A rare bit of good news in dispute over shelter


GOOD NEWS: What had threatened to become a nasty, not-in-my-backyard situation between a local high school and a shelter for homeless people is apparently resolved.

Newspapers don't often write about things that go right in a community. This is an instance that deserves mentioning.

It says a lot about the benefits of communicating and being sensitive to others' needs.

We have all been where many of the parents and officials at Atholton High School were recently when they thought that the neighboring Grassroots shelter was about to be converted into a facility just for men.

It's not surprising that opponents felt they needed to act quickly to thwart this perceived threat.

Parents were right

The parents of children attending Atholton, particularly of female students, have every right to be alarmed by the prospect of a shelter exclusively for men close to the school in Hickory Ridge village in Columbia.

There have been too many instances where residents have been victimized in Howard County.

This concern should not be dismissed as just the rantings of yuppies who want to insulate themselves from people they perceive as different.

Even now, the county is absorbed by the trial of Curtis Aden Jamison, a 30-year-old Baltimore man accused of luring 15-year-old Tara Allison Gladden into a clandestine relationship and then murdering her to keep the affair secret.

And that is only one in a series of alarming cases. Certainly the death of Pam Basu in 1992 at the hands of carjackers still resonates as a moment of extreme horror for county residents.

No shutting ourselves off

It is precisely because we cannot insulate ourselves completely from the dangers around us that residents have become justifiably alarmed. And while there is no need for rampant fear, a bit of skepticism and caution is healthy.

Atholton Principal Roger Plunkett, acting on the concerns of parents, appealed to the Howard County Council last Monday to block the change at Grassroots.

But that was before Mr. Plunkett had an opportunity to talk with the shelter's executive director, Andrea Ingram.

Ms. Ingram has assured school officials that while the shelter is increasing the number of beds for men, the entire facility will not be males only.

The number of beds for men will increase from four to 12. But 20 additional beds will be set aside for women and children.

That ratio seemed to please Mr. Plunkett and the head of the school's PTA, Bev Belin.

"We've enjoyed a peaceful coexistence with Grassroots all these years, and I don't see why it shouldn't continue," Ms. Belin said.

Mr. Plunkett described the numbers quoted by Ms. Ingram as "manageable."

Good relations

In some ways, the brief flare-up between the school and shelter may have been a result of their successful relationship. Parties on both sides seemed so lulled by their good working relationship -- which included many Atholton students volunteering at the shelter -- that communication had simply broken down.

When I spoke with school officials last week they seemed embarrassed by the controversy.

They shouldn't be.

Being a wary, protective parent in today's environment is nothing to be ashamed of. Better that they be overcautious than suffer a loss they may never recover from.

Even now, there may be some parents who continue to oppose the changes proposed by Grassroots; they have every right to continue expressing themselves.

Still, the school's leadership is declaring a truce and that's a good thing.

The lack of beds for homeless men has long put the county in the position of sending its problems to other jurisdictions. The Grassroots proposal changes that somewhat.

Sending a message

What it says to our young people is that charity begins at home, not that it's all right to have compassion for others so long as they stay out of our backyards.

As for officials at Grassroots, they need to be mindful of the necessity of communicating their goals to their neighbors at every step.

The public mood in these troubling times is mercurial.

But then, you can hardly blame folks.

Kevin Thomas is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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