Needed shelters face opposition in suburbs

Homeless: Neighbors fear temporary housing brings long-term problems.

January 25, 2004|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

When advocates for the homless bought a house last fall in Long Bar Harbor, a cozy collection of well-kept ranchers and colonials near the Bush River, they were poised to end a four-year quest to create Harford County's first permanent shelter.

But as soon as area residents learned about the planned shelter, they came together - by the hundreds - in protest. Voicing fears of drug addicts, sex offenders and other criminals, they pressured county officials to withdraw support for the eight-man shelter, dooming it.

It wasn't the first time suburban residents had defeated such a plan.

As more homeless people seek aid in Baltimore's suburbs, residents' fears of loitering, crime and decreased property values have pushed local leaders to delay or halt proposals for new shelters.

Last year, Baltimore-area shelters turned away 14,159 people, compared with 5,008 in 1993, according to state figures on homelessness. During the current cold snap, shelter operators say demand for emergency aid in the counties has swelled in some places to twice capacity - with many more people being turned away.

But in Howard County, like Harford, community opposition continues to delay plans for shelters. In Carroll County, a new shelter opened last year next to a Westminster hospital after a decade of debate. On Baltimore County's west side, it took four years of negotiations to find a site for a winter shelter.

"What's happening, as is happening everywhere, is the need for shelter keeps going up," said Andrea Ingram, director of Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center in Columbia.

The economic slump and high housing prices have pushed many Marylanders to the brink, said Alma Roberts, director for the Center for Poverty Solutions in Baltimore. For suburban residents, finding help can be painfully hard.

"The difficulty is, nobody wants them in their neighborhood," Roberts said of homeless people and shelters. "The issue is it requires infrastructure these counties haven't traditionally provided."

Funding emergency shelters has become tougher in recent years as federal aid has been turned toward permanent housing for the poor, Roberts and officials from the region's homeless agencies say. But the biggest obstacle is community opposition, often from people who moved to the suburbs to escape the problems in Baltimore.

Advocates for the homless say opponents don't realize that many people in shelters are working men and women, and families.

Residents "are thinking of the people they see on the streets - and they're often not even the people in shelters," said Greg Shupe, director of the state's Office of Transitional Services. That is especially true of suburban shelters, he said, where more than half of the people enter with family members.

For Quanda Trusty, 29, and her family, who have been at the Light House Shelter in Annapolis for about three months, the shelter is a place to regroup and save for a place to live. She and her husband were laid off from jobs in Georgia.

"We couldn't find work there," said Trusty, who had a job in manufacturing; her husband worked for a trucking company. "We tried to find work for, I'd say, two or three months before we were put out of the house we were staying in."

Trusty, who is expecting her seventh child, said her husband is working at a mall while they look for a place to live in Anne Arundel County.

"Once upon a time, you saw single women with children; now, we're seeing mom and dad and kids, which is scary," said Toni Graff, executive director of Annapolis Area Ministries, which operates the Light House Shelter. "The stereotype is the Bowery bum, and that's just not the way it is."

Graff said the Light House Shelter faced an outcry when it opened in the late 1980s in the President's Hill neighborhood of late Victorian-era homes - even though the shelter group was one of the first to rehabilitate a home there. Today, she said, some neighbors offer donations.

"We've proved that we're not going to be tearing the neighborhood down," Graff said.

Baltimore County had similar troubles with a proposed west-side shelter - it bounced from site to site, including a building on Bloomsbury Avenue and a public works facility in Halethorpe. In November, after about a four-year search, the winter shelter opened on the grounds of Spring Grove Hospital Center in Catonsville.

Other counties are still locked in debate. Plans in Howard County to build a larger consolidated crisis center in Columbia were strenuously opposed two years ago, Ingram said. Discussions have moved toward splitting the project. Crisis services would move to a new building while Grassroots would provide shelter on Freetown Road, as it has since 1989 next to Atholton High School.

Some communities are bridging the gap with rotating shelters. Faith organizations offer the shelters for a week or two during the cold months, typically November to March.

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