Reopening of shelter sought

Baltimore County wants private operator for homeless program

February 19, 2000|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

Seeking to regain a key tool in the fight against homelessness, Baltimore County officials want to hire a private company to take over the Elan Vital Center, a transitional housing program that closed last year amid complaints about its treatment of residents.

To hire an independent provider to run the Owings Mills program, the county Department of Social Services would use nearly a half-million dollars in federal grants that recently became available after Community Building Group Ltd., the corporation that operated the center, defaulted on its agreements with federal housing officials.

Elan Vital Center, with 20 apartments, provided 60 percent of the county's transitional housing, designed as a bridge between emergency homeless shelters and independent living.

"It's an integral part of our services to homeless persons," said Maureen Robinson, spokeswoman for the county's Department of Social Services.

The attempt to reopen a transitional housing program at the former Elan Vital site is being made as government officials continue to sort through the ramifications of the center's closing at the end of November.

Officials of the state Department of Housing and Community Development are trying to decide what to do with a $695,400 "building loan" the department made in 1993 to Community Building Group.

The nonprofit corporation has asked to be released from that obligation, said Michelle R. Wright, chief of staff for the department. Wright said a decision on the request will probably be made within two weeks.

Meanwhile, state and county officials have received a new round of complaints against Community Building Group, this time focusing on the organization's operation of an emergency homeless shelter in Reisterstown.

Lawyers for the Homeless Persons Representation Project, which charged that Elan Vital Center had been run "like a prison," said residents at the Hannah More shelter have been denied due process in appealing disciplinary decisions and that some women have been harassed by administrators.

The women "hate being there. They're afraid of what's going to happen to them if they speak up," said Francine K. Hahn, an attorney for the homeless persons project.

Jae Reaves, director of the Hannah More shelter, said she knew of no complaints by residents. Kathleen McDonald, president of Community Building Group, declined to comment.

Robinson said county social workers are handling residents' concerns case by case. She said officials have suggested that the shelter operators, to minimize any appearance of bias, should look beyond their board of directors for hearing officers to rule on grievances.

Community Building Group, with the help of more than $2.6 million in federal grants, state rental subsidies and private donations, ran Elan Vital Center from 1993 until it closed at the end of November. In closing the center, McDonald noted an "unruly and uncontrollable situation" in which residents defied rules.

Federal, state and county officials met with Community Building Group last year to determine whether the program would reopen. McDonald wrote to the federal Housing and Urban Development Department last month saying the program was permanently closing because it did not have sufficient funds.

This week, federal housing officials invited the county Department of Social Services to apply for $497,870 in "supportive housing program" money that has become available since Community Building Group defaulted on its grant agreement. The county controls an additional $90,000 a year in federal funds that had been going to Elan Vital.

Robinson, the county social services spokeswoman, said the department will solicit bids from companies that might want to run the center.

Providers of services for the homeless that have expressed interest in assuming the program include Community Assistance Network, Risk Foundation, the YWCA of Greater Baltimore, and Right Turn of Maryland Inc.

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