In 2001, Howard County’s 12-female member Hopewell Book Club read the book, “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America” in which the author, Barbara Ehrenreich, told the true-life story of her undercover work performing low-income jobs and living on the wages she made from them. Ms. Ehrenreich found the jobs to be mentally and physically exhausting, and incapable of providing enough income for decent housing.
This book not only opened club members’ eyes to the plight of poverty-level wage earners, it also opened their hearts.
So when one of the club members, Anne Dodd, brought up the idea of forming a group that would address the problems of hard-working people not being able to afford housing, some club members jumped at the chance to do something about the problem. And, some of their husbands joined them.
They organized meetings and, over time, this group evolved into One Month’s Rent Initiative (OMR), an organization that helps low-income people in trouble get over a financial hump so they will not be evicted from their homes.
In the early days when the group’s philanthropic hopes were starting to take shape, the group found it had some steep hurdles to cross. Specifically, its members had no way to find and vet applicants, and the group did not want to form a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, yet they wanted donations to be tax deductible, according to both Mrs. Dodd and Jane Parrish. Mrs. Parrish was a member of the original group eager to improve lower-income families’ housing situations and is now OMR’s president.
Pairing with the 501(c)(3) non-profit Community Action Council of Howard County (CAC) in 2004 proved to be the key that unlocked the group’s vision, said Mrs. Parrish. CAC’s clients were low-income people living in Howard County and CAC was already vetting applicants who sought to receive the nonprofit’s housing, energy, food, and weatherization assistance as well as Head Start services.
“CAC made this easy,” said Mrs. Parrish.
The fundraising formula OMR settled on is simple. It raises money through mailing one newsletter each September to past and potential donors. It also has a website that provides information about the organization and how to donate to it. When OMR receives donations, it quickly turns the money over to CAC, which stores it in an OMR account.
“None of us (OMR board members) are rich people,” stated Mrs. Dodd. “When a lot of people give a little bit, it adds up to a lot of money.”
“Every penny that’s collected goes to help clients because the club absorbs all administrative costs,” said Mrs. Parrish. Among the costs that OMR board members pay out of their own pockets are stamps, a website, a post office box, and PayPal.
CAC’s Rapid Response community workers look for clients who meet OMR’s criteria – Howard County residents earning low wages who need help paying one month’s rent or a security deposit because they are threatened with losing their housing due to a personal, economic, or medical crisis.
When CAC finds a client it believes meets that criteria, CAC emails Mrs. Dodd, who notifies OMR board members. The Board votes whether to allow CAC to disburse OMR funds to the landlord or mortgage company. Clients’ names are not disclosed to OMR board members.
Some of the members of One Month’s Rent Initiative are (left to right) Jane Parrish, Linda Blakeslee, Mike Calvert and Wren Cronan Morgan.
In addition to Mrs. Dodd and Mrs. Parrish, board members are Linda Blakesleee (newsletter editor), Joy and Mike Calvert (Mike is website manager), Chuck Dodd, Mary Klett, Wren Cronan Morgan (treasurer), Ann Neale (recording secretary), and Rebecca Politzer.
Mrs. Parrish says board members usually tell CAC within a day whether OMR will approve the disbursal and that OMR has been able to keep enough funds in its CAC account so that money is available immediately. This means the payment usually can be made quickly because delays could trigger evictions, said Mrs. Parrish.
Clients who are rescued by OMR are “pretty excited” because many of them have been told their income is too high for other housing assistance, said Beth Stein, CAC’s Rapid Response coordinator. Ms. Stein notes that most of those who receive OMR are not used to asking for financial help because they have been able to make ends meet until an emergency arises.
“When we started, we thought if we could help one family a year, that would be great,” said Mrs. Parrish. OMR has far exceeded that expectation.
In the last year, OMR has given $23,000 to aid 16 working families with housing issues. In the 12 years that the organization has been active, it has given $250,000 to prevent evictions for 200 families.
Among those OMR has helped recently were a single parent whose apartment was destroyed by fire, a hospitalized woman supporting two children, and a mother of two whose husband threatened harm if she returned to their house. Twenty-nine percent of OMR cases are caused by abuse situations.
Over the years other organizations have partnered with OMR. Among them is Long and Foster Columbia Gives, which holds two major annual fundraisers (a bingo and holiday market), adding about $3,000 to OMR’s account each year.
OMR makes only one request to people who benefit from its service – they are asked to help someone else with housing sometime during their lifetimes.
Mrs. Parrish said the group would be delighted to advise other clubs how to replicate the OMR formula for keeping people from becoming homeless.
To learn more about OMR or contact the board, visit their website.
To make a donation, make your check payable to the Community Action Council and note “One Month’s Rent” in the memo area. Mail it to OMR, P.O. Box 2153, Columbia, MD 21045. Or, visit CAC’s donor page and select One Month’s Rent Initiative under “Donation Restrictions.”