Hope Ohler, who has lived all of her life near a building where Montgomery County officials plan to open a shelter for homeless men, stood in an elementary school meeting room last night and angrily confronted those officials about the impact of such a facility on her Silver Spring neighborhood.
"Why are you asking a group of family people to expose themselves, their children and their senior citizens to a shelter?" asked Ohler, 33, her voice shaking with emotion. "Why, I repeat, why? You come into our homes and ask us to accept this. I think you're asking an awful lot of the people who are paying your salary."
Ohler's statement, which drew enthusiastic applause from nearly 80 members of three civic associations from the Forest Glen section of the county, was but one dramatic moment in a tense two-hour meeting between residents and county officials who plan to open a 20-bed shelter near the neighborhood next month.
The scene at Woodlin Elementary School has been one often repeated in Montgomery over the last year as officials hoping to meet the needs of the county's poor have run up against like-minded residents who fear the impact of such shelters on their daily lives and families.
Last night, Charles L. Short, Montgomery's family resources director and the architect of a plan to expand the county's four-shelter network, argued once again in favor of opening a shelter in a vacant barracks building on the 180-acre Forest Glen annex of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
"No community will willingly accept a facility like this, but this is a reasonable plan," said Short, adding that he and his staff selected the Forest Glen building after an intensive months-long search for available space.
After 18 months of negotiations, county officials reached an agreement with the Department of Defense last week to open the shelter; the "fine details" of a two-year lease for the building will probably be resolved tomorrow, said Peter B. Esker, an Army spokesman who attended last night's meeting.
Esker later told members of the Forest Glen Park, Forest Glen and Linden Hills civic associations that they "can rest assured that your interests and concerns are concerns of ours." The Army will not tolerate a shelter whose overnight residents pose a threat to the 10 families who live at the annex or to other military personnel or property, Esker added.
But neither Esker's nor Short's statements appeared to mollify most of the residents. The 100-family Forest Glen Park Association first voted 14 to 6 to opppose any shelter plan. Minutes later, on a 15-to-8 vote, the association members, saying the shelter was a foregone conclusion, endorsed its opening on a six-month trial basis. Neither vote is binding on the county government.
"There are a number of charitable people in our community who, as a general proposition, think this shelter is a good idea," said Ty Cobb, 34, a senior lawyer on the staff of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Baltimore who has lived in the neighborhood for six years.
But, he added, "These people have a right to be concerned. The community has some needs that have to be met."
The residents presented Short with nine demands about the operation and security of the shelter, including specific rules on the maximum number of residents, a minimum staff of two, specially-designated buses to carry residents out of the neighborhood each morning and creation of a citizens advisory group. Short agreed to all, except a request that he negotiate a six-month trial lease with the Army.