The Columbia-based Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center is seeking to expand the capacity of one of its homeless shelters, the Miles House in Ellicott City, from eight to 12 people.
"There's certainly a huge need," said Andrea Ingram, executive director of the nonprofit.
In the year ending June 30, she said, Grassroots had to turn away 2,076 calls for help because of a lack of space.
The Miles House, on county-owned land on Fels Lane next to the Roger Carter Center, has been operating as a transitional housing facility for about eight years, said Bob Lalush, a planner in the Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning. To be able to accept 12 people, he said, Grassroots must get a special exception from the county's Board of Appeals.
The case is scheduled to go before the Howard County Planning Board next Thursday and before the Board of Appeals Jan. 18.
The homeless shelter is a white house with blue-gray shutters, a porch and a garden in front. Residents cook their meals. Ingram said the house can accommodate 12 people, so no structural changes are proposed.
Neither Ingram nor Lalush has heard complaints from neighbors about the proposed change, they said.
"It's a very pleasant-looking house," Ingram said. "You couldn't tell it from any other per- sonal residence."
Because the Miles House is a transitional home, Ingram said, there is no 24-hour staff supervision. A part-time staff person helps residents achieve self-sufficiency, screens visitors and makes sure no drugs or alcohol are in the house.
Ingram said that about a third of Grassroots' clients have a major psychiatric illness, and about a third have drug or alcohol problems.
Potential residents are carefully screened before they are offered admission to the Miles House, Ingram said. She said they need to be free of alcohol and drugs, working or in a work-training program, and capable of living in a group setting.
The Miles House is one of three Grassroots shelters in the county. The group also runs a 20-bed family shelter and a 12-bed men's shelter in Columbia, Ingram said, and can also put up to five families in a motel.
Grassroots is not the only group that helps homeless people in Howard. The county's Domestic Violence Center also has 29 beds for victims of domestic violence, and at least two other groups in the county offer beds for those in need, Ingram said.
Judy Clancy, executive director of the county's Domestic Violence Center, said there are not enough beds to help the growing number of homeless people. Clancy said she often refers people to Grassroots, knowing that they are likely to be turned away because of the lack of space.
"Homelessness in Howard County is definitely a problem, and it's a problem that's getting worse," she said. "We are a county where we have such limited shelter space for homeless people that it's very frustrating."
Statistics on the number of "turn away" incidents in the county are spotty, Ingram said. The county has statistics from last year but not from the previous three years. Four years ago, 700 people were turned away, she said. That statistic does not indicate the number of homeless people in the county, but rather the number of times the shelter received a call for help and had to turn people away.
Though one statistic cannot prove that the homeless population is rising, Ingram and Clancy insist their numbers are growing, based on the growth of the county in general.
"The more people you have in your area, the more homeless you're going to have," Clancy said. "It's true everywhere."
"Certainly," Ingram said. "Howard County is becoming more city-like all the time."