Frederick nonprofit opening a house for homeless youths

Apr. 29—Robert Hemby was 4 when he entered the Maryland foster care system.

Over the course of 14 years, he jumped between four different houses in Frederick County. Then, after his foster mom died when he was in high school in the early 1950s, his foster dad left him. Robert then lived alone in an old farmhouse, where there was no electricity or running water.

For his remaining time in high school, he hunted, fished, worked on a nearby farm and played football. When he graduated, nobody knew his living situation.

He shared pieces of his story with his daughter as she was growing up. But as he got older, he opened up even more. All he ever wanted out of life, he'd tell her, was a family. A place to call home.

So, in 2018, she set out to make one.

Four years later, the nonprofit that Cindy Morgan helped create is preparing to open its first home for young people experiencing homelessness.

Steadfast, Standing Firm Against Youth Homelessness will start accepting unaccompanied young men — without a parent or guardian — ages 16 to 22 to its new transitional housing program in late summer or early fall, house lead Kelly Christiano said.

"We're at the precipice now," she said.

In a two-story farmhouse neighboring Frederick Christian Fellowship Church on Hansonville Road off U.S. 15, young men who are transitioning out of the foster care system or experiencing homelessness will learn how to be independent adults and build positive, healthy relationships while surrounded by caring staff members.

It has capacity for eight residents, Christiano said.

Morgan and Christiano want the house to be a place where young men can be still for a while and figure out their future. And most of all, they want it to feel like home.

"I know it sounds so cliche, but we've talked about having cookies baking in the oven," said Morgan, Steadfast's executive director.

The child welfare system is sometimes called a "highway to homelessness," according to the National Foster Youth Institute. About half of the homeless population nationwide spent time in foster care. And when young adults age out of the foster care system at 18, an estimated 20% become homeless.

Frederick County counted 145 unaccompanied young people when it conducted its first youth homelessness survey in 2018. But many social services providers believe this number to be an undercount.

Homeless young people, sometimes called the "invisible population," tend to live below the radar.

They often don't seek help from resource centers like The Religious Coalition for Emergency Human Needs' Alan P. Linton Jr. Emergency Shelter, Morgan said. Instead, many feel safer living on the street or couch surfing.

Young adults may also not be best served by programs designed for older adults, said Christiano, a long-time social worker and case manager who previously worked at the Seton Center in Emmitsburg. Most need more time to get their feet under them and be ready to live independently.

That's why young men will be able to stay at the Steadfast House for up to three years.

"We want them to come as they are," Morgan said. "Just don't leave as they come."

Before starting Steadfast, Morgan was a Court Appointed Special Advocate, a volunteer position with the Maryland court system that helps find safe, permanent housing for abused and neglected children.

She was assigned to advocate for a teenager who entered the foster care system when he was 15. Over the course of three years, she watched him go from one residential therapeutic center to another, eventually signing himself out from the system at 18. Three months later, she found him living in a wooded area, sleeping on a cardboard box with a blanket.

"He would say the same thing to me that I heard my dad say," Morgan said. "All he really wanted was a family."

With the help of two other CASA volunteers and many volunteers, Morgan formed Steadfast, which became a 501©(3) nonprofit in 2019. From the start, their dream was to provide housing to homeless young people.

Just before the pandemic hit, Morgan described the group's mission to her pastor at Frederick Christian Fellowship, the Rev. Randy Goldenberg.

"He asked me what we needed and I jokingly said, 'A home,'" she said. "And he said, 'Well, we have one.'"

The church is letting Steadfast use the farmhouse on its property, free of charge.

The building, painted white with a green roof, is a good, sound home, Morgan said, but needs work. Steadfast has spent about $16,000 on professional renovations and relied on volunteers for painting, landscaping and additional repair work.

On Wednesday afternoon, Frank Cherry, a member of the Frederick Christian Fellowship congregation and a Steadfast volunteer, stood on a ladder in the screened-in porch. Sunlight beamed through the room's large windows.

This has become one of Morgan's favorite places in the house, she said. Even with the audible hum of traffic from nearby U.S. 15, it's peaceful.

Inside, the house is crowded with well-worn couches and armchairs. Everything — every piece of furniture, book, mattress and table — was donated by members of the Frederick community and the Frederick Christian Fellowship congregation, Morgan said.

"This is a great community," she said. "I'm overwhelmed by the generosity and the support we've gotten."

Christiano and Morgan want to open more homes for homeless young people, including one for young women.

The duo are often frustrated by the kind of "lazy thinking" that says there will always be children who are homeless, Christiano said. They'll have to find the right partners and work together as a community, but ending youth homelessness is possible, she said.

"We really hope that we get to the point where there's no youth homelessness, so we can go do something else," she said. "If we have to go get a job at Home Depot tomorrow, that'd be great."

"I'd be happy with that," Morgan said.

The young man who she once found homeless now lives in North Carolina with a job, a home, a little girl and a little boy. He turns 22 this month and is "trying very hard," she said. He got the family he always dreamed about.

So did her dad. At 21, he married her mom. Together, they had five children.

His life was not always easy and the world was not always kind to him, but it feels like he left a "legacy of love" for her family, Morgan said.

He died earlier this spring.

Morgan teared up as she stood in the doorway of one of the home's four bedrooms on Wednesday. She wishes he could have met the young people who will soon be living in the house, she said. He would have been a great adopted grandfather to them.

"My heart was that, when we were up," she said through her tears, "he would have actually been part of it."

"He is," Christiano told her quietly.

The room that will one day serve as the home's library and music room was still overflowing with yet-to-be-placed furniture on Wednesday. But when it's finished, it will be named for a self-taught educated man who read everything he could get his hands on.

It will be called the Robert Jefferson Hemby Jr. Library.

Follow Angela Roberts on Twitter: @24_angier