help whenever I needed assistance from them with whatever was going on in the house. And they treated you like family.”

Her children, who were seven and ten years old when Ms. Jensen moved into her St. Ambrose home, benefited greatly from the new stability. One of the best feelings was simply knowing they had a home, which was a relatively foreign concept for her children who had experienced homelessness for most of their lives.

“First of all, they were happy just to be in a home. I was trying to be the best mother I could be to them. This was the first real home that we had. A lot of people, once I got my degree, assumed that I was trying to move. But no, this is my home. It’s home.”



Read more from St. Ambrose:

The Importance of Estate Planning

Frannie is a 92-year-old low income woman who lives alone. She was concerned about her heirs and how they would receive her assets after her passing. That’s when she reached out to St. Ambrose to have a will prepared.

She told her St. Ambrose attorney that her husband had died, after which she sold their marital home. In total, she had approximately $70,000 in liquid funds from the sale of the home. She had worked with her husband for decades to establish their equity and she wanted to ensure that the funds would go to her chosen heirs.

Medical issues left Frannie with limited mobility so an attorney visited her in her new rental apartment. The attorney provided advice and counseling about estate planning. He reviewed her asset and financial documentation and told Frannie what was already taken care of in her estate plan and what still needed to be done. To tie up all of the loose ends, the attorney prepared a will for Frannie in her own home during the visit.   

After this brief in-home meeting, Frannie had an ironclad estate plan. She now knows where all of her assets will go after she passes away. The attorney also enabled her to avoid the probate process for as many of her assets as possible, saving her heirs time, money, and the headache that many experience while dealing with probate assets.

As always, if you are have any questions regarding estate planning, please call the Legal Services Department at St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center at 410-366-8550, ext. 209.

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of St. Ambrose clients.

Why Advance Healthcare Directives are Vital for Older Adults

Gerald had an upcoming high-risk surgical procedure. The 71-year-old Baltimore native needed a legal document to guide his health care providers in the event that something went wrong during the surgery. Gerald went to the Baltimore City Register of Wills where he was referred to St. Ambrose.

A St. Ambrose attorney prepared an advance directive for Gerald free of charge. This advance directive ensured that if there were a complication during the surgery, one of Gerald’s loved ones had the authority to make healthcare decisions on his behalf. It also allowed Gerald to dictate what kind of medical treatment he would receive ahead of time if he were to suffer a major debilitation.

Gerald walked into St. Ambrose’s office two days before his procedure. With such an urgent need, he was unable to secure legal services from other nonprofits with longer intake periods. He could not hire a private attorney because he lived on under $1,000 per month. From start to finish, St. Ambrose addressed Gerald’s needs in less than one hour.

Thankfully, Gerald’s procedure was a success. The fact that he had an advance directive ahead of time gave Gerald one fewer thing to worry about and the peace of mind so that he could focus on his health and recovery.

As always, if you are have any questions regarding housing law, please call the Legal Services Department at St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center at 410-366-8550, extension 209.

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of St. Ambrose clients.

Sylvia’s Story

Sylvia found herself living in a homeless shelter for the first time at the age of 79. Her Baltimore County home had been sold at a tax sale and then foreclosed on, leaving her with nowhere to call home. A social worker at the shelter helped Sylvia get in touch with St. Ambrose because Sylvia thought that the house sold for more than what she owed in taxes. A St. Ambrose attorney looked into the matter and discovered that Sylvia was owed a $46,000 surplus.

Under Baltimore County policy, homeowners that lose their home to tax sale have to file a motion in the Circuit Court to claim any surplus. This is simple for lawyers to do, but can be prohibitively complicated for people without legal experience. Sylvia’s attorney filed a motion to disburse her surplus, which she eventually received.

Had Sylvia automatically received her surplus, she likely would not have ended up in a homeless shelter. She could have used the $46,000 to transition homes in a dignified manner. Rather, she had to live in a shelter while going through the time-consuming process of finding and retaining counsel and then wait on a motion to process through the court.

While Sylvia’s case eventually resolved in her favor, she faced undue hurdles that many do not overcome. Without free legal services, she likely never would have received the money that she was owed. Sylvia no longer had to worry about her housing and health as she ages, giving her peace of mind knowing she would be taken care of.

As always, if you are have any questions regarding housing law, please call the Legal Services Department at St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center at 410-366-8550, extension 209.

*Name has been changed to protect the identity of St. Ambrose clients.