An eight-year struggle ended yesterday, when Carroll officials cut a red ribbon to signal the official opening of Safe Haven, a multipurpose homeless shelter in Westminster.
The $1.2 million facility, which opened to residents about a month ago, houses three programs, a long-term home for mentally ill men and women, a temporary home for men and a cold-weather shelter that will be open between November and April.
Carroll officials said they are not sure how large the county's homeless population is. The old Safe Haven served 373 people last year, and all but two of the 33 available beds in the new building are occupied.
Safe Haven features new furniture, a spacious kitchen, a room full of shiny washers and dryers and a common room with a big-screen television. It's a far cry from the cramped, dingy house the program occupied until last month, staff members said.
"We wanted to make something comfortable for people, something they can be confident and proud in," said Steve Mood, executive director of Human Services program, a nonprofit corporation that operates several shelters under contract with the county.
"It'll absolutely boost the morale and self-confidence of the residents," added Jeanette Berger, associate director of HSP. "Compared to the old facility, this feels a lot more like home."
For residents of the 25-bed wing for the mentally ill, the shelter could be home for two years or more, Berger said. Residents of the eight-bed men's shelter are allowed to stay no more than three months and they are required to find employment, she added. The cold-weather shelter will house up to 20 people on a night-to-night basis, Berger said. The overall capacity is nearly double that of the old Safe Haven.
Mood, Berger and others recalled the persistent difficulties they faced to find a permanent home for the shelter.
The county commissioners first agreed that Carroll needed Safe Haven in 1995. But each time the county identified a possible site in Westminster, surrounding residents objected. The program stayed in Shoemaker House, an aging building adjacent to Carroll County General Hospital.
"People just would not accept it in their back yards," said former Commissioner Donald I. Dell, who held office throughout the Safe Haven battle. "But I guess the time lost was worth it now that we've found a site where it can operate without any controversy."
The new shelter is off Stoner Avenue, across a parking lot from Westminster Senior Center. The county donated the 2-acre site and $482,625 in construction costs. The state contributed $608,874, and Westminster added $60,000.
Four-term Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge said that, like Dell, she was happy to see the shelter open after years of contention. "It's important for people to know that Carroll County is growing, but as we're growing we're taking care of our citizens," she said.
Commissioner Perry L. Jones Jr. said he hopes people will remember the Safe Haven story as the county searches for places to put future social-service centers. He noted the objections that have flowed from neighborhoods near possible sites for a planned heroin treatment facility in Sykesville.
"We have to move forward on these needed projects," Jones said. "Sometimes that means we have to be the bad person and say we're going to do it whether people like it or not."
Those who have worked on the project said they were ready to move past politics.
"The atmosphere alone is uplifting vs. the old one of depression and dirtiness," said Mood.