A plan to open an Edgemere residential program for homeless women is stirring concern among some residents in southeastern Baltimore County, highlighting a struggle that advocates for the homeless say they face in finding space for hundreds of people in need.
Catholic Charities wants to open a facility called Hosanna House for 14 women, age 50 and older, at a former assisted-living facility and convent next to St. Luke's Roman Catholic Church. A county administrative law judge approved that plan earlier this year, but the North Point Peninsula Council and some residents filed an appeal.
"We don't have any homeless on the peninsula," community council president Harry Wujek Jr. told members of the county Board of Appeals on Thursday. "So why do we want to bring 14 homeless into our community, when we don't have any?"
The board is expected to decide on the case within the next few weeks.
Catholic Charities and county officials say homelessness is more pervasive than many think, and the program and others like it are badly needed. Baltimore County has four emergency shelters — in Rosedale, Catonsville, Woodlawn and Reisterstown.
Hosanna House would provide "permanent supportive housing" with assistance such as transportation, case management, and help finding employment.
"We do not have enough of that housing in the county," said Sue Bull, the county's homeless services coordinator.
Rev. Kristofer Lindh-Payne, co-rector of Epiphany Episcopal Church in Timonium and a board member of Baltimore County Communities for the Homeless, said at the hearing that the county now has fewer than 100 permanent supportive housing units for the homeless — and needs about 350 more.
The Hosanna House plan sparked worries about safety for some residents, especially because the St. Luke pre-school is less than 20 feet from the property.
Both St. Luke's parish council and the Our Lady of Hope/St. Luke School board voted to oppose Hosanna House, said Robert Zacherl, who is president of both. Now the preschool is moving to another location because of parents' concerns, he said.
The program would accommodate women with disabilities, which could include a mental illness or substance abuse, said Mary Anne O'Donnell, director of the community services division at Catholic Charities. The women would be randomly drug-tested and wouldn't be allowed to stay at the house if they're using drugs or alcohol.
O'Donnell said she understands community concerns, but said the program would help the women find employment and volunteer opportunities, she said. They would pay a percentage of their income for rent.
"We're really just trying to get people back to being productive members of the community," she said.
Supporters pointed to the success of Holden Hall, a similar program for men in Baltimore.
Hosanna House — to be funded with federal grant money —- initially was meant to serve men, but Catholic Charities switched that to women, believing it would ease some of the residents' concern, O'Donnell said. The county plans to keep seeking opportunities to provide supportive housing for homeless men, Bull said.
"That will not stop," she said.
Francis Taylor of the North Point Peninsula Council told members of the appeals board his group debated whether to get involved, but ultimately decided to. He said the peninsula lacks public transportation and employment opportunities for the homeless people who would be in the program.
Sherrie Watts, who is part of a supportive housing program at the YWCA in Arbutus, said community opposition is hurtful.
"I'm not a drug addict, I'm not an alcoholic," she said. "I'm just a person that fell on hard times."
Wujek told the Board of Appeals that "perception plays a great big role in this." When he thinks of a homeless person, he said, "I see a guy standing on a corner, disheveled, dirty, filthy, with a cardboard sign."
Not all neighbors oppose the plan.
Gary Quatmann, treasurer of the resident association at St. Luke's Place, a Catholic Charities senior-housing complex near the church, said he didn't understand why some people have a problem with the proposal.
"If I didn't have a nice Social Security check, I'd be homeless," he said.