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Work in progress, new shelter will offer more help

The Baltimore Sun

Behind the wind-whipped construction plastic shielding unfinished stucco walls, Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center Director Andrea Ingram walked the hallways of the new two-story homeless shelter being built on Freetown Road that she hopes to be using by March.

The $5.5 million, Howard County-owned facility is a work in progress, with last week's tour revealing unpainted purple wallboard, yards of wiring, dusty floors and open entrances awaiting completion. Outside, what is to be a small playground for children is bare dirt.

The 25,000-square-foot structure - more than three times the size of the group's former 8,000-square-foot, single-story building - was originally expected to be ready in November, but like many construction jobs, it is taking longer.

The new building was designed in a "u" shape for Grassroots' programs, allowing each room to have windows, and with a courtyard giving residents quiet outside space.

Instead of 33 beds, the county's primary homeless shelter will have 55, with women and children on the first floor and an 18-bed men's shelter on the second. Ingram said families will be housed together. There will be space for a computer homework room for children, administrative offices and other programs, such as the Mobile Crisis Team.

Despite the dust and clutter, Ingram was excited about the commercial-size kitchen and the big, sunny community rooms designed for family activities and staff conferences. As the occupancy date nears, Ingram is meeting frequently with architects, staff members, builders and county officials, including David W. Loudermilk, an engineer with the county's Bureau of Facilities.

"Here is the emergency overnight room," she said, gesturing at an open doorway to an unfinished room, as tube-shaped portable heaters blew warm air through the cold hallways.

Even with tools and building materials everywhere, with workers installing heating ducts, electrical wiring and ceiling tiles, the contrast was clear with Grassroots' old building, which was in an old converted Harriet Tubman High School annex next to Atholton High School. The annex was torn down to make way for the new shelter.

In the old building, emergency bed space was in a cramped conference room converted for double duty, or sometimes in a hallway. There was little room for storage, staff meetings, conferences or programs. And little private space was available for families or children.

"We spent months meeting with Andrea and the staff, to get to know them" and their needs, said Kristen Hogue, an architect with Gant-Brunnett Architects, the Baltimore firm that designed the new building, down to details such as the blinds contained between panes of glass in the insulated windows.

"In the other building, blinds didn't last 10 minutes, and curtains don't really last," Ingram said. The new building will also have a staff lounge, which can be important, too, she said.

"People are here for 24 hours. People get stuck here for days," Ingram said about Grassroots workers.

Not everyone is happy about the new facility's size, though Ingram said she has had generally positive feedback from residential neighbors.

Troy and Andrea Gibson have lived for a dozen years on Freetown Road in a detached home next to, and on a slightly lower lot than Grassroots. They knew about the project, they said, but had little idea how large the building would be until the shell was up, they said.

"It's a monster, but we've been here for 12 years," Troy Gibson said. "At this point, there's not a whole lot we can do about it."

Grassroots has been using a rented a cottage on the campus of Sheppard Pratt's Ellicott City campus for the past year for the homeless shelter, plus the extra 20 shelter beds provided by a string of county churches from November through March. Grassroots' administrative staff is using a county-owned house on Vollmerhausen Road in Savage until the new quarters are ready.

Ingram said that $196,000 in federal funds included in an omnibus congressional budget bill signed last month by President Bush provides the match money guaranteeing a $400,000 donation from the Weinberg Foundation.

"I think this really puts us there. We've been really crossing our fingers and counting on this" Ingram said.

Beyond construction money, she said, Grassroots has raised $25,000 of the roughly $40,000 needed for residential furniture. Corporate Office Properties Trust, the county's largest commercial office developer, is donating office furniture for administrative and program use.

Ingram said the building's kitchen needs cooking and serving utensils and "a couple of refrigerators. I hesitate to say we're finished," she said.

"When you include all these other incidentals, I don't think we could raise too much [money]," Ingram said.


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