ATHOLTON HIGH School Principal Roger Plunkett was among the crowd that turned out for a ceremony to mark the opening of a new shelter for homeless men in Columbia earlier this month. His presence, as well as the fact that some of his students will be doing community service work there, were among signs that the surrounding neighborhood has come to terms with fears about the expansion of this facility.
To be sure, some parents were less than thrilled with the prospect of having a number of homeless men within sight of school children. Grassroots, a non-profit social service agency that runs an existing shelter for women and children in the area, was willing to work with residents to assure everyone that its expanded operation would still primarily house women and children. Parents relaxed somewhat after speaking with Grassroots' Executive Director Andrea Ingram. Few could argue that the additional beds -- which were filled immediately -- were not needed.
Last fall, Grassroots' shelter in Hickory Ridge had only four beds set aside for men and had to accommodate a homeless man in its lobby. The center's mission is to help these men find employment and permanent housing, along with helping them get addiction treatment, counseling in money management and mental health therapy.
The Department of Citizen Services, the county agency that oversees social programs, estimates the number of homeless in the county at around 500. County shelters had to reject 175 requests for board, including 80 from families.
It would have been easy for residents to ignore the need and fight Grassroots' plans to the bitter end. In Annapolis last week, former Gov. William Donald Schaefer told a group of 400 homeless people and advocates about the difficulty in siting homeless shelters because "people who are on top of the world" forget they can be toppled by a bad "bounce of the ball."
Fortunately in Hickory Ridge, Ms. Ingram says most people kept open minds, and the objectors raised "reasonable" questions. No doubt residents will keep a watchful eye on the shelter. Certainly, social service providers know better than anyone that one mishap would only confirm some residents' worst fears.