Neighbors fight plan to house addicts Church plays host to emotional meeting over rectory proposal

September 09, 1996|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Anger and frustration spilled from the pews of a Towson-area church yesterday during a meeting on the pastor's plans to turn his rectory into a home for recovering alcoholics and drug addicts.

In a debate that has ignited the Cromwood-Coventry neighborhood, about 35 people -- including two state delegates -- attended the session after the morning service at St. Margaret's Episcopal Church to hear the pros and cons of Oxford House, a facility for recovering alcoholics and drug addicts, moving into the community.

The meeting was initially closed to all but church members -- most of whom don't live in the neighborhood -- and a handful of guests invited to speak on the issue. Speakers included Oxford House officials, and two local residents who opposed the plan.

But the delegates and several others came uninvited, and the Rev. Walter C. Simmons, the pastor, allowed them to stay.

Del. Martha S. Klima, a Baltimore County Republican, urged the church to consider alternatives to Oxford House because of community concerns.

Residents say they worry that the eight to 10 men who would be placed in the home could threaten their neighborhood, particularly because the program is unsupervised.

Klima, speaking from the pulpit, said state money is available to use the space for the mentally disabled. She noted that 8,000 such people are on waiting lists for placement in housing.

She also noted that Catholic Charities is interested in expanding 24-hour elderly care.

Klima said the residents, who have held a rally against the Oxford House proposal, should be allowed to participate more in the decision-making. "I don't think it's [community input] been given enough credence by the pastor to date," she said.

Simmons wants to rent the rectory -- now his home -- to Oxford House for $2,000 a month. The money, he says, would go toward his living expenses when he moves out of the community, and also toward church maintenance and to Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.

"We're always willing to look at alternatives," said Simmons, who has invited the community to a meeting on the Oxford House plan at 7 p.m. on Sept. 16 at Arnolia Methodist Church, 1776 E. Joppa Road. But he added that he has had no concrete proposal other than that of Oxford House, which operates 38 group homes in Maryland and 634 nationwide.

He said he expects the vestry to decide on the matter by early October. A vote planned for August was postponed amid a community outcry.

"The history of Oxford House is that there is always opposition to it and then it goes away," Simmons said.

Emotions remained high yesterday as opponents and supports of the Oxford House plan traded barbs from their seats in the pews.

Community resident Jim Westervelt said, "This is not an anti-Oxford House movement. This is an 'open your hearts and open your minds to all viable alternatives.' "

But the debate -- just an hour after the Sunday sermon -- sometimes turned fierce.

After a recovering addict told the crowd about how a loving neighborhood helped get him back on track, a woman stood up and said that people in the area -- already burdened by work and their families -- would not have time to reach out to the addicts in the home.

"They have nothing left to give these men," said the woman, who declined to give her name. "They don't really have much left to do the Oxford House people any good."

Later, 15-year-old Beth Rhoda, whose family nurtured the recovering addict, turned to the woman and remarked: "And you say you are Christian? To be Christian you have to love these people and embrace them with open arms."

Pub Date: 9/09/96

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