Shelter agency loses support

Harkins ends backing of group formed to find site for homeless facility

`Nothing to show' for time, effort

FCCAU considers lawsuit after official decision

November 16, 2003|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

The administration of Harford County Executive James M. Harkins abandoned its support Friday for a nonprofit group it helped form four years ago to find a site for a homeless shelter, noting a lack of progress on the issue and dissolving trust between the entities.

"We've invested a lot of time and effort from the county's point of view, and we have nothing to show for it," said James Richardson, the county's director of human resources, who has been closely involved with the group. "Let's get on with business."

He said the county plans "look for a solution with a group that has a track record" and is already providing services to the homeless in the county, through such facilities as Holy Family House in Aberdeen, to try to work with them instead.

Negotiations between the county and the group, Faith Communities and Civic Agencies United, unraveled last week after the group turned down a Harkins administration offer to use a county-owned site for an emergency and transitional shelter instead of a house it bought in Abingdon's Long Bar Harbor community.

The group said the county property, which is smaller than the Abingdon house, is too small to house the emergency, transitional and day shelter the administration wanted.

A board member of FCCAU spoke with The Sun last week about the offer and the impasse - which the county had asked the group not to do and which Richardson said Friday is "a good part" of the reason the county decided to end its support of the group.

But other officials and activists criticized the decision and said the administration was once again buckling under community and political pressure rather than addressing a difficult county problem - as it did last year when the county offered a site for the shelter in Joppa, then withdrew it after neighbors and state politicians cried foul.

"They will not stand up against those who are against the house in the Long Bar Harbor," said FCCAU President Dianna Tilton. The group is likely to file a lawsuit under fair housing and anti-discrimination laws, she said. "They have given us no choice."

She said the group, not the county, has been betrayed. "I don't know when we could ever sincerely trust the county," she said. "Everything had to be done quietly so no one would know what was going on because they can't deal with the opposition."

She said she expected the 4-year-old group's funding "to suffer severely" without the county's support.

County Councilwoman Cecelia M. Stepp, a Republican who represents the Abingdon community, criticized the county's decision, saying the administration is behaving like a child who says, "`If you don't want to play my way, I'll just take my ball and go home.'

"Well, that's what they did," she said.

"I'm ashamed of the fact that there are people in Harford County who have no humanity," she said. "I'm disappointed in the fact that we wouldn't go the extra mile for these folks," she said, referring to FCCAU.

Ray Fender, head of the Long Bar Harbor Community Association, which has criticized FCCAU's purchase of a home in their neighborhood, said Friday that the situation is "sad" and that now a group that seems to be losing support and credibility would be running the transitional home for as many as eight homeless men.

"That's a very scary feeling," he said, adding that the community would be that much more resolved to fight the house. "You're dealing with a group of people that have placed their agenda above the needs of the people they're supposed to be serving," Fender said.

The group plans to go ahead with the transitional home and to continue looking for a permanent shelter site, with or without county support, Tilton said.

After the county withdrew the Joppa property for the shelter last year, Richardson said, the "county made a general suggestion to go look for a home" instead to FCCAU.

But he said, "They've chosen poorly in that regard."

He said the group chose an inappropriate site, worked poorly with the community, then breached the county's trust. "All of this has been one debacle after another."

Richardson said Harkins, who is a Republican, and other officials support the group's work with a rotating winter shelter, which provides beds for 20 people. "We still believe they're doing great work and are providing a great service."

But the Rev. Francis Callahan, pastor at St. Margaret Roman Catholic Church in Bel Air and a vocal critic of the county's failure to find a permanent shelter site, said he was "not surprised at all" by the county's decision and its support for the rotating shelter.

St. Margaret's decided to pull out of the rotating shelter this year because the parish felt the county was not making a good-faith effort to address the homeless issue. "We were doing the county's work free and [the Department of] Social Services' free, and they loved it," he said.

"This is outrageous, this announcement," Callahan said. "I'm really disappointed that it gets to this point, that they drop it like a hot cake."

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