Shelter from the cold

October 29, 2007

The weather has finally turned nippy and Baltimore officials are rightly planning how to help the homeless through the winter. By the end of November, they plan to open a temporary winter shelter in an abandoned school building on Guilford Avenue, a city-owned property in a once-vibrant area that is experiencing some revitalization.

Unfortunately, but perhaps predictably, some members of the Greenmount West community are threatening legal action. Instead, they should concentrate on holding the city to its word that the shelter will close in March, and that proper security will be in place until then. And in the meantime, they should take heart in the expectation that the building's restoration will ultimately help improve the neighborhood.

City health and housing officials say that after a challenging search, they found this to be the most suitable location, and they are applying some lessons learned from operating temporary shelters in two other locations during the last two winters.

Under an admittedly ambitious plan, the shelter will accommodate as many as 300 men, women and children at a time - although officials are not expecting that many people each night, based on experience - and it will be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

That is understandably daunting to a community looking for a lift and anticipating that a Jesuit high school was going to take over the site. But that plan has faced fundraising difficulties, and the city's investment of about $500,000 to make the building habitable - including new pipes, plumbing and electrical systems - should make it easier for the school's planners to buy the building from the city and reconvert it.

As for other neighborhood concerns, operating the shelter around the clock should decrease the likelihood that homeless people will wander through the neighborhood during the day or line up outside waiting for the facility to open in the evening. In addition, Jobs, Housing and Recovery Inc. has been designated to operate the shelter and help coordinate services.

There is inevitable - and understandable - tension when a large-scale social service facility comes into a fragile community. So it is particularly unfortunate that city officials didn't give the neighboring community more notice of their plans.

But when the temperature falls, people on the streets need a warm place to stay immediately.

The Guilford Avenue plan is less than ideal; it's a short-term solution when a long-term solution - in the form of permanent housing - is needed. But with winter on the way, it's an appropriate stopgap.

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