Homeless advocates decry lack of support

Harford group wants administration backing on opening new shelter

October 26, 2003|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

Days after hundreds of angry residents vowed to fight a proposed homeless shelter in their Abingdon neighborhood, advocates for the homeless say it's time for Harford County leaders to shoulder some of the responsibility.

For the second time in a year, efforts to place a shelter for the homeless in the county have met stiff opposition in the community -- and from elected state officials.

Officials "need to know the number of people that support this and hear the other side of the story," said Dianna Tilton, president of the nonprofit Faith Communities and Civic Agencies United.

The group, trying to find a suitable site for a shelter, wants to meet with county leaders. But when the advocates approached the administration about helping them set up such a session, they were turned down.

"Their feeling was that we should call the meeting," Tilton said.

The Rev. Steve Gosnell, who served at Prince of Peace Roman Catholic Church in Edgewood and with the Faith Communities nonprofit until he left for an Annapolis parish about a year ago, said Friday that the county's lack of response is discouraging.

"We thought the county was involved, but pretty much after his election, the county executive has left the group out in the cold," Gosnell said.

"I know it's disheartening for the [nonprofit group's] board," he said. "They are still laboring in the trenches."

Pat Eiler, a longtime volunteer for the group who was given the task of knocking on doors in Abingdon's Long Bar Harbor neighborhood to inform residents it had bought a house on Washington Avenue, said: "We are really kind of tired of being put out in front, leading the charge and being abused.

"No one will stand up and say, `This is what has to be done' and do it," she added.

County Executive James M. Harkins said providing shelter for the homeless has been a difficult problem for the county for years and that when he came into office he conferred with Cardinal William H. Keeler, who suggested establishing a nonprofit group to try to resolve the issue.

For four years, Faith Communities and Civic Agencies United has struggled to find a site for an emergency and transitional shelter and has been stymied by a restrictive zoning code and high land prices.

Harkins, a Republican, said he agrees with President Bush's and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s belief that faith-based groups are the most effective in providing human services.

He agreed that officials need to sit down together. "Now is the time for us to come together to try to solve the problem. That's what I am committed to do."

Harford County is the only metropolitan jurisdiction without a permanent emergency shelter for the homeless. The nonprofit group operates a rotating shelter among several churches in the county.

In its recently issued five-year plan, the county's Department of Community Services reported: "In fiscal year 2001, 26,400 shelter bed-nights were provided to approximately 760 different people in Harford County."

The house in Abingdon, which is to open in December, will provide transitional shelter for two years to eight men who are working or have disability income. They will be screened and supervised, pay rent, and keep up the house and yard, the group has said.

The nonprofit agency moved to purchase existing houses after its plan to build a transitional shelter on 10 acres in Joppa was scuttled last year.

J. Peter Sabonis, director of the Homeless Persons Representation Project, a Baltimore group that offers legal counsel to the poor and homeless, said the Harford group had "bent over backward" to work with the government and community to address the shelter problem.

"I thought they were being kind, because they could bring a fair-housing claim" charging discrimination, Sabonis said, referring to resistance to the proposed sites. "They've got a bullet they're not using."

Republican state Sen. Nancy Jacobs, who lives in Long Bar Harbor, defended the actions of her constituents Friday and said no one was discriminating against the shelter.

"We are going to throw up roadblocks," she said. "We're going to have our people ... all the time checking" to see whether the group needs permits for renovations to the house.

But she was quick to add that the residents' intent is "to make sure everything is in order."

She also added that she was involved in the matter because her constituents had asked for her help. "There are people in our group who are questioning" the location, she said. "I'm not questioning. ... Their presence there would not affect my end of the neighborhood."

Harkins and County Council President Robert S. Wagner said they wanted to make clear that anyone who applies for permits and is eligible to receive them would get them.

Eiler said the divisive wrangling needs to stop. "It's a Harford County problem, not a neighborhood problem, and it needs to be addressed," she said.

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