Abingdon residents seek to block shelter

Facility for homeless would be Harford's first

October 23, 2003|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

Residents of an Abingdon subdivision are fighting to keep a homeless shelter out of their neighborhood, the second time in a year that neighbors have banded together to fight plans for what would be Harford County's first such facility.

Neighbors led by Republican state Sen. Nancy Jacobs, who lives in the Long Bar Harbor community where advocates of the homeless have purchased a house, say the shelter was brought into their community surreptitiously, and would imperil families and older residents.

"What we're really concerned with is the welfare and safety of the community," said Ray Fender, who lives next to the house in the 3800 block of Washington Avenue.

Some residents of Long Bar Harbor, a collection of ranchers dating to the 1950s, will meet tonight to discuss how they might keep the shelter from opening.

Harford is the only county in the Baltimore metropolitan area without a permanent shelter.

The Abingdon home, which is to shelter eight men, was purchased by Faith Communities and Civic Agencies United, a nonprofit group comprising Harford churches, civic groups and government agencies that was formed four years ago, at the county's urging, to find a site for a permanent emergency and transitional shelter. The shelter is to open in December.

A plan floated a year ago by the nonprofit group to build such a facility in Joppa was routed by opposition from residents and state delegates representing the area. But that plan was for a larger shelter that would have provided emergency and transitional housing.

Men moving into the Abingdon home would have income from jobs or disability payments, said Dianna Tilton, president of the nonprofit group. They would be responsible for paying rent based on their earnings and keeping up the house. Staff members hired by the nonprofit would oversee the house around the clock, Tilton said.

The home is intended to provide transitional housing, she said, not emergency shelter.

"These are people who want to get their life back on track," she said, and are receiving help for the myriad financial and health issues that contribute to homelessness.

Under federal fair housing law, homes with eight residents or fewer do not count as group homes and are exempt from hearings and zoning exceptions required with larger properties.

"We didn't expect them to embrace us," Tilton said of the community.

She said the group mailed a letter to residents yesterday addressing some of their concerns, including whether sex offenders, drug addicts and felons could live at the house, where the men can stay for two years.

"It will not be tolerated. They will be screened," she said.

But residents say they are exploring all their options and would not rule out a lawsuit, though they acknowledge that the home was purchased legally.

About 50 neighbors gathered outside the house Tuesday night to discuss the shelter.

John Mitchell, who lives with his wife and two sons about a block down the road, said, "I would buy it myself if I'd known this was going to happen."

A news release was issued Tuesday by Jacobs' office on her Senate letterhead, detailing the community's concerns and information about tonight's meeting, at 7 o'clock in the Edgewood High School cafeteria.

She said the community learned about the shelter two weeks ago. "We have tried to work with [the nonprofit group] to find more appropriate venues for such a facility," she wrote. "Unfortunately, [the nonprofit group] is going forward with plans to move homeless persons into this neighborhood of single family homes, filled with children and vulnerable senior citizens."

The group moved to purchase individual homes after the Joppa site was defeated last year. Pat Eiler, a longtime volunteer with the nonprofit group, said that after the county pulled its support for the site on Route 7, "the only method we could come up with to save the funding that we had was to buy a couple of houses."

A second house is to be purchased before year's end, Eiler said, adding that rumors that the home would be in the same community are not true.

The group is studying a site for an emergency and transitional shelter, which would alleviate the need for shelters in individual homes, she said.

"The people just don't understand, and neither does Senator Jacobs, what's involved with searching for a property," she said, noting a host of Department of Housing and Urban Development criteria that must be met for federal funds to be used.

The group has received HUD grant money through the county, said James Richardson, human resources director for the county. The administration of County Executive James M. Harkins has felt that "the best delivery system for this is through faith organizations," he said.

County zoning law allows shelters to be built in only residential areas, which has stymied the nonprofit group's search.

County Councilwoman Cecilia M. Stepp, who represents the community, said she planned to look into ordinances and related matters this week.

"Harford County doesn't have a central homeless shelter. Maybe it's time," Stepp said.

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