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Amid debate, Route 1 homeless resource center hopes to expand

Each week, Melinda Becker spends hours of her time in the Fishbowl, folding clothes and sorting donations.

The space, named for the glass walls that allow Becker to peer into the hallway as she does her organizing, is the repository for all of the clothing donations that find their way to the Day Resource Center, which provides services to the homeless on Route 1, near the Jessup-North Laurel border.

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Becker manages the center, which has offered warm meals, counseling, medical exams, a computer lab and more to Howard County's homeless population three days a week since 2008.

Center volunteers also distribute clothing and dry foods to people in need.

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The Fishbowl was originally intended to serve as an office for the resource center, but it quickly became a storage space. Boxes of polo shirts, socks, hunting jackets – even freezer coats donated from the Dreyers factory down the street – occupy most of the floor space and line the walls in piles taller than Becker.

Though the center has expanded over the past seven years, occupying both floors of the aging, two-story building that used to be a boarding house, according to Becker, it could use more space – and not just for the donations that steadily roll in through its doors from across the community.

Becker and other staff members at the center say they would be able to better accommodate the 75 people who use its resources on average each day if they had more space for programs, families and amenities.

"We opened expecting to serve the chronically homeless in Howard County," said Becker, who has been involved with the resource center since its inception. "We had absolutely no idea the volume of need."

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Plans to build a new space for the Day Resource Center have been in the works for several years but have faced stumbling blocks. Now, the Howard County Council is preparing to vote on a resolution that would clear the way for construction to begin.

The proposal, touted by advocates for the county's homeless, would convey three acres of county land behind the Salvation Army thrift store in Jessup to the Howard County Housing Commission to add to the nearly two acres approved earlier last year to be designated as the site of the new resource center. The construction project would also include 35 efficiency apartments for chronically homeless individuals, which will be managed separately by Volunteers of America Chesapeake, a faith-based health and human services nonprofit.

In all, the new center, located near the intersection of Routes 1 and 32, would be three stories tall, with the Day Resource Center on the ground floor and the upper two levels reserved for housing. Residents would sign leases and pay a portion of their incomes toward rent. The building would also have round-the-clock security, according to Russ Snyder, president and CEO of Volunteers of America Chesapeake.

With a new building and more space, Becker said, "We would be able to serve more people. And I think it would be a concrete, visual reminder to the community that this is something we need to pay attention to all the time."

Community concern

Some residents of nearby Savage and North Laurel, however, feel their communities are being unfairly tapped as a hotspot for homeless resources.

Last week, the Savage Community Association held a meeting with Howard officials, including County Executive Allan Kittleman and Housing Director Tom Carbo, to ask questions about the project. It was also an opportunity, for some, to register their disapproval.

Several people said they appreciated the work of the Day Resource Center but objected to building a housing complex specifically intended for the chronically homeless.

"We're very concerned that the key issue here is the amount of mental illness and substance abuse that will be centered in our community [if efficiency apartments are built]," said Savage Community Association President Susan Garber. "It's definitely not going to contribute to Route 1 revitalization."

The arguments echoed a similar debate several years ago, when the same plan was proposed on the site of the Beechcrest mobile home park in North Laurel. Residents pushed back, and County Executive Ken Ulman decided to find another location for the project.

Garber and others favor spreading housing for the homeless throughout Howard County by placing group homes in multiple communities. At a budget hearing in December, "I freely offered for Savage to step up and take a group home for some of this population," Garber said.

The Savage group had hoped that Kittleman might side with them and put the project on pause. At the end of the meeting, however, the county executive announced he wants to see the efficiency apartments built.

"I think it's important for us to service the needs of the homeless in Howard County and provide necessary services," Kittleman elaborated in an interview a few days later.

"Right now, we already have the Day Resource Center. I don't think it's a dramatic change," he said of the project. "I think some people are concerned that more people are coming to Howard County because of these services. I believe that they were here."

Homelessness stats

Though it's hard to track homelessness in Howard – or anywhere, for that matter – advocates say the county's homeless population has historically been focused along the Route 1 corridor.

"Whether we like it or not, they are our neighbors," Becker said of the resource center's clients.

And while Howard is known nationally for its affluence, she and others say it's important not to forget that the county is also home to many who are struggling.

Last year's annual point-in-time survey, a count of all the homeless people in Howard on a particular day, found a total of 170 homeless people in 118 families, or "households," in the county. Of those, 25 households were families with children, all of whom were housed in some type of shelter, while 76 individuals without children were in the shelter system and 22 individuals were out on the street.

The 2015 point-in-time survey is set to take place on Jan. 26, according to Vidia Dhanraj, coordinator of community partnerships for the county's Department of Citizen Services and a member of the county's Board to Promote Self-Sufficiency.

Dhanraj was instrumental in helping to write Howard's Plan to End Homelessness in 2010, which outlined a series of goals for the county in combating both situational homelessness – which occurs when otherwise stable individuals or families are no longer able to afford housing due to job loss, injury, death of a provider or another disaster – and chronic homelessness, which often involves individuals with mental illness or substance abuse problems.

According to the 2010 report, there have historically been more situationally homeless people than chronically homeless people in the county.

To help put the chronically homeless back on their feet, Dhanraj said the proposed efficiency apartment complex in Jessup is just the right size.

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"For us in Howard County, 35 units is appropriate," she said. "It's not [so] big [as] to attract more people to the region; it's the right number to deal with the homeless individuals in the county."

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Though the Day Resource Center and efficiency apartments will be separately managed, the logic in placing them in the same building is to locate services right where they're needed, according to Andrea Ingram, director of Grassroots, the county's crisis intervention center, which runs the Day Resource Center as well as a shelter in Columbia.

"A lot of the people that we're serving really need intense services, and to be running around to all these different places to deliver services, people fall through the cracks. [On Route 1] we have access to them, much better supervision and monitoring and support," Ingram said. "I think this is a right level of housing for a lot of the folks that we're talking about, and it's near their jobs and transportation, and a lot of resources. So, if someone's getting in trouble we'll know it, fast. We'll know it before it's too late."

The model of efficiency apartments for the chronically homeless is part of a paradigm shift in how social workers look at homelessness, according to the county's Plan to End Homelessness.

"For more than 25 years, public policy has focused on addressing homelessness only after it has occurred," the report says. "In the past few years, there has been a gradual realization that the existing system of homeless services is providing some relief to individuals and families but not solving the problem. What is needed is a new paradigm that focuses on preventing homelessness, while helping people who are already homeless move to permanent housing."

The report recommended that the county build efficiency apartments to address the needs of the county's chronically homeless population.

Dhanraj noted that the model of efficiency apartments has been used in other communities nationally as a "best practice."

Volunteers of America Chesapeake, which will manage the efficiency apartments if they are built, already operates a similar complex in Baltimore called Paca House.

"It is a format that is determined as being effective in serving the chronically homeless," Dhanraj said.

The decision now rests in the hands of the County Council, which will vote to approve or deny the land transfer for the center in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, the discussion continues.

Garber said Kittleman has promised to get answers to a list of questions the community submitted about the homeless resource center and apartments.

She said she hoped to see solutions to the area's issues of homelessness.

"It's virtually impossible to get into Savage without passing a panhandler," she said. "This is just one more assault on the southeastern part of the county."

Ingram said she hoped a new building for the resource center could be part of the solution.

"You are defined, to some extent, by your space — you can only fill out your space and that's it," she said. "But when you have more space, you have more opportunities."

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