A lesson learned the hard way

August 08, 2002

NOT IN MY back yard.

That was the overwhelming response of Mount Vernon-Belvedere residents to a proposal to house a program for jailed pregnant women in the city's cultural district.

It was a hostile, rude display of NIMBYism over a project that many only learned about when work crews in orange prison jumpsuits showed up at a vacant rowhouse on Cathedral Street and concerned neighbors started calling each other.

The reaction should have been expected: Mount Vernon-Belvedere leaders got official notice of the project only about a week before Tuesday's public meeting. That's no way to persuade a community with more than its share of soup kitchens, rehab programs and shelters to accept yet another social service program -- albeit an innovative one that seeks to serve women in need, to strengthen families and save children from troubles ahead.

Never mind that the proposed location housed a work-release program for the criminally insane for 28 years.

State officials failed to realize that their eagerness to find a home for Tamar's Children, as the project is known, conflicted with Mount Vernon-Belvedere's ongoing struggle to recruit new homeowners, fight crime and improve the city's historic, cultural hub. But it didn't take long for the state public safety chief and advocates to recognize their mistake when confronted by an auditorium of angry, shouting residents. Stuart O. Simms announced after the meeting that the program won't be located at 509 Cathedral St.

It's unfortunate for supporters of Tamar's Children, who have worked diligently for more than a year. They have won federal and state grants to finance it and recruited University of Maryland professionals to staff it. They even got a national interior design firm to donate its decorating services.

And there's no question this program is worthwhile. Pregnant women, jailed or imprisoned for relatively minor crimes, would be given a chance for a fresh start -- treatment and counseling, housing opportunities and time to bond with and nurture their babies, instead of surrendering them to relatives or foster-care workers.

Mr. Simms, the state secretary of public safety and correctional services, is now on the hunt for a new site, either on state property or within a community. He knows what he has to do to make Tamar's Children happen.

Perhaps prospective neighbors won't then react with disdain and contempt, but rather will recognize that improving the lives of these women improves life for us all.

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