Howard's Homeless Squabble

September 30, 1994

Dorothy Moore, executive director of the Columbia-based Community Action Council, and Andrea Ingram, executive director of the Grassroots shelter program, need to put down their guns. For months, the two women have been engaged in a pitched battle over how Howard County should address its homeless problem. More recently, they've been embroiled in a dispute over just how many homeless people live in Howard, one of the nation's richest counties.

In addition to being an unsettling spectacle between unlikely foes, the Moore-Ingram conflict distracts attention from the problem at hand. Whatever substance there may be to their arguments, it is being lost in a clash of egos.

Quantifying the exact extent of the homeless problem in Howard should be secondary to focusing on ways to address the problem. Ms. Ingram and Ms. Moore surely have different ideas about how to do that. Ms. Ingram favors an open-door policy toward granting assistance based on need; Ms. Moore prefers a "tough-love" approach meant to foster independence.

The two are not necessarily incompatible. However, the fight between Ms. Moore and Ms. Ingram is complicated by their agencies' struggle over scarce resources. There is a need for both philosophies within social services, just as there is a need for cooperation among those who have chosen to serve. What Ms. Moore and Ms. Ingram have achieved so far is to further confuse the scope of the problem in a county where many residents are probably dubious that such a problem exists.

Ms. Moore has seized upon a county report as evidence that the homeless problem is not as large as previously suspected. The year-long study found that 426 homeless people were served at three county shelters in the past year, less than the 700 estimated at a county summit on the subject last year. But, as Ms. Ingram points out, the report does not include the nearly 400 people who were turned away from shelters for lack of space during that period. This happened even though organizations such as Grassroots have nearly doubled the number of beds serving the homeless since 1991.

The county may never get a fix on the number of homeless people in its midst; People living on the margins in the suburbs and countryside are not going to be as evident as the down and out living atop steam grates in the inner city. But bickering over the numbers hardly seems a productive effort as human needs go unattended.

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