Winter shelter plan runs into flak

Residents hoped Jesuits would take over vacant school

October 25, 2007|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,Sun reporter

The city's plans to relocate and expand its winter shelter for the homeless has run into opposition from a neighborhood group that is threatening legal action to block the plan.

Members of the New Greenmount West Community Association say they are upset that city officials didn't take more time to meet with them and discuss plans to create a temporary winter shelter for as many as 300 men, women and children in an old school in the 1600 block of Guilford Ave.

Residents had hoped that the school - which is empty and has been picked apart by vandals - would become the new home of a Jesuit school, an addition that would help to revitalize Greenmount West, which is looking for a boost from the adjacent Station North Arts and Entertainment District.

School officials say they have more fundraising to do before they make the move. Meanwhile, the city, which still owns the elementary school building, has decided to use it as a shelter.

Nearby homeowners say they worry that there won't be enough security at the winter shelter - which for the first time will be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week - and that clients could add to the neighborhood's crime problems.

"We are exploring our legal avenues to see how we can oppose this," said Abu Moulta-Ali, vice president of the association. "But there are not many lawyers who want to take on the mayor and City Hall."

City officials have met with the community twice in recent weeks and have told residents of their plans for the shelter, said Diane Glauber, head of the city's homeless services division.

On most nights, Glauber said, the shelter will house fewer than 300 people. There will be 24-hour security and other services for shelter clients, she said.

In response to residents who said they were concerned that women and children staying at the shelter could be in danger of being attacked, Glauber said men will be housed on one floor, women and children on another. Each floor will have its own restrooms, she said.

In recent years, the city has sought to expand services to homeless residents during winter. Initially, the city's "code blue" shelter was open only when the forecast was for temperatures below 25 with sustained 15 mph winds. In 2006, officials opened it whenever the temperature was below 32. Last winter, the shelter was open every night but was closed during the daytime. This year it will be open around the clock.

"We can't have people freezing on the streets," Glauber said.

City officials are looking to create a permanent shelter, she said, but have yet to decide on a site.

The schoolhouse is the best site for the temporary winter shelter, Glauber said, because the city owns it and it will require the least retrofitting - about $500,000 in repairs - to make it habitable.

A spokeswoman for Cristo Rey Jesuit High School confirmed that the school will take over the site from the city as soon as it has raised enough money to purchase the property.

The charter school, which is currently at 420 S. Chester St., won't move for several years, said Mary Beth Lennon, the school's communications director.

The uncertainty about the school's move makes Greenmount West residents nervous. They say they fear that if Cristo Rey doesn't take over the school soon, the city might continue to place homeless people there. That, they say, could stymie several redevelopment projects, which set back the neighborhood's rehabilitation.

"I don't believe that this shelter will be temporary," said Wendes Jones, who lives in the community.

City Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young, who represents the area, said he is also opposed to the winter shelter. He said he has made it clear to Mayor Sheila Dixon that he doesn't want to add another shelter to his district, which he says has a disprorportionate number of facilities serving the poor.

"I know there are other places where they could put that shelter," he said. "Enough is enough."

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