Plans for a 24-hour crisis center have been significantly altered so the facility wouldn't include a homeless shelter and would require about half the space of the previous proposal, which riled residents in several communities, officials said last week.
Under the new plan, the center, which has been the subject of several controversial hearings, would house various hotline workers, a mobile crisis team, counselors to help walk-ins and administrative staff. Also, the 32-bed Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center, adjacent to Atholton High School, would be expanded to accommodate 18 more beds.
Andrea Ingram, executive director of Grassroots, the nonprofit that operates the county's only homeless shelter, said the plans were changed to appease the strong -- sometimes vitriolic -- opposition from county residents who protested proposals to locate at several different sites.
"When we were out in the community, we were hearing a lot of concerns about the size of the facility," she said. "And they had concerns about the shelter. While I think their fears are unwarranted, we're trying to be responsive. . . . If this is what we have to do to make this work, this is what we'll do."
The center would be reduced from 33,000 square feet to between 17,000 and 20,000 square feet, she said. And it would require just 2.5 acres -- not the 5.5 initially proposed. It might even be located at a commercial site, she said.
Grassroots would renovate its shelter to accommodate the additional beds, although Ingram said that still would not come even close to meeting the county's needs. She said she did not know how much the changes would affect the overall cost. Previously, officials estimated that the center, housing both the shelter and other services, would cost about $6.5 million.
The center was planned as the first in the county, a central location to address various problems, including drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, sexual trauma and mental illness. Ingram and others said Howard is now providing a patchwork of social services, even as the need in Maryland's wealthiest county reaches a high.
During the last year, Grassroots had 2,747 requests for stays at its homeless shelter. But because of limited resources, it could handle only 150, or less than 6 percent.
In October alone, the domestic violence center hotline received almost 500 calls, and police reported 69 runaways and 11 suicides.
"Anyone who believes that Howard County doesn't have problems needs to open their eyes," Ingram said.
With a new plan, she said officials are scouring the county for a site that won't draw such opposition. Among the locations previously being considered were Rouse-owned properties, already designated for public use, in Long Reach and Kings Contrivance; a county-owned location near the Brightfield Farms townhouse complex outside Columbia; and the historic Harriett Tubman School, near Atholton High.
Ingram said those sites still will be considered for a center without the homeless shelter. "None of those places were ever taken off the table," she said.
Meanwhile, Del. Elizabeth Bobo (D-Howard) said she has requested a list of all state-owned property in Howard to see whether there's a suitable site for the center. She said county officials may be more willing to get behind the center now that elections are over.
"I think, frankly, part of the opposition related to that fact that it was an election year," she said.
Ken Ulman, West Columbia County Council member-elect, said removing the shelter from the center would make it easier to find a site.
"We're not talking about building a huge $6.5 million building in someone's neighborhood," he said. "We're talking about finding some office space."
The project has bipartisan support, said council member Allan H. Kittleman (R-West County). "I certainly hope it will start moving now."