County seeking new site for shelter Former school eyed for homeless facility

January 21, 1998|By Donna R. Engle | Donna R. Engle,SUN STAFF

The County Commissioners began searching yesterday for an alternative site for a homeless shelter, prompted by opposition to plans to build the facility in a county-owned park.

Commissioners Donald I. Dell and Richard T. Yates asked staff to determine whether the county can divert a federal construction grant to renovate the basement of a former elementary school at 224 N. Center St.

The former school is across the street from the County Office Building and near the 5.25-acre park. The commissioners chose the park for a 3,500- to 4,000-square-foot shelter in November, despite objections from Westminster officials.

The city argued that the site was a poor choice environmentally. The county has spent $634,000 in federal, state and local grants to restore Longwell Run, a stream that meanders through the park.

Yates said he and Dell reconsidered the site because "the city of Westminster is still trying to throw a roadblock" in the park site. Commissioner W. Benjamin Brown was ill yesterday and did not attend the meeting.

Dell suggested the use of the school basement as a shelter and said its renovation would cost about $50,000, far less than the $322,000 in grants earmarked for a new building. The commissioners asked the Public Works Department for a renovation estimate.

Yates said the renovated basement could provide an overnight shelter for up to 40 people when the temperature drops below freezing. It would not include Safe Haven, a program at the existing shelter that provides day and night lodging for up to 25 homeless, mentally ill people or substance abusers.

Yates said he favors providing only the federally mandated cold weather shelter.

If the county fails to provide a cold weather shelter, it would be required to repay $149,000 in federal aid, said Max Bair, the commissioners' chief of staff. That money was used to refurbish the existing Westminster shelter. If a new shelter is built, the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which administers the grant, has agreed to forgive the debt, he said.

Westminster Mayor Kenneth A. Yowan said it was difficult to react to an alternative site when city officials have not been privy to the commissioners' discussions.

"I'm sure the city is not going to view this site as a whole lot better than the other site," he said. "It would be nice if they'd talk to us, just give us a call or something."

A new overnight shelter is needed because the county sold the existing 26-bed facility and the county Health Department building on Stoner Avenue to Carroll County General Hospital in 1994.

The city submitted 28 sites for consideration last fall, but the county staff recommended the park site. The property, bought by the county in 1972, was historically known as Crowltown.

The commissioners issued a statement in November that said: " absent any site which the city would support financially for the duration of the grant, the Board of County Commissioners remains firm in its decision to build the Safe Haven facility at the Crowltown site, behind the 7-Eleven store."

Westminster Councilman Damian L. Halstad, who has opposed the Crowltown site, said he welcomes the commissioners' willingness to consider alternatives.

However, he said the former school would move the shelter "even closer to a residential area and it will be a throw of a stone to East Middle School.

"I can't imagine the principal and the PTA are going to be very happy about that," he said.

Principal Bronson Jones said any possible effect on school property would depend on supervision of shelter residents at night. He said he would not expect problems during the day.

The former school houses county government offices and nonprofit agencies on the first and second floors.

The basement was tentatively earmarked for Head Start classes next year, but it might not be needed for the preschool program, school officials said.

Vernon F. Smith, director of school support services, said classroom space for Head Start might be available at William Winchester, Robert Moton, Taneytown and Runnymede elementary schools.

Pub Date: 1/21/98

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