After a year's operation in the heart of Bethesda's business district, the sponsors of a 15-bed shelter for homeless men have reached a truce of sorts with the merchants who once vehemently opposed the facility, according to store owners and Montgomery County officials.
"I'm still opposed to it, but everything's worked out fine," said James A. Finigan III, the owner of a sporting goods store across the street from the shelter at 4848 Cordell Ave. Finigan added that he has had "no major problems" with the hundreds of men who have used the shelter since its opening in November 1983.
In fall 1983, Montgomery officials caused a storm of protest when they announced plans to open the shelter in a building where the county ran an alcoholism treatment center for two years. The county said the shelter, which includes a soup kitchen, was needed to assist a growing number of homeless persons. The building's renovation was speeded so the halfway house could open before winter arrived.
But nine Bethesda merchants went to court to block the opening of the shelter, saying it would "irreparably harm" business in the downtown commercial area. A Montgomery County Circuit Court judge blocked the opening, but his order expired two weeks later.
For the past year, the shelter "has been running smoothly, with no major incidents," said Gail R. Nachman, a county official who was instrumental in establishing the facility.
Nachman met last week with several local merchants, who reported that some homeless men continue to sleep in nearby alleys and building lobbies instead of at the shelter, which can accommodate as many as 18 men.
Other homeless men have been loitering in Cordell Avenue shops but have caused no major disturbances, officials said.
The shelter probably has attracted "a few odds-and-ends street people that Bethesda wasn't used to," said Finigan, who opened his Cordell Avenue shop in 1967. But he added, "There is a definite need for something like this."
Montgomery County pays the Salvation Army $75,000 a year to operate the shelter, which had a 97.6 percent occupancy rate during the first nine months of this year, Nachman said.
The county recently opened a second shelter for homeless men, with 20 beds, in an old barracks at Walter Reed Hospital in Forest Glen. Some residents of the area have opposed it, saying it poses security problems.