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The doors swung open, and the first families walked in.

Men, women and children, each of them arrived wide-eyed and knowing that stepping inside this building meant that they did not have to worry about where they would sleep on Thursday night.

Or the next night. Or any night in the near future.

Thursday marked a milestone moment for LifeStyles of Maryland because, after years of dreaming, hard work, frustration, encouragement, setbacks and perseverance, we officially welcomed the first overnight residents at our new White Plains Center.

This emergency shelter provides up to 90 days of safe haven for homeless families with children, as well as elderly homeless individuals. It’s open to Charles County residents and can house up to 25 people while COVID-related social distancing is in place. Ultimately, that number will rise to 50 people.

It has taken an amazing effort to reach this moment, and now we can begin to see the payoff. When the first residents arrived and set down their belongings beside their beds, LifeStyles CEO Sandy Washington was overcome with emotion and tears welled in her eyes.

“While I always had faith and believed this would happen, watching this caring staff and their interaction with families took that faith to another level,” Washington said. “Thank you to Corae Young, our chief programs officer, who has continued to be our strong logistics expert, among other things. A special thank you to the Homeless & Housing Services team led by Maria Scott for helping to get the program underway. Our Board of Directors was instrumental, and I thank them for their guidance, support and resources. We could not have done any of this without them and without so many others.”

A Haven for the Homeless After Years of Hard Work

The dream for making this shelter a reality goes back many years. LifeStyles has always done all we can with the resources at our disposal to provide housing to those in need. We offer a continuum of emergency, transitional and permanent housing services for Southern Maryland residents, yet it has always been difficult to keep up with the demand.

The need is even greater for families with children and for the elderly because for those populations, stability is such an important factor. The new shelter will offer weeks of reliable housing with warm beds, meals, places to for kids to play or study, and access to supportive services and resources for adults.

In many emergency shelter situations, including our own Safe Nights program in the winter, individuals must leave the facility during the day and return at night to eat and sleep. At the White Plains center, we offer a day program that helps them make productive use of those hours, learning new skills and working toward identifying a more sustainable housing situation.

“I don’t think I will ever forget the happy squeals from children when they saw the Kids Corner,” Washington said. “It’s a place just for them, where they can do homework or read. There’s an outdoor play area where they can cut loose this summer. I’m just so happy we can have this for them.”

Patience and Perseverance is Finally Rewarded

We hoped our doors would open sooner.

Getting from where we began to where we are now was a massive undertaking. It required a complete renovation of the building space, transforming it into a fitting, comfortable place for people to live.

It also required coordination with the state and county to ensure that everything we did was up to the strict legal code requirements. While very important, this process is also extraordinarily time consuming.

Throw in the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, and everything became even more complex and time-consuming. But we never gave up.

In recent months, we have worked tirelessly to make the necessary adjustments to pass final inspections and to hire the staff required to manage and operate the shelter 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

It was an exercise in endurance, patience and faith.

Now we are here, and this dream is realized. It’s only the beginning. This emergency shelter will be an early step in the process of providing Help, Hope and Transformation for all who stay here. It’s the beginning of the continuum that will carry them from homelessness to stability and prosperity.

The goal for every person who walks through these doors is to move them further along the path to permanent housing, eventually to renting and even owning their own home. This is more than a shelter. It’s a part of an all-encompassing program that gives them the knowledge, tools, mentorship and motivation to create positive change in their lives.

“The sheer number of people and organizations who have played a role in making this happen is so long that I couldn’t begin to list them all, but we are so grateful for every contribution of time, resources and encouragement,” Washington said. “This is a new beginning. It’s the start of something that we truly believe will have a positive impact on our area for generations to come. We are so grateful that the community came together to fulfill this dream.”