Hundreds of Columbia residents flocked to town meetings last night and Tuesday to protest plans to build a 24-hour crisis center near their homes and schools.
County and state politicians turned out in droves, with some of them promising to fight public funding for the $6.5 million project if organizers try to build it in Long Reach or Kings Contrivance.
"We are here to say - today, tonight and yesterday - no to the crisis center in Long Reach," County Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray said to about 300 people at Stonehouse in Long Reach Village Center on Tuesday night.
State Sen. Sandra B. Schrader voiced her opposition in Long Reach on Tuesday and again in Kings Contrivance last night, where about 250 people filled two adjacent meeting rooms and spilled into the hallway in Amherst House.
But Schrader also tried to strike a conciliatory tone. Praising the aim of the center, Schrader said she had asked Howard County Executive James N. Robey to help find another location for the planned 33,000-square-foot facility.
"I'm tired of the negative energy," Schrader said. "What I want to see is all of us working together."
A coalition of three nonprofit organizations hopes to build the Crisis and Support Center of Howard County to provide counseling and shelter for county residents who are homeless, runaways or victims of rape or domestic violence. It also would provide psychiatric emergency housing.
The nonprofits are: Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center, the Domestic Violence Center and STTAR Center, which helps victims of sexual abuse. The agencies, housed in separate facilities, intend to share office space at the site.
One proposed location is near Long Reach High School and another is near Hammond High School in Kings Contrivance. A third possible site is on the border of Elkridge and Ellicott City, near Maryland School for the Deaf. A meeting with those neighbors has been tentatively scheduled for Tuesday. The time and location have not been set.
Andrea Ingram, executive director of Grassroots, described the project at both meetings and tried to dispel false impressions people might have about the facility. She stressed that the center would not, as has been rumored, provide drug treatment or serve as a halfway house for parolees. Ingram said the problems the center would address can strike families of all socio-economic levels: depression, suicide and domestic violence.
"That's something that anyone might need at some time," she said.
Ingram said her organization operates a 32-bed shelter next to Atholton High School and said there had only been one case in which a resident wandered over to the school. Under the plan, she said, the shelter would be moved to the new center and expanded to 53 or 54 beds.
Many residents said they applauded the work done by the organizations and said the idea of putting their services under one roof made sense. But they opposed the planned locations, saying the center could put schoolchildren at risk and bring crime and instability to the neighborhoods.
Complaints were especially vocal in Long Reach, a village that residents say is unfairly burdened with subsidized housing, crime and image problems.
"Long Reach has had enough and we won't take it anymore," former Columbia Councilwoman Cecilia Januszkiewicz said to applause. "Look elsewhere for another location. We'd be happy to help you find it."
Diane Robertson of Long Reach said the village was already "out of balance" with an overabundance of transient residents.
"Transient people have no interest in our community," she said.
A handful of residents spoke in favor of the project.
Ruth Cargo of Oakland Mills attended both meetings. She said she was aware of the good work done by the nonprofits. When she first moved to Columbia, she said her phone number was one previously assigned to Grassroots.
"We got calls around the clock for, like, 7 1/2 years," she said, adding that she kept Grassroots' new number by the phone to give to callers.
"Please put in equal energy to finding the right place for this facility," Cargo said.