Shelter abandons planned move Prospective neighbors in Catonsville didn't want Howard facility

March 17, 1997|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker has stopped plans to move a shelter program for mothers emerging from drug treatment and their young children from an Elkridge motel to a historic Catonsville house near U.S. 40 in nearby Baltimore County.

"Perception is reality," Ecker said, explaining that although the Steppingstone program is regional, people in Baltimore County didn't see it that way and are vehemently opposed to the move.

"The program should be in Howard County," he said, adding that the decision was difficult. "You hate to say they can't go there," he said.

Officials of Potomac Healthcare Foundation Ltd., the private nonprofit organization that operates the program, said the Catonsville house would have put the women close to public transit and jobs. And they would have been in a home, allowing them more of a chance to heal their wounds together.

But Catonsville residents objected, arguing that their neighborhood has too many group homes for the elderly, retarded and mentally ill. They said they saw the Howard-funded program as an invasion.

At the motel now used by Steppingstone -- next to another advertising truck parking and heart-shaped tubs -- two tiers of rooms at the back are devoted to the program. Four have been converted to communal use. One room has been transformed into a gaily decorated day care room, complete with colorful artwork and a tiny playhouse. Another is a laundry and discussion room, while a third is the program office and the fourth is a communal kitchen/dining room. Four women and five children are enrolled.

"It's not homelike," said program director Patrice M. Miller. "You want something where the women are more of a community, like a family. Here, they are really separate."

Even those opposed to the move said that the back of an old, if clean motel on U.S. 1 is no place to raise children.

But Ecker's decision ended a furor in Catonsville, where residents rallied in opposition last month.

After learning of the decision canceling the move, Debra A. Popiel, president of the Colonial Gardens Improvement Association, said of the house, "We'd like to see a family buy it and move in."

The group sent letters and computer messages to every elected official from the governor to Howard County Council members, hired a local zoning lawyer and distributed more than 300 letters in the neighborhood to rally opposition, said Katie Reymann, association vice president. "We are thrilled and pretty much shocked" at prevailing so quickly, she said.

"The whole community was outraged," Reymann said, but she denied that the reaction was an example of the classic "Not-in-My-Back-Yard Syndrome."

Thomas M. Meachum, the attorney for Potomac Healthcare, said that is exactly what the community's opposition is. "They always say it isn't," he said.

"The program is still viable," he said, adding that the search for new quarters in Howard County -- unsuccessful in the past 18 months -- will resume.

Funded by $450,000 from the state, the program provides up to 8 women and 12 children under 10 a strictly supervised place to live for six to nine months after drug treatment. It is administered through the Howard County Health Department.

And although regionalism is the political and economic development buzzword, local politicians said it doesn't apply to programs like this.

"Baltimore County has our own programs," said County Councilman Stephen G. Sam Moxley, a Catonsville Democrat. "We don't need Howard County to bring their programs. I'm jubilant over this one."

Democratic Del. Thomas E. Dewberry, whose 47th District is split between Baltimore County and Baltimore City, agreed, adding that if local bureaucrats believe they can move their sensitive programs to other counties, they will do it more often. In addition, he said, Howard County officials would be less likely to listen to complaints about the program from people who are not their constituents. "These are not Chuck Ecker's constituents," he said of the Catonsville residents.

Meanwhile, the young mothers in the program say they are just trying to change their lives.

"I'm the one in my family to break the cycle," said Lavonda, a friendly, articulate 24-year-old.

Older family members use drugs, she said, and she began smoking marijuana at 14, moving to heroin and cocaine. Steppingstone has allowed her to reclaim her 5-year-old son and to start planning a drug-free future while she works her first job at a nearby fast-food restaurant.

Diane, 34, said she ran a landscaping business in northern Baltimore County for 10 years before cocaine abuse changed her life -- and the lives of her children, 8 and 5.

Now she is trying to regroup. Steppingstone's therapy and tough rules are helping to change her emotional life and her response to problems, she said, without resorting to nonprescription "medicines." She has been through drug treatment twice.

Monica, 30, who lived in Woodlawn before getting into treatment, is also in the program.

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