Opposition to shelter for men lingers Advocate for poor fears 'spoon-feeding'

February 18, 1996|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Robert K. Hooper's sanctuary was once in the Roman Catholic Church where he served as a priest. Now -- alone and without a home -- his haven is within the walls of the homeless shelter in Columbia run by Grassroots Inc.

Mr. Hooper, 51, is one of a dozen men who have moved into the 12-bed Hickory Ridge men's shelter that opened Feb. 9, after the non-profit social service agency made peace with Atholton High School officials worried about down-and-out men roaming their quiet community.

But the new shelter faces grumbling from an unlikely quarter -- an advocate for the poor and homeless who says the shelter will promote dependency in a county where homelessness is a small but persistent problem.

"I don't believe in spoon-feeding people," said Dorothy L. Moore, director of the Howard County Community Action Council, a nonprofit agency that assists low-income and homeless residents. "It doesn't help them. It doesn't help us."

Ms. Moore, a longtime opponent of the men's shelter, recently voiced her concerns to the director of the Howard County Department of Citizens Services, the agency that oversees the county's social programs.

She did not attend the Feb. 9 grand opening ceremony for the shelter, which is part of Grassroots Inc.'s 32-bed operation on Freetown Road in Hickory Ridge.

But officials at Grassroots, which is partially funded by the county, argue that Howard -- one of the wealthiest counties in the United States -- is one of the few jurisdictions in the state without comprehensive services for single men. County officials and many advocates for the poor and homeless support the new men's program.

"I think it's tremendous that we have this," County Executive Charles I. Ecker said at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. "People think we are an affluent county, and we are. But we do have problems."

Grassroots doesn't expect clients such as Mr. Hooper to stay at the shelter for a long time. And officials disagree with Ms. Moore's view that providing shelter for men is counterproductive.

"There are able-bodied men who can work," said Andrea Ingram, executive director of Grassroots. "There's no reason that their stay would be long term but if you're really homeless, you can't wait -- especially when it's cold."

County officials have no firm figures on the number of homeless people in Howard. But each year, 400 to 500 men, women and children receive some sort of homeless services through the county's private and public agencies.

121 beds available

Those who need emergency shelter must vie for one of 121 beds set aside through a number of programs funded by public and private sources.

That total encompasses 40 beds at Grassroots' Columbia and Ellicott City shelters, 38 at the Domestic Violence Center of Howard County in east Columbia, 18 in the county's emergency motel-room program and 25 reserved for families through Churches Concerned for the Homeless.

Before the men's shelter opened, however, only four beds in the county were available to single men, who often had to be sent to Baltimore City or neighboring counties because of a lack of space, Grassroots officials said.

Grassroots expects to serve 50 to 70 men a year in its Hickory Ridge shelter. And while their backgrounds vary, the 12 men now in the shelter share certain characteristics, according to Grassroots' statistics:

* Three of four have completed at least four years of college.

* Three of four were jobless when they arrived at Grassroots.

* Five of six have a physical, psychological, alcohol or drug problem and have been living in Howard County.

* Most are in their late 30s to early 50s.

A helpless feeling

"One of the chief characteristics across the board is this feeling of helplessness or hopelessness," said 38-year-old Brian Cawley, coordinator for the men's shelter. "It's deeper than just a state of mind. It's like a heavy cloud descending upon you."

That's the story of Mr. Hooper, who became homeless early last month after he was discharged from Sheppard Pratt Health System's crisis unit. He had been treated there for depression.

"After being in the priesthood for about 20 years, I thought I could find a job that would be more fulfilling," Mr. Hooper said. "I never found what I was really looking for and depression hit me."

A native of Boonton, N.J., a town of 8,343, Mr. Hooper was raised as a Catholic and later felt a calling to the priesthood. He studied theology at the Catholic University seminary in Washington, graduating in 1970.

He then started work as a priest in the diocese in Clifton, N.J., where he was in the ministry for 20 years. To better serve his diocese, He earned his law degree in 1978 from the Rutgers University Law School.

But his life still wasn't fulfilled.

"I was very, very lonely while I was in the priesthood," Mr. Hooper said. "I wanted companionship and the chance to have a child."

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