This story was updated at 2 p.m. on Dec. 17.
A single candle burns in each window of Hattie Washington’s empty Sandy Spring house.
“It says I still have faith ... that somebody will save us,” she said.
Washington is the founder of Aunt Hattie’s Place, a group home program that once housed disadvantaged boys in Sandy Spring.
A group home is a residence with staff who provide care and services to people in specific age groups, with specific needs. The Sandy Spring location served up to eight boys at a time, up to age 18.
The boys who came to her were often victims of abuse or neglect, and many had been moved from group homes to foster homes and back within the span of months. The specific locations where the boys were moved are not released, Washington said.
The child care program at the Sandy Spring location was suspended this summer after the state’s Department of Human Resources denied the group home a renewal of its contract. Washington and the organization’s pro bono lawyer, Emily Vaias of Linowes and Blocher, made multiple appeals to the state, but they were denied.
During the past five years, the state has reduced the number of beds in group homes by 67 percent, from about 1,890 to 620. The state’s “Place Matters” initiative assesses care providers through “performance-based measures” and strives to keep children in homes with their relatives. Although the state is not requiring Aunt Hattie’s Place to close its Sandy Spring home, state funds accounted for most of its operating budget.
A visit from Department of Human Resources Secretary Ted Dallas in September did not change the state’s decision not to fund the Sandy Spring home, Washington said. Its state funding ran dry at the end of June.
Washington has made appeals to local churches, restaurants and community groups to get support for the group home, but their donations weren’t enough to pay the $17,000 monthly mortgage bill, utilities and thousands of dollars in accumulating late fees.
The group home, which is on Norwood Road, took six years to build and was completed in 2010. Washington said the project cost about $3 million. The eight-bedroom house sits on the same lot as Washington’s own home, a four-bedroom rambler.
Washington put her own house up as collateral when the group home’s construction costs exceeded initial estimates of just more than $1 million. When the home was constructed, the state and Montgomery County contributed $1.4 million, according to Vaias. Washington took out a loan from Sandy Spring Bank for $1.8 million, and has been working to pay it back since 2010.
Without enough funding, she’s losing her home as well as the group home. But rather than let the homes fall into foreclosure, Washington said she worked with Sandy Spring Bank to try to sell the homes.
Both have been on the market for the past three months, at an asking price of $3.6 million. Most of the money from that sale, if there is a buyer, will go toward paying the debts for the group home, Washington said.
“This is our baby,” she said. “I never thought it would come to this point, where we’d have to sell this boys’ home.”
Aunt Hattie’s Place signed a 10-year covenant with the county in 2010. If the county agreed to help fund the home’s construction, Washington would agree to keep it open as a group home for the next decade. The state denied a second request from the organization for a $1.5 million grant in 2008.
The county released Aunt Hattie’s Place from the covenant this fall, Vaias said. Aunt Hattie’s Place continues to operate a Baltimore group home that cares for 12 boys. But, like the Sandy Spring home, a third group home in Baltimore County was forced to close after losing state funding.
Washington said building the Sandy Spring house took “a great personal sacrifice.” She stepped down from the position of vice president at Coppin State University to focus on providing a home for foster kids. Now, as a professor at the university and more than $1 million in debt, she’s worried about her own future.
“Aunt Hattie may be homeless,” she said.
Washington said she still has faith that someone — “someone like Oprah [Winfrey] or one of those football players; someone with too much money” — will help Aunt Hattie’s Place get the Sandy Spring home back on its feet.
Washington received the property through the will of Robert H. Hill, the first black man to sit on the board of Sandy Spring Bank. He was a self-made man known for his generosity to the community, she said.
Hill bequeathed his rambler and five-car garage to her with the intention that she use the property to build a home for disadvantaged children. She helped contractors break ground for the group home on that lot four years later.
“This house was his legacy,” Washington said.
Eight months after she started her battle for the boys’ home, she breaks into tears at the thought of the sale sign on the Norwood Road property.
“This [group] house was built, with every brick and mortar, with love for these kids,” she said.
Vaias said the home is meant to serve others.
“Our hearts would like to see it go to some other organization that serves underprivileged people,” she said.
Brokers have expressed interest in the property, Washington said, but none have signed a contract yet.
For now, she’s keeping a single candle lit in each window of her home, a symbol of hope in a long struggle that may cost her everything.
“I would do it again in a heartbeat, because I believe the kids are worth it,” she said.