Anne Arundel County's first shelter for the homeless, a pair of renovated Army barracks at Fort Meade capable of housing up to 34 women and their young children, will open today after years of red tape and financial problems.

Sarah's House, a $700,000 project with a 16-person staff, is the product of a three-year effort by County Executive O. James Lighthizer and concerned citizens to provide housing for the county's destitute.

The shelter will be operated under contract with the Associated Catholic Charities. Homeless people referred there by the county's social services department will be housed in one building and fed in another.

"It's a step in the right direction," advocate for the homeless Mitch Snyder said of Sarah's House. "We're seeing a lot of activity in the Washington suburbs to aid the homeless. But while more is being done these days, it's still not enough."

A shelter for men, also at Fort Meade, has not been finished and county officials have not announced when it will be ready.

The project for the women's shelter was launched in the fall of 1985 when the Army signed a two-year lease with the county and the Department of Defense agreed to provide $600,000 to renovate three World War II barracks in southwestern Anne Arundel County.