Thirteen years ago, Joanne Smikle’s personal curiosity led her to the offices of Bridges to Housing Stability. She found that the nonprofit was making such a difference in people’s lives that she continued to be involved, and now serves as secretary on the board of directors.

Though many people don’t know about it, homelessness in Howard County is a challenge community members must all face together, noted Smikle, principal consultant in Smikle Training Services. “The face of homelessness might be a little different in Howard County than it is in an urban environment,” she said, “but that doesn’t mean the need is not there.”

We may even be living with a false sense of security about our own neighbors, she added. “We assume everybody is affluent, and that’s just not the case,” she said.

Founded in 1990 by area churches, and initially named Churches Concerned for the Homeless, Bridges for Housing Stability’s mission is to prevent homelessness by providing effective services and compelling advocacy that result in housing stability for Howard County households.

Every day, more than 200 people are homeless in Howard County. Bridges offers housing advocacy (case management aimed at housing stability), a supportive environment, goal planning for future housing stability, referrals to community resources, budgeting, a problem-solving approach and mediation with landlords.

If Bridges has a reputation for “quietly working,” or serving as a “silent hero,” the organization is ready to make some positive noise, celebrating its 25 anniversary and sending the message to the business community that, if they aren’t already involved, it’s time to become a partner.

Bridges Alliance Marks Two Years

Through the Bridges Alliance, a public-private initiative offering affordable housing choices to low-income households, businesspeople have joined other investors, advocates and supporters in a “100 Homes for 100 Households” campaign to help meet the need for a fraction of the 6,700 households in Howard County that are at risk of becoming homeless due to high rent costs.

The Bridges Alliance program celebrated its second anniversary in November. The income-based affordable housing program — which includes a “circle of support” in which tenants and volunteers build an “alliance neighborhood” that provides social support, leadership development, advocacy opportunities and civic engagement — has thus far provided 14 housing units, with 49 individuals (28 children) housed, and continues to grow.

Bridges Alliance now has three Sustaining Partners with “100 Homes for 100 Households”: The Howard Hughes Corporation, Harkins Builders Inc. and Humphrey Management.

Anniversary Celebration

Bridges held a 25th anniversary celebration on Oct. 29 at the Fretz Showroom in Columbia. The nonprofit was also celebrating that it has supported more than 1,000 families as they found — or remained in — stable, safe homes.

This anniversary year marks a time of transition and new visioning for the organization, as well. Executive Director Jane O’Leary will move on to other endeavors, and a new executive director will be announced this month.

O’Leary said she thought the event was a beautiful one. “People from across all sectors came to celebrate 25 years of work,” she said, “including businesses, people from congregations, staff, former staff, former clients and volunteers.”

Sponsors for the 25th anniversary event included Creig Northrop Team of Long & Foster Real Estate; Howard County Department of Citizen Services; Backstage Dance Studio; Ballard Spahr LLP; Bob and Mary Ann Buchmeier; Ease Technologies; Dianne Jensen, RE/Max; Advantage Realty; The Dianne Jensen Sales Team; Pillar to Post Home Inspection; and Premier Dance Gear.

Opportunities for Businesses

Bridges offers many opportunities for business engagement, in addition to becoming part of the Bridges Alliance, explained Smikle.

“Businesses can ‘adopt’ a family for the holiday season,” she said. “They can help sponsor the chili cook-off, as well.”

Bridges’ Sixth Annual “Hotter Than Thou” Chili Cook-Off will be March 6, at 12:30 p.m., at the Church of the Resurrection in Ellicott City. The popular event features 17 different kinds of chili made by 17 different church and synagogue groups, and visitors can taste them all. The “Golden Ladle” award goes to the congregation that raises the most money for Bridges.

Smikle also expressed thanks to local restaurants that support Bridges through fundraising nights and food donations for events. Shannon’s Saloon and Restaurant in Ellicott City has been a long-time Bridges supporter, and holds the record for the most money raised in a single night, said Smikle.

Lance Cook, owner of Tino’s Italian Bistro, is also a supporter of Bridges. In getting to know the organization, he said, he has learned something about homelessness in Howard County. “It’s not where you think it might possibly be.”

Cook was holding a fundraiser night at the restaurant when he learned that Bridges had helped a staff member’s family. “A kid came up to me and told me that Bridges had helped. I’d like to tell people that Bridges could be helping the person standing right next to you.”