Plans to address homelessness in southern Howard County prompted a January meeting attended by county government officials, service providers for the homeless and residents from Savage, Jessup and North Laurel, as community leaders convened to allow residents to air objections, concerns and hopes related to the issue.
At the center of the debate is the proposed Day Resource Center and 35-unit residential facility for the chronically homeless on county-owned property, located behind a Salvation Army Thrift Store on Guilford Road in Jessup.
The new facility would be owned by the county, but operated and managed by the nonprofit Volunteers of America Chesapeake. It is also designed to accommodate the Route 1 Day Resource Center, which is currently located near the intersection of Route 1 and Route 32.
The proposed site was chosen after the county abandoned original plans to construct the facility on the former Beechcrest Mobile Home Park, north of Whiskey Bottom Road on Route 1.
Many attendees expressed concern that concentrating a number of chronically homeless individuals in a single housing facility would invite drug abuse problems or crime to the surrounding area.
“Why is the Route 1 Corridor the place for the homeless?” asked Ellen Long of Savage. “All of us here feel very sorry and are very upset by the fact that there are homeless … but we don’t want to have a homeless ghetto because they’re brought here.”
Savage resident Ron Coleman, a social worker who has worked to help integrate mentally ill and mentally retarded individuals back into communities, is among those who think the county should, instead, consider distributed sheltering alternatives and day resource centers throughout the county.
“It’s been two or three years [since this process started], and it’s going to be another two years before this thing even comes on line,” he said. “Under the initiative [he served], we placed several thousand mentally ill and mentally retarded people into existing houses and apartments over several years. There’s no reason why we can’t place [these] people in homes.”
Susan Garber, president of the Savage Community Association, said she would prefer to see the bulk of funding available through the county be used to benefit the homeless themselves — not developers, architects or contractors.
“We also ask that you let us assist you … to address enforcement of some relevant rules regarding panhandling, vagrancy, loitering, prostitution [and other problems],” Garber said.
Why Route 1?
As to why the homeless have been drawn to the southern portion of Route 1, the phenomenon stretches back at least 15 years, according to Joe Wilmott, a homeless advocate and coordinator of the Howard County Plan to End Homelessness. That initiative was launched in 2010 under former County Executive Ken Ulman.
“[County surveys] found most of the chronically homeless [were located] along the Route 1 Corridor,” Wilmott said, citing a Point-in-Time survey in 2007 that found 55 chronically homeless in the county, with all but three or four living along the corridor. “This is where the homeless concentration has been, dating back to at least 1999.”
Those numbers eventually led the Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center to become involved with local congregations ministering to the needs of the Route 1 homeless and to establish the Route 1 Day Resource Center in 2008.
“We have not really found other significant pockets of homelessness in Howard County,” said Grassroots Executive Director Andrea Ingram. “I think we have a pretty good handle on the homeless population; [Grassroots] serves as the single point of entry in Howard County for homeless services.”
High Ridge resident Jacqui Sentell speculated that convenience plays a large role in where the homeless wind up.
“There are [connector] roads, grocery stores, laundromats, fast food and bus transportation on Route 1,” she said. As to the question of having a centralized facility or distributed facilities, “the question becomes: Do you make it convenient for them to be able to live or do you put them four miles from someplace they’re going to have to figure out how to get to?”
What’s the Gist?
Howard County Housing Commission Director Tom Carbo explained that the county is trying to concentrate efforts on the homeless through the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Project Based Section 8 housing program.
In that type of program, the subsidy stays with the building and does not follow the renter.
“HUD required us to put out a Request for Proposal and offer an opportunity to other developers to access those funds,” Carbo said. “We got one bid from VOA. Obviously, homeless folks don’t have a lot of income — we did this to provide enough revenue for the operation of the project.”
According to VOA President and COO Russ Snyder, the facility would contain 27 efficiency units on the second floor and eight on a smaller third floor. Residents who are employed would pay 30% of their adjusted gross income in rent.
“It’s 35 units because that’s what Howard County had available in housing vouchers,” he said.
Development costs amount to $10 million, Snyder said. “We don’t make money on this. We’ll be operating this on funds we raise or might get through the HUD program or through the county, if they have funds.”
An estimated property management budget of $385,000 a year, combined with a services component totaling about $170,000 a year, brings the operating cost of the facility to about $500,000 annually, Snyder said.
Pending Howard County Council approval, construction could begin in 2015, with completion in 2016. “We’ll be providing 24/7 security, case management and property management,” Snyder said.
Asked by The Business Monthly for further clarification of the program’s goals, Snyder said there is no limit on stays or residence at the single efficiency apartments.
“However, the program will be designed to assist residents’ progress toward self-sufficiency and [to] ultimately achieve independent living elsewhere, without subsidy,” Snyder said. “This is the outcome we try to achieve for all our residents receiving our services.”
However, he added that VOA does not have a timeline or expectation for achieving this goal.
At VOA’s Paca House facility in Baltimore, which houses 106 single men and women, “many move on to independent housing, but the timelines vary significantly,” he said.
The Howard County Council is considering a resolution to amend the amount of county property being conveyed to the Housing Commission at the proposed homeless facility site to satisfy zoning regulations for the project. A work session to address the resolution was subsequently scheduled to take place on Jan. 26.
Should the resolution pass, construction of the facility would enable the overtaxed Day Resource Center to move into the VOA facility’s first floor and improve its three-days-a-week services to the homeless. Those services include meals, laundry and shower facilities, medical screening, counseling, a food and clothing bank, phone access and providing an address to help acquire photo identification that’s necessary for securing a job.
“We will have some better facilities and can do a better job of serving families,” Ingram said. “Right now, it’s not a particularly family-friendly place.”
Speaking to the residents at the meeting, County Executive Allan Kittleman said he would “take the rap” for whatever happened.
“I care about the Savage community, I care about the issue of homelessness, and I care about the community in Jessup and Guilford,” he said. “I want to do whatever we can to make sure that the right thing is done, but I will tell you we’re not going to agree on everything.”
He also noted that the process to get to this point involved two previous community meetings in North Laurel, a county council hearing on the issue and a state delegation public hearing.
“I believe the best way to serve [the homeless] is by having a facility that provides services, as well as some housing,” Kittleman said. “After listening to what you’ve said tonight and looking at this issue somewhat … I really believe this is a better way for us to approach the subject, right now. This is in our community; they’re here. They’re our neighbors.”