A long-planned expansion of Howard County's homeless shelter is suddenly moving forward, aided by a $1.5 million commitment from the Robey administration.
County Executive James N. Robey has included $100,000 for planning in his proposed capital budget for the next fiscal year and $1.4 million for fiscal 2007 for the project, which is estimated to cost $4.5 million overall. A public hearing is scheduled at the Planning Board meeting at 7 p.m. March 31 in the George Howard Building.
The 32-bed Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center will remain on Freetown Road, next to Atholton High School, said Executive Director Andrea Ingram, who has been trying to find a way to expand for seven years.
"Over a year ago, we decided the timing is right, and there are more funding possibilities to do shelter programs," she said. "Demands for service are just way beyond what we can manage."
The expansion is "way overdue," she said.
Ingram said the project will be difficult because the county-owned building must be expanded while the shelter continues to operate - without harming Atholton High on one side or the former Harriet Tubman High School building on the other.
Howard N. Lyles, chairman of the Harriet Tubman Foundation of Howard County, said he met with Ingram a month ago and is satisfied that "they will not encroach on the high school."
Tubman is the county's former segregated high school that the foundation hopes one day to transform into an African-American community center and museum. It now houses a county maintenance shop and Head Start classes.
"We're hoping for a creative architect" and a good grant-writer to help raise the $3 million in private funding the nonprofit agency needs, Ingram said. A $50,000 pledge has been received from the Rouse Company Foundation, created after General Growth Properties bought the former Rouse Co.
Ingram said the goal is to go through a negotiation-planning process and end up with a building that has at least 18 more beds and support spaces and still fits into a residential neighborhood.
Lacking storage space
Grassroots has no room to store donated furniture, and hallways have been used as emergency shelter space.
The county's two-year-old cold-weather shelter, which moves from church to church, closed March 20. It had sheltered 81 people since Nov. 15.
The closing forced several people to Baltimore County's winter shelter, which stayed open another week. Grassroots also puts up some homeless in motels.
Herman Charity, Robey's top adviser, said the executive agreed that something must be done. "They've demonstrated a need to expand," Charity said.
Attempts to include more homeless shelter beds in a combined crisis center also serving victims of domestic and sexual abuse were not successful after community residents in east Columbia protested three years ago against having the facility in their neighborhood.
Since then, advocates said, it has become clear that the shelter element of the concept should be separate.
"Maybe we needed to go through that whole process to get where we are now" by raising awareness in the community, Ingram said. The winter shelter has involved up to 3,000 volunteers in numerous county churches over the two years, which has further spread the word.
The project also has some County Council support.
Council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, and Councilman Ken Ulman, an east Columbia Democrat, have supported the crisis center idea and Grassroots.
"I'm very excited to see it in the budget at this stage," Ulman said, adding that he remains "disappointed that we haven't been able to pull off a crisis center."
Guzzone said Grassroots has "an excellent track record" in its Hickory Ridge neighborhood.
"I'm hopeful we'll see a good outcome," he said.
However, a successful expansion won't solve the basic problem, Ingram said, especially with housing prices continuing the sharp rise that began several years ago.
"There needs to be more solutions than just creating more shelter," Ingram said. "There needs to be some solutions on the housing end. Building a shelter isn't the answer."