Agencies to aid poor concern businesses Influx seen as threat to West Street revival

April 01, 1996|By DAN THANH DANG | DAN THANH DANG,SUN STAFF

Annapolis business leaders and residents who are supporting a city plan to keep new agencies that serve the poor from moving into the Inner West Street Corridor say they've had enough.

They are worried, they say, that organizations such as homeless shelters and soup kitchens will slow the street's rebirth into an upscale retail and restaurant community.

But, fearful of disrupting the peaceful and friendly co-existence they have managed to maintain, the two sides have been The opposition to agencies that serve the poor "makes a statement that Annapolis is only interested in those who are economically advantaged," said Toni Graff, executive director of The Light House, a homeless shelter on West Street. She conceded that nearby businesses work with her agency, but worried that many people display "a classic NIMBY attitude."

"We all want to help people and we all want to give, but we don't want them next door," she said.

James R. Martin Jr., acting president of the Inner West Street Association, says that im- age is far from the truth.

Citing agencies on West Street, such as the Lutheran Mission Society, the Community Action Agency and Anchor House, a transitional housing program that will open soon, Mr. Martin, president of Free State Press Inc., said, "We have never said we want to remove homeless shelters from our street. We're not elitists. It's not that we don't want them here, we just don't want five more. Why is West Street carrying the burden?"

Business owners aren't threatening the service organizations, yet they are being made to look like "some kind of turkeys because it seems like we're opposed to these people who are doing kind and compassionate work," Mr. Martin said.

Each side will get a chance to make its case before the city council at a public hearing tonight on a 1995 plan for the corridor that recommends restricting liquor stores, cab stands and motels and forbidding fast-food restaurants with drive-through windows, bars and taverns (except as an accessory to a standard restaurant) and additional homeless shelters.

The plan, drafted by the city planning commission and a citizen panel, was designed to draw developers and businesses to the section of West Street that stretches from Church Circle to Spa Road and Taylor Avenue. It coincides with plans for improvements costing $3.5 million that will include sidewalk and street repairs, additional street lights and a traffic circle at West Street, Spa Road and Taylor Avenue.

Although fast-food restaurants had been a thorny issue, homeless shelters and soup kitchens have become the hot topic.

An amendment to the plan proposed by Alderman M. Theresa DeGraff would allow such agencies as conditional uses, requiring public hearings before permits could be issued. But critics say that would result in "a screaming and yelling arena" at council meetings over each organization.

Several business leaders, developers and investors showed up at a planning commission hearing early last month to speak out against homeless shelters.

"They indicated that in order for them to invest in the area, a proliferation of homeless shelters and soup kitchens could not exist without sending a bad message to investors," said Eileen P. Fogarty, city planning and zoning director.

About two weeks ago, the Inner West Street Association also met and agreed that while the existing shelters are "good neighbors" that performed "good work," members generally oppose new agencies locating in the area.

At the same time, the President's Hill Community Association, a neighborhood of homes bordering Inner West Street, voted 9 to 1 against allowing new homeless shelters.

"I don't care how well they might be running their organizations," said John C. Clemons, president of the association. "There are always going to be problems. Crime, litter, graffiti, prostitution. We don't want to say that all these problems are because of the shelters, but it can't help.

"We're basically opposing groups that are providing a service to people in need and that has good intentions," said Mr. Clemons, who moved into the area nine years ago. "It's awkward."

His friend and neighbor, Steve Raabe, a member of The Light House board of directors, is in a more uncomfortable position.

He is an outspoken advocate of homeless shelters and other philanthropic organizations and was the only member of the association to vote in favor of allowing more nonprofit organizations that help the poor to take root near his home on Madison Place.

He has been working to persuade neighbors and local business leaders that homeless shelters pose no threat.

"Crime has not gone up because of homeless shelters in the area," he said. "We are absolutely drug-free and alcohol-free at The Light House. There is absolutely no fear or concern for anybody."

He said he moved to the neighborhood two years ago, "knowing full well that there were homeless shelters around here.

"I've never had a problem," he said. "I think there's some misunderstanding, and we need to let the neighborhood know that we're doing good work."

Pub Date: 4/01/96

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