With time expiring, county returns grant for homeless shelter to HUD Until 2001, Safe Haven to remain where it is

October 04, 1998|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

The Safe Haven homeless program won't be homeless until well into 2001 -- even though Carroll County officials have decided to give back the federal money to build a new shelter.

Carroll County General Hospital, which bought the current Safe Haven site from the county in 1995, will lease the building back for $1 a year for the next three years, said Deanna Dell, hospital chief operating officer.

After more than a year of feuding between County Commissioners and Westminster city officials over a location, the state asked for the return of a $125,000 federal grant to build a new shelter, said Robert E. Mulderig, director of the Maryland Department of Human Resources' Office of Transitional Services.

"It was all conditional on the county delivering a site. That site has fallen through," he said. "HUD has been very cooperative, and we try to be very cooperative, too, but we're now into the last six months of the third year. We do feel the need to be good stewards of HUD's money."

So in August, Mulderig asked for the return of the money in a letter to Sylvia Canon, executive director of Human Services Programs of Carroll County Inc., a nonprofit corporation that operates several homeless programs under contract with the county.

A frustrated Canon agreed, saying there wouldn't be enough time now to build a shelter before the grant runs out in March.

"We have the money and we are sending it back," she said. "Even if all the roadblocks were magically removed today, there is not time to build a facility before March. I don't have any answers. The problems are the same -- and now the solutions are more limited by one."

For now, the solution is to leave Safe Haven housed at Shoemaker House, which sits beside the hospital. And Dell said that's fine.

"No one's throwing them out. I can't say we wouldn't like to have it [back]. We certainly have a lot of services we could put in there," she said. "But we do recognize that it is a community need.

"That shelter has to be someplace in the community and right now would not be the time to say we need that building immediately," Dell said. "So we will be providing a safe haven for three years."

The Safe Haven program has 26 beds for the homeless, serving the mentally ill and substance abusers. A separate program there offers eight transitional-housing slots for a rehabilitation program that lasts up to 12 weeks.

The dispute over a new location for Safe Haven erupted in July 1997, when the County Commissioners suddenly changed long-standing plans to build at a site on Stoner Avenue, near its current location, in favor of county-owned land near Route 140 and Center Street, an area once known as Crowltown.

Westminster officials protested vehemently in a series of letters and meetings. After unsuccessfully arguing for the original site, they offered alternative sites, then raised objections with state and federal officials. In part, they cited a federally funded cleanup of Longwell Run, a stream that runs through the park.

"Since we got involved with the environmental assessment, we really haven't heard anything at all," said Thomas B. Beyard, Westminster's director of planning and public works. He said he wasn't aware of the county's decision to give the money back but was pleased by the hospital's decision.

"It's really the best, most productive solution," Beyard said. "The mayor and council are not against a facility of this type, and they never were. Their feeling was the present site was the best -- and that's apparently where it's going to be for a while."

The current location was changed only because the county sold the land to the hospital, Beyard said, "not because the site was bad, and that's what drove the decision to build the facility on the site picked by the county -- not the city. Then at the eleventh hour, they changed it."

The commissioners were out of town and couldn't be reached for comment. Only Commissioner Donald I. Dell is up for re-election and could be part of a new board that would tackle the problem.

During the controversy, Canon said several times that she didn't care where a shelter was built, as long as it was built, and once half-jokingly threatened to turn back the federal money herself.

She told the elected officials that the people who use Safe Haven are not the so-called street people who sometimes provoke citizen complaints.

"I think it's too bad that it got to be a political problem instead of a human services problem," she said.

The federal money came to the county through the state from HUD's Supportive Housing Program, said Mulderig.

The pressure to find a new site arose from a timetable attached to the grant -- in which the facility already was to have been built. State officials said repeatedly, however, that they would work with the county to see the project succeed.

But he and Canon both noted a sharp drop now in federal money for transitional-housing programs.

"Who knows what the future will bring?" Canon said. "I wouldn't think that HUD would look kindly on Carroll County."

Pub Date: 10/04/98

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