The beds still are empty and waiting, blankets folded with military precision. But a year has passed without a single patient spending a night.
At Crownsville Hospital Center, an air of desertion has replaced the foreboding that hung over a wing set aside for psychiatric victims of the Persian Gulf War. The renovated rooms have been vacantsince the war ended, prompting homeless advocates to call for converting them into a shelter.
The county's three main homeless shelters have been pushed to thelimit this winter.
A sign is posted daily at the Department of Social Services in Glen Burnie warning that Sarah's House, a 64-bed shelter on the grounds of Fort Meade, is full.
Homeless families arriving late at the Light House, a 12-bed emergency shelter in Annapolis, are given vouchers to stay at nearby motels. And Helping Hand, a smaller shelter in Annapolis, has squeezed in extra beds to keep peopleoff the streets.
"Every night, we have more people coming here than we have beds," said Joseph Rock, shelter coordinator at the Light House. "Certainly, I'd support a facility in Crownsville if space is available there. Another shelter would definitely ease the (strain)."
County health and social services officials have discussed using the Crownsville unit as a shelter for the mentally ill homeless. But the idea was dropped amid uncertainty about the available space and funding to start a new shelter, said Herbert S. Gross, director of mental health and addictions with the Health Department.
"We originally thought about using one of the Crownsville buildings, but it was unrealistic," he said. "We couldn't just bring it forward. And this year, we didn't need it."
The proposal to convert the 60-bed wing atCrownsville into a homeless shelter for the mentally ill was abandoned once the Light House opened in September, he said. When the rovingshelter, founded by an ecumenical coalition of Annapolis churches in1988, moved into a permanent home on West Street, most of the mentally ill homeless had a refuge.
Unlike Sarah's House, which generally takes only those people referred by county social workers, the Light House accepts anyone in need who knocks at the door. For many homeless men and alcoholics, the shelter offers the only alternative to sleeping under bridges or in parked cars.
"After the Light House opened up, the pressure of housing the mentally ill homeless was off," Gross said. "The shelters may be full, but they're not full with the mentally ill."
Still, Rock and other homeless advocates say the county's shelters would not be so overcrowded if the mentally ill homeless could stay at Crownsville.
"We would like to serve the mentallyill better," agreed Marjorie Bennett, who handles emergency programsfor the Department of Social Services.
"That's the population we're having the most difficulty in addressing. It would be nice to concentrate more on serving theirneeds."
But she cautioned that getting the start-up money to open another shelter would be extremely difficult. The county's homeless operation now exceeds $800,000 a year, most of it from federal and state grants.
"With so many grants beingreduced right now, I don't know how we could get the operating funds," she said.
Some of the 60 beds at Crownsville designated for wounded soldiers last year soon will be put to use again, Gross said.
The state is scaling back Spring Grove, a mental hospital in Baltimore County, and moving many of its patients into the community. Those from the southern region could be shifted temporarily to Crownsville.
But another 43 beds at the sprawling, red-brick complex will be available Dec. 31 when Raft House, a long-term halfway house, closes its doors.
Gross acknowledged that building "remains a possibility for a shelter." The idea of converting the drug-treatment center intoa shelter appears on hold, however.