Officials consider shelter proposal

Council members frustrated by suddenness of plan for facility in Riverside

January 18, 2004|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

The county is studying a plan to create an emergency and day shelter for the homeless in Riverside Business Park using funds from the sale of a proposed shelter in a nearby Abingdon neighborhood, officials said Friday.

Plans for the site surfaced earlier last week, after frustrated activists and County Council members - who were left out of plans to put a day shelter next to a Catholic elementary school in Bel Air - told the administration of County Executive James M. Harkins that the behind-closed-doors strategy it has been using to address the issue is a failure.

"You can only keep undermining trust," said County Council President Robert S. Wagner. "If you expect everybody to work together, this path has to cease."

Harford is the only county in the area without a permanent homeless shelter. Attempts to resolve the issue have strained feelings in recent months between the county administration, council members and Faith Communities and Civic Agencies United, a group of local activists the county recruited several years ago to help address the problem. FCCAU owns a house in Long Bar Harbor that they had hoped to use as a transitional shelter.

Councilwoman Cecelia M. Stepp - a Republican who represents Havre de Grace, Abingdon and Riverside - said she learned about the Riverside plan midweek, after council members complained to the administration about its lack of communication.

Stepp said she and other council members received a letter Thursday from County Director of Administration John J. O'Neill Jr., telling them the administration was dropping the Bel Air day shelter site, and seeking more input from the council on ideas.

When she called O'Neill to discuss the letter, she said, "That's when I found out about Riverside.

"This is the biggest gripe we have as council members," Stepp said. "Decisions are being made - big decisions. Why aren't we kept in the loop?"

She said she asked O'Neill, "When was I to know?"

The quiet negotiations have frustrated the council and advocates. From Joppa to Abingdon to Bel Air, residents - often with the backing of state legislators - have revolted against shelter plans. Each time, the county has backed down in the face of political pressure.

The tone, however, appears to be changing.

FCCAU President Dianna Tilton told the county Thursday that the group "wanted to stop the secret negotiations, and we'd like to be out in the open more."

She said she believed the county agreed. "I think they realize it's not working," she said.

James Richardson, county human resources director and spokesman for the shelter issue, said of the Riverside site, "We're going to be reaching out and talking with everybody and be sure they're good to go on this."

The Riverside site, officials say, appears to be a good location because it is close to public transportation, Route 40, commercial businesses and it is not near neighborhoods or schools.

The county-owned building, used primarily as warehouse space, is what Richardson described as "flexible-use space," containing offices and storage. He said the number of people who could be served and renovation costs have not been finalized.

Significant renovations to the building would be needed to pass code requirements. Richardson and Tilton said selling the Long Bar Harbor house is likely how much of the work will be paid for.

"I'm really looking forward to everyone working together," Tilton said. The Route 7 community in Joppa, the Long Bar Harbor residents, the county and FCCAU have to team up to "finally get the job done. I think that the time has come."

According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development grant guidelines, however, the county must create the eight transitional beds it promised when FCCAU used HUD money to buy the Long Bar Harbor house.

Richardson said the county plans to refurbish the Riverside office space for transitional residents.

The Riverside building would meet all three facets of care - day, emergency and transitional shelter.

Wagner said he saw proposed designs for the shelter Friday. There are still issues to resolve to make the space workable, he said, such as adding windows. Still, he does not expect the county to pull back from the site.

But he cautioned the administration: "You'd better be talking to the community, and you'd better be sure the council members have all the same information."

Richardson said that the county would hear any council and community concerns, but he hoped everyone would pull together on the location.

"I would hope they would [support the site] because obviously there's a need out there," he said.

Since the county has no permanent shelter, homeless residents use a patchwork system that has some hotel night vouchers but relies heavily on an all-volunteer rotating night church shelter sponsored by FCCAU. There is no day shelter.

Last week during the extreme cold, the church shelter - designed to accommodate 12 - was strained, taking 20 to 23 people a night, said Pat Eiler of FCCAU.

"This issue is very emotional," Stepp said, adding that the administration has to shed its qualms about meeting the controversial issue head on. "My response is: `Get over it.' You can't hide things from people. Bring it out in the open."

Of the Riverside location, she said, "No one wants this kind of thing in their district. It's got to be in somebody's district. If it's going to be in my district, so be it."

She said a recent trip to the FCCAU shelter was eye-opening for her, and she recommended residents meet the people who need help before judging them. "They would find out for the most part they are ordinary people," Stepp said.

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