- The Washington Times - Monday, November 22, 2004

No matter when or where I encounter a woman begging on the street, I dig deep into my pockets and give her all the cash I can.

I wish I had come across Felicia M. Dorsey’s path before she apparently found herself desperate enough to lock her two little girls, ages 4 and 5, in a Waldorf storage shed Friday so she could report to work at the Dash In food store.

The 6-by-12-foot unit at the Budget Self Storage lot on Irongate Drive served as shelter for the homeless Dorsey family for the week after their eviction from a Waldorf apartment, based on official accounts.

The 33-year-old mother paid the $65-a-month fee and $10 for an access key card after she reportedly was unable to find space in a homeless shelter. Two other children, ages 12 and 13, are being cared for by relatives.

On Friday, Ms. Dorsey was arrested and charged with child endangerment and leaving a child unattended. Her daughters, who did not appear to be abused, were placed in protective custody. They were found Friday morning when the manager of the storage company, making his rounds, heard them playing in the padlocked shed.

Ms. Dorsey’s is the new face of poverty of which homeless advocates speak. She is not the only person who has been found living in storage sheds, under cars, or camping in the La Plata woods, as well as elsewhere in the Washington area, said Sandy Washington, spokeswoman for Ministers Alliance of Charles County and executive director of Lifestyles of Maryland Foundation Inc.

Thankfully, this religious group and community agency, respectively, came to Ms. Dorsey’s aid and posted $5,000 for her $50,000 bond “so she wouldn’t spend another night incarcerated,” said Ms. Washington (no relation). While they also paid for a motel room, the group of about 50 clergy, which provides a host of emergency services, intends to work long-term with Ms. Dorsey. Yesterday, they retained an attorney to defend her and to help her get her daughters back.

Kristen Adkins, spokeswoman for the Charles County Sheriff’s Department, said Ms. Dorsey did not need to appear for a bond hearing yesterday as scheduled because she was released on bond.

Although leaving unattended children anywhere is unacceptable, especially when they cannot escape in an emergency, Ms. Washington said Ms. Dorsey (who is not granting interviews at this time) indicated that she thought she had no options after she attempted to get emergency shelter.

We want to take Ms. Dorsey at her word, given the otherwise healthy state of her daughters when they were found, but she still must be sanctioned, monitored and, above all, helped back onto her feet.

Ms. Washington says “there are not enough resources” to help the 9,000 people who showed up at Lifestyles of Maryland Foundation Inc. in the past year looking for assistance. “We’re just sending them from agency to agency. … They get frustrated, because when they cry out and are looking for help, it’s not there.” Child care is just another scarce item that requires being placed on a waiting list to obtain, she said. The county’s two shelters rarely have space, either.

Yasmine Daniel, director of early childhood development for the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), suggested that Ms. Dorsey is as much a victim as her children. “If there were services and she didn’t avail herself of them, then that’s one issue, and we can point the finger and say she’s a bad mother,” she said. “But if she was in a situation where she didn’t have the resources that are needed, then we have to bear some responsibility as a society.” Child care subsidies, the CDF argues, are “critical to the success of two national priorities: helping people work and ensuring that every child enters school ready to succeed.” The CDF’s data (based in part on Census statistics) indicate that on any given day, 7 million to 15 million children are home alone. One in seven is eligible for a child care subsidy but does not receive it for lack of funding. Of all mothers in the labor force, 65 percent have children younger than 6.

Full-day child care easily can cost between $4,000 and $10,000 per year, yet more than one in four families with young children bring in less than $25,000 annually.

Derrick Span is the national president of the Community Action Partnership, which is pushing for a White House summit to craft an anti-poverty agenda.

The Dorsey case, Mr. Span said, “points up the desperation of poverty in the nation and the extent to which people are driven to survive … and all of our ethics and morality cries out not to accept a system or a structure that makes for beggars.” There are 110 million Americans “whose lot is the same as [Ms. Dorsey’s] … because they are in poverty or living on the peninsula of poverty,” Mr. Span said. “We want to ensure that all Americans can enjoy Thanksgiving and every day of the year without worrying about a lack of jobs, affordable housing and health care.” Ms. Washington suggested that church organizations will need to provide assistance to the increasing number of poor people. This week they are distributing Thanksgiving baskets to the needy.

“I believe we took it on because God meant for us to do it,” Ms. Washington said of the Dorsey case, but added, “There are 363 more days when people need food, shelter and clothing.”

To make donations, write checks payable to the Ministers Alliance of Charles County and write Ms. Dorsey’s name on the memo line. Donations for holiday food baskets and continuing emergency care projects also can be made out to Lifestyles of Maryland Foundation Inc. The address for both funds is P.O. Box, 1794, La Plata, MD 20646.

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