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High school is concerned over shelter Atholton staff, parents upset by increase of homeless single men; Reconsider, county is asked; Buildings adjacent; Grassroots director seeks to dispel fears


The NIMSY principle -- Not In My School Yard -- is alive and kicking at Atholton High School in Columbia's Hickory Ridge village. Concerned about plans to house more single men at the adjacent Grassroots homeldaughter going to school here, how would you feel?" asked Barbara Poling, a teachers aide. 1/8 Just ask yourself."

But Andrea Ingram, executive director of Grassroots Inc., said the concerns are misplaced, adding that families, women and children still would make up the majority of the 32-bed shelter.

The shelter is adjacent to the high school on Freetown Road; they are separated by a 4-foot-high chain-link fence. The shelter is nearest to the school's portable classrooms and parking lot.

"I can't promise anybody that nothing will ever happen," Ms. Ingram said. "What I can say is we have an excellent system to manage the program here, and we haven't had any major complaints."

Grassroots, a nonprofit organization that helps the homeless, now has four beds for single men at the shelter; the rest are reserved for families, women and children. Next month, it plans to open a new, 12-bed shelter in Ellicott City strictly for women and children.

That would clear space in the Columbia shelter for eight more single men -- the development that this week drew complaints from Atholton.

"I just think everyone has a different feeling about women and children than about single men," said Ellen Giles, a member of the Atholton PTA's executive board. "There's a threat."

Atholton Principal Roger Plunkett appealed Monday night to the Howard County Council, which owns the land for the new shelter in Ellicott City.

"We are very concerned that single men will be living so close to our school," Mr. Plunkett told the council, which is expected to take up the issue again Monday.

But Mr. Plunkett's position seemed to soften yesterday after learning that Grassroots would still have women and children at its Columbia shelter, and that the number of single men would only go from four to 12.

"That's a more workable number," he said.

Mr. Plunkett also said that the school has had no problem with people from the shelter, some of whom occasionally use the school's pay phone.

Ms. Poling, who through her Baptist church provides food and furniture for Howard County poor people, stressed that she and other school personnel support Grassroots -- they just do not want a high concentration of single men near the school.

Advocates for the homeless said they were surprised at the concerns.

"We always prided ourselves on our relationship with the school," said Robert Mulderig, co-chairman of the county's Board on Homelessness and assistant director of the Department of Housing and Community Development.

Atholton students regularly perform internships at the shelter.

Mr. Mulderig said he had not known of complaints until he watched the county's cable TV station Monday evening and heard Mr. Plunkett address the County Council.

After learning about Mr. Plunkett's complaint, Mr. Mulderig said he asked the school principal to call him about his concerns. Mr. Plunkett had not contacted Mr. Mulderig as of late yesterday.

"We have always had a good relationship with the neighbors in Hickory Ridge," said Susan Rosenbaum, associate director of Citizens Services, an agency that oversees the county's programs for the poor, elderly and disabled.

"I'm very surprised to have heard" about any complaints, said Ms. Rosenbaum.

Ms. Ingram played down fears of disruption from single men at the shelter. She said at least four trained staff members will supervise the single men.

About two-thirds of the single men are expected to have some kind of mental or physical disability.

Since she began working at Grassroots six years ago, Ms. Ingram said she recalls just one complaint from the school. That was about five years ago, when a shelter client walked to the school to use a pay phone in the lobby.

Complaints about homeless men have been on rise recently throughout the region.

About three weeks ago, officials in the city of Laurel complained about homeless men from Howard, Anne Arundel and Montgomery counties -- particularly the dozen or so who live under a bridge in the North Laurel area of Howard.

Howard has between 700 and 800 homeless people, officials estimate, and about 90 shelter beds. During the winter, Grassroots officials have placed single men in the Columbia shelter's lobby or sent them to other Maryland counties or to Baltimore.

Grassroots' new Ellicoot City shelter, funded with a $140,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, was supposed to have opened almost a year ago. But because of construction delays, the shelter won't open until the end of next month.

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