What began two months ago as a proposal to provide shelter for the battered women of Prince George's County has become a tangled web of missed political connections, confused second-hand information and increased suspicion by neighborhood residents that may succeed in endangering the entire project.
"This is truly unfortunate," said County Council member Paris N. Glendening last week. "I completely support the concept behind this whole thing. But it's been gone about all wrong, and when you go to put in a group home anywhere, if you don't do your homework, it will be a disaster."
Elizabeth Fisher was working with abused women at the House of Ruth in the District last June when she first began talking with county, business and professional groups interested in providing a shelter for the abused women of Prince George's County. After forming a nonprofit group called Assisi based on the concept of the House of Ruth, Fisher was able to find a house just inside the District line for immediate crisis help for county women. But, in order to obtain funding through the county Department of Social Services, Assisi needed to find a home inside the county.
In early August, Fisher found a four-story home in Mount Rainier that had formerly been used as a rooming house. Then, Fisher said recently, she called the mayor of Mount Rainier, Lavinaia Hall, and spoke to her and to several residents and business in the area about the shelter. She said she got "good vibes" from them and rented the house.
Later that week she went to the County Council "to introduce ourselves" and "paid a personal call to Nall and the police chief." Fisher said she found that the people she talked to supported her proposal, and she obtained verbal support for the project from at least two members of the County Council.
One person she didn't "touch base" with, however, was City Council member Charlotte MacDonald, who represents the ward in which shelter is located. "I had been asking people who to go talk to and nobody mentioned MacDonald," said Fisher. "She was really upset that we hadn't approached her."
When MacDonald expressed her opposition to locating the shelter in her ward, Mayor Nall also came out against the shelter locating within city limits. Nall said she knew nothing of the project until she saw it in the paper.
"She should have come to the city first before telling the County Council about this," Nall said. "It's the municipality that has to take care of the problems here."
Then, Fisher said, the gossip began.
"They said there would be prostitues in here, and the house would bring drugs, liquor and (illegal) sex into the neighborhood," Fisher said. "We have an 11 p.m. curfew and there is no liquor allowed, and no men."
Nall said, "The people don't want it in the city. If it were entirely our people who would benefit, it would be all right. But this should be in the open country where the county can oversee it. Already there were children of some lady in the house who were out running in the street and wouldn't get out."
Fisher said the incident involved children of a woman who was cleaning the house before Assisi moved in."When I first went around here people were all for us, but now they are scared to death," Fisher said. "Their attitudes have changed, and the gossip is getting out of hand."
"You have to remember that politicians are very jealous of their prerogatives," one county observer close to the project said this week. "The city officials felt spurned, and like all politicians, they are often petty."
Last week the innuendo, rumors and paranoia over the project came to a head. Late Tuesday night, after the regular Mount Rainier City Council meeting, an Assisi volunteer called Fisher and told her the council had decided to "close the place up." According to Fisher, there were 10 women in the shelter at the time, and she sent them to other quarters and called several supporters complaining about the problem.
Those people reacted by calling Glendening, a County Council member who has been following the progress of the shelter from the beginning. After checking with an aide who had attended the City Council meeting, Glendening, found the council had made no such order to close the Assisi house.
"I was irritated because I was trying to help them out and it seems all they do is get people more angry at them."
After the calls, Glendening set up a meeting last week with Fisher and several of her supporters to talk over the controversy.
"I told them to limit their intak of women, get their offices out of there and look for alternative sites," Glendening said. "I told them, let the neighborhood see how you are."
Fisher is following the advice. She said the Mount Rainier house will only be used as "second-stage housing" in which Assisi will rent out rooms to women who are trying to seek "a new life." Fisher said she is moving her office to District Heights.
The shelter now plans to file for a county use and occupany permit they need to continue renting rooms in the house. A hearing on the permit is expected on Wednesday.
"You know the thing that has gotten lost in this is the battered woman," Fisher said. "We have received a lot of public attention over this, and we are getting more and more calls from women in Prince George's who need us. A battered woman is a dependent person. After all of those years of a husband telling her what to do, she has to have time, a place to work the problems out. This is a place to do that.
"I invited (the City Council) down here to a coffee last week, and they didn't come. If they would give us a chance to see how we are and how much we can contribute, I know they would support us."