Retailers, residents oppose shelter Social service agencies called a 'magnet' for street undesirables

October 22, 1997|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

An article in yesterday's Carroll County edition of The Sun should have reported that 91 percent of those served at Safe Haven, a Westminster homeless shelter, had lived in the county a year or more.

The Sun regrets the error.

As Carroll County and Westminster officials wrangle over where to build a homeless shelter, some merchants and residents say the issue has opened an old wound -- problems with indigents in the downtown business district.

The County Commissioners plan to move the Safe Haven shelter from the 200 block of Stoner Ave. beside the Westminster Senior Activities Center, but city residents have opposed two proposed sites -- on Center Street near the county administration building and at city-owned property on Goodwin's Quarry Road.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

While county officials fear a delay in selecting a shelter site might mean the loss of a $1.2 million federal grant, residents and shop owners who have turned out at recent public meetings have complained that Westminster bears the brunt of Carroll's social service needs.

Some residents say the presence of a variety of social service agencies is a "magnet" for undesirables.

"We are drawing individuals we don't want or need because of all the services we provide," said Robin Kable, a resident of West Green Street, who suggested creating a task force to study the problem.

"Families are not able to feel comfortable shopping downtown, at the library," Kable said.

Deborah Finch, who lives in 100 block of W. Main St., complained of public drunkenness and obscene behavior, and criticized a "smorgasbord of social services which attracts the needy from counties surrounding us and Baltimore City."

But statistics compiled since April 1996 at Safe Haven show that 9 percent of those served had lived in the county for more than a year, 61 percent were Westminster-area residents and 49 percent had lived in the area for more than 10 years, said Sylvia Canon, executive director of Human Services Programs of Carroll County Inc., the private nonprofit agency that operates the shelter and other programs for the homeless.

Before 1996, Safe Haven was a cold-weather shelter for adults; its target population now is the mentally ill, and drug and alcohol abusers, Cannon said.

Clients not the problem

As for complaints about panhandlers and intoxicated people downtown, Cannon and city officials -- including Westminster Police Chief Sam Leppo and Public Works Director Thomas B. Beyard -- say that those who bother Main Street pedestrians often aren't regular shelter residents.

"Vagrants, catcalls at women, public urination and defecation -- that just drives shoppers up the wall," said Beyard.

But he said he has visited the shelter and that the Safe Haven residents and the people downtown aren't the same.

Leppo said that while he has no arrest records to verify it, police do not receive an unusual number of complaints from residents or businesses along Washington Avenue, the street that people leaving Safe Haven would use most often to get downtown.

Leppo said that after 31 years with the department, he would know if there were a problem with clients of the shelter.

A new shelter is needed because the existing building was purchased by Carroll County General Hospital in 1994.

Though hospital officials have no immediate plans for the site, the county and the human services agency secured a grant to build a new shelter.

According to the state's timetable, it should already have been built, said Ginger Rafferty, a program specialist with the state Department of Human Resources' Office of Transitional Services, which is overseeing the federal grant.

But the grant doesn't expire until March 1999 and the state intends to work with the county to see that the shelter is built, she said.

State figures show that Safe Haven served 635 homeless people in the 1995-1996 fiscal year.

"If HUD is not going to take back the money, we certainly won't," Rafferty said.

Potential loss

If the shelter is not built, the county would lose between $149,000 and $250,000, said Max Bair, chief of staff for the County Commissioners.

That money was provided to refurbish the current shelter by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. But if a new shelter is built, the state has agreed to forgive the debt, he said.

Pub Date: 10/22/97

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