Shelter to close in two weeks; Program is run 'like a prison,' attorney says


Dogged by complaints that its program is run "like a prison," the operators of an Owings Mills-based job training center for homeless women yesterday told its residents that it is shutting down in two weeks.

The taxpayer-funded Elan Vital Center is closing because challenges to its policies have spawned an "unruly and uncontrollable situation" where residents defy rules, said Kathleen McDonald, president of the nonprofit corporation that operates the program.

"It's just falling apart," said McDonald, whose Community Building Group Ltd. will continue to operate an emergency shelter in Reisterstown. "If there is no structure, things are going to come tumbling down."

The decision to close the 20-bed facility surprised county social services officials, who already were reviewing allegations that the program failed to deliver promised services, illegally evicted women from their apartments and forced them to perform manual labor as punishment.

Similar reviews are under way at the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development, which both provide funding for Elan Vital.

Francine K. Hahn, an attorney for the Homeless Persons Representation Project, said Elan Vital administrators use "fear and intimidation" to control program participants, many of whom are mothers of young children and victims of domestic abuse.

"Elan Vital is the worst we have seen," Hahn said. "It is run like a prison."

Baltimore County Social Services officials said the closing cuts more than half the number of "transitional housing" beds in the county. Such housing typically is offered for up to two years, with instruction in job and "life" skills.

McDonald cited a 98 percent job placement rate for graduates of the program and said they find jobs that pay an average of $9.40 an hour.

"Some wonderful things have happened to families in that program," said Barbara L. Gradet, the county's director of social services.

She said social workers would immediately begin to try to find homes for the program's women and their children.

Elan Vital opened six years ago in two refurbished state-owned buildings on the grounds of Rosewood Center, a state facility for the mentally retarded. It initially received a $1.8 million HUD grant, along with hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions from Baltimore contractor Willard Hackerman.

Faction blamed

Yesterday, after they were told about the closing in a brief letter, Elan Vital residents stood on the residence hall's porch. One wept while other women cursed a rebellious faction of residents, blaming them for the program's demise.

"I just look at some of the things they are doing as crazy," said Robin Jordan, who praised the program and said its leaders helped her find a job. "They lived in worse conditions than here, and they get up here and they act like they're living in the Hilton."

Kelli Glynn, the resident whose legal challenges sparked the upheaval at the center, said softly: "I didn't do this just for myself. I did it for everybody in here to know they have rights, and what [program officials] were doing here was wrong."

Glynn, 30, said she broke her apartment key in August, and then ran afoul of program rules by taking a staff member's key and duplicating it. She was ordered to leave the program within 60 days and was placed on "work detail" of four hours a day for the balance of her stay.

She said she was forced to ferry sacks of sand between storage rooms and to dig holes and turn over garden beds.

'Treated like children'

With the assistance of Hahn, Glynn challenged her eviction as illegal under Maryland landlord-tenant law, and in violation of HUD policy.

"We are being treated like children or criminals," said Glynn, the mother of a 3-year-old girl.

Hahn said residents also have complained about policies that allow visitors on Saturdays only and require women to account for every minute they spend away from the program's campus.

Mimi Duvall, another resident, said, "You are always being threatened with your housing. It's another form of abuse."

Hahn said she now represents six of the residents, including Jeanine Hall, who was threatened with a 72-hour eviction after oversleeping and missing the start of a GED class.

County Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, responding to complaints by some residents several weeks ago, asked county social services to investigate the program. As a result of their inquiries, federal and county officials recently urged Elan Vital to drop a requirement that applicants take a test to prove they're not pregnant.

But McDonald said new concerns raised Wednesday by the county about the center's dismissal policies leaves her with no choice but to close the center.

"If we can't enforce the rules," she said, "we can't run the program."

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