Few politicians would fight community to do right thing

November 06, 2003|By Dan Rodricks

A FINDER'S PRIZE goes to the person who can identify the public official who stood up in the face of community opposition and said: "The buck stops here, and the shelter goes there." Or words to that effect.

What we're looking for is evidence of the American elected leader who faced the fire and actually supported an effort to establish a shelter for the homeless -- or the drug-addicted, or the battered -- because there was a need, and because it was the right thing to do.

You can look it up -- on Google or Jeeves -- but I doubt you'll find it.

I have not been able to identify such a person in public life, even as laws evolved to support such politically risky positions. More common are elected leaders who cave in to, or pander to, the opposition and fuel the flames of fear that drive battles against even warm-sounding, faith-based initiatives. The NIMBY (not in my back yard) syndrome is well-established and easily identifiable. It's the rare, perhaps nonexistent, politician who challenges that mentality.

So, a prize to the reader who can point to the one instance where such a thing happened, and such a leader emerged (since Franklin Roosevelt).

Jim Harkins, the executive of Harford County, has an opportunity to stand up for something that he believes is needed in his county -- a non-emergency shelter for men -- but he chooses not to do battle with the Abingdon community in which such a shelter was recently proposed and heavily opposed.

"I can't see it working there," Harkins said the other day, adding quickly that he intended to help find a new location for the shelter. "We're going to evaluate this and come up with alternatives."

But how will it ever be accepted unless men and women in leadership, like Harkins, make the case?

I don't mean to put this all on Harkins. Homelessness existed in Harford before he was in office. At least he's willing to say he supports the idea of a new shelter and not just take a walk on the issue.

"We're not bowing our heads and giving up," he said. "Leadership is about how you're going to solve a problem. And I am going to solve it. The tougher the issue, the more likely you're going to have setbacks. But never say never. We will solve this problem."

Establishing shelters and clinics and making them work is the hard sweat of social progress, in the city or the suburbs. These are not glamorous endeavors, and they don't usually translate into votes for politicians. So we come to expect little from elected leaders on these matters -- and discover a side benefit to President's Bush advocacy of faith-based initiatives: They take the heat off pols.

In Harford, it's the nonprofit Faith Communities and Civic Agencies United that wants to provide shelter to eight men for up to two years.

Most recently, it set its sights on an existing house in Abingdon after community opposition forced the scuttling of the nonprofit's plan to build a shelter on 10 acres in Joppa.

So this is the second time in a year that the idea has been opposed.

Who can blame the group for saying that they're tired of taking all the heat for trying to solve a Harford County problem?

You would think this type of shelter would be acceptable among even the most conservative thinkers. It's aim is to help men who need a new start get back into the mainstream.

That's the concept of Earl's Place in East Baltimore, established in renovated rowhouses on Lombard Street by a group called United Ministries a few years ago to provide room and board for up to 18 men coming out of drug addiction, alcoholism or incarceration, or off the street.

The residents work -- some of them two jobs -- or go to school. The average age of residents at Earl's Place is 38.

A couple of years ago, during a group discussion there, I heard Sam, the oldest resident at the time, speak of his struggles with alcoholism and his transition to better days. He had a job as a custodian at the Social Security Administration and hoped to have a home of his own in a few months. Asked how he envisioned his life after Earl's Place, he said: "Sitting in a rocking chair and playing with my grandchildren."

Another resident, Greg, explained that he had once lived in an abandoned house -- he called it an "abandominium" -- but now lived at Earl's Place while taking courses at Baltimore City Community College. The day we spoke, he had just gone Christmas shopping with his daughters. "Just seeing life on life's terms," he called it.

Earl's Place continues to carry out its mission -- there's a 5K walk to benefit the shelter Saturday in Patterson Park -- but it has not made headlines. The work is quiet and steady. Men graduate and move on, and new residents arrive. This is done within easy reach of a rowhouse neighborhood, and two city schools.

Somehow the neighborhood did not fall apart when Earl's Place opened its doors.

But no politician was needed to lead the effort to open Earl's Place. It just happened. It opened. Within just a few years it had proven its worth.

The deal in Harford County has been a lot tougher to negotiate. What's needed there is a voice of leadership that challenges minds and opens hearts. We'll keep listening for it.

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