A cold weather shelter for the homeless has opened at the North Point Government Center and nearby residents aren't happy they weren't informed of its creation.
The shelter, a Streets of Hope program run by a church collaborative, will be open roughly through the end of March, according to Ellen Kobler, a spokeswoman for Baltimore County.
Kobler said Tuesday the shelter is replacing a roving, week-to-week cold weather shelter formerly operated by a group of Dundalk churches.
Asked why the change was made, Kobler said, "This just seemed to be more convenient—it made more sense."
Community members are upset that the shelter is operating in the center, parts of which serve as community and recreation center for local residents.
Eastfield-Stanbrook resident Patricia Paul said she figured out what was going on by observing groups of homeless people gathering behind the school around dusk each evening.
"It wasn't hard to figure out the rest," Paul said in an email to Dundalk Patch. "The community was not given any notice. Recreation program leaders were not informed."
Eastfield-Stanbrook Civic Association President Karen Cruz said she "got wind" of the shelter's existence through a community resident.
"No, no one contacted our association," Cruz said in an email.
Debbie Staigerwald, the director of The Sky is the Limit community theater in residence at the center, also said she was not notified of the shelter opening in the buidling.
She said she figured it out after going to the theater one evening to do some work and seeing "a bunch of men with bags, hanging out behind the building, smoking."
While Staigerwald said she "feels for the homeless," she still believes county leaders had a responsibility to include the community in the decision to place the shelter where children play.
"Once again, we knew nothing about this," she said Wednesday. "We're not being told anything, and the message that comes across from that is 'you're not important, you don't count.'"
When told community residents are upset at yet another major decision affecting their quality of life being made without notice to or input from them, Kobler said notice of the shelter opening was made via the social network Twitter.
Baltimore County public safety officials "issued a Tweet about the shelter opening on Jan. 5," Kobler said in a phone interview Tuesday.
"Baltimore County DSS has activated a cold weather homeless shelter at the North Point Govt. Center," the county announced on its public safety Twitter account. "Hours are 7 p.m. to 7 a.m."
Cruz said a two-sentence online notice is not an appropriate way to let a community know of something as important as the creation of a homeless shelter.
"It appears this was deliberate to give the information about the county shelter to the least amount of residents possible," Cruz said. "No, it is not appropriate. If we had an actual dire emergency situation, is that how we would be notified? They could have put something in a newspaper."
Noting that Eastfield-Stanbrook residents are "more than upset" with the county's actions, Paul also said Twitter is not the way to communicate with residents.
"If you really don't want the information to be known by this community, then sending a Tweet was the right way to go," she said. "Most residents are not using social media for news. Many do not even have access to a cell phone or computer."
Kobler said giving the homeless residents a place to sleep during the winter is a win-win situation for everyone.
The homeless people are safer and healthier, and local communities don't have people sleeping in alleyways, local parks and behind businesses, Kobler said.
The government center shelter can accommodate 40 to 50 people and is open to men, women and children, according to Kobler.
How to handle Baltimore County's homeless population has been an emotional and logistical issue for years.
Dundalk residents believe their community bears too much of the county's responsibility when it comes to placing social services like clinics, shelters, domestic violence programs and subsidized housing.
A proposal by the Dundalk United Methodist Church to put a Streets of Hope homeless shelter at its vacant parsonage in Old Dundalk met with considerable opposition in 2011.
Streets of Hope is a collaboration of local churches that has in the past hosted a roving cold weather shelter that moved from church to church throughout the winter season.
Dundalk UMC eventually backed down and decided not to open the shelter.
The community is also in the process of fighting a proposal by Catholic Charities of Baltimore to place a permanent housing program for men ages 60 and older at the former St. Luke's Catholic Church convent in Edgemere.
Catholic Charities officials recently announced that they would change the target population of the program to "vulnerable adult women."
A zoning variance hearing regarding that proposal is set for next week.
The community also finds itself in the middle of two other important issues that residents think they have been left out of the conversation on — the proposed sale of the North Point Government Center land and the closure of Eastwood Elementary Magnet School.
A group of about 125 largely angry community resident met at the North Point Library on Jan. 12 to express their frustration with county leaders who have moved forward without input from the community; to share what information is known; and to formulate an action plan to fight the decisions being made by those county leaders.
Cruz said the county does not inform the community of major decisions and residents have to find out the information on their own.
"Baltimore County thinks so highly of its citizens?" she said in an email. "Again, there is something wrong with this picture. We expect more from our government."
Staigerwald agrees. She believes some of the moves being made, particularly with the proposed sale of the government center, amount to little more than a land grab by County Executive Kevin Kamenetz.
"This land belongs to us, and these people in office are the stewards of our public land," she said. "They shouldn't be selling our land just for the money.
"It's time for a change."