Commissioners approve shelter zoning change

LifeStyles of Maryland Inc. executive director Sandy Washington, right, testifies before the Charles County Board of Directors Tuesday evening prior to a vote that granted LifeStyles’ request for a zoning change that would allow the placement of homeless shelters in general industrial zones in Charles County.

Dozens of supporters cheered, applauded, and waved yellow house-shaped placards following a unanimous vote by the Board of Charles County Commissioners Tuesday evening that clears the way for LifeStyles of Maryland Inc. of La Plata to operate a permanent homeless shelter in White Plains.

The favorable vote, which had been widely expected, followed a public hearing during which five people testified in favor of the Charles County Planning Commission’s recommendation that the county’s zoning regulations be changed to allow homeless shelters to operate in areas zoned for general industrial uses elsewhere in the county.

LifeStyles has undertaken renovation of a building located on Theodore Green Boulevard near the Charles County Department of Health that was formerly the site of a church and an appliance store.

When it opens, the facility will provide 50 emergency shelter beds year-round to homeless individuals and families. People will be able to stay in the facility during the day, and LifeStyles will provide residents with services and be available to help people find permanent housing solutions.

LifeStyles intends to arrange for school buses to stop at the facility to pick up and drop off children who are living there.

At last count, there are just over 700 homeless children enrolled in Charles County’s public schools.

The new shelter, the county’s first permanent homeless shelter, will also enable LifeStyles to supplement its overnight hypothermia shelter program called Safe Nights, in which 29 churches throughout Charles County take turns providing beds as well as breakfasts and dinners to the county’s homeless population every winter between October and April.

The Maryland Independent understands that several businesses in the industrial area have expressed interest in working with residents to provide them with job skills training to help them transition out of homelessness.

In testimony before the planning commission last month, attorney Sue A. Greer, who has represented LifeStyles during its efforts to change the zoning ordinance, noted that industrial zones have the advantage of being able to accommodate larger facilities and are often located close to transit stops.

LifeStyles executive director Sandy Washington told the commissioners that the organization’s leadership and partners decided to undertake the process of establishing a permanent shelter because of the unexpectedly large number of homeless residents who sought shelter this past winter, which overwhelmed the participating churches.

“Over the last year, we encountered nights where we had in excess of 80 people needing shelter for the night,” Washington said. “This is beyond anything we had ever seen before, and what we saw is that the trend is not going down, it’s going up.”

“In addition to that, Safe Nights ends in April, and what happens year-round when people are needing shelter and we’re still getting calls?” Washington said. “Where should people go? We knew that bed spaces available in our county were limited or nonexistent and so there was a need to expand our services and to be able to provide shelter year-round.”

Washington said that locating the shelter in an industrial zone rather than in a residential neighborhood allowed the organization to sidestep the possibility of encountering resistance from residents who did not want to have a homeless shelter in their community.

“What we saw was that certainly in a light industrial zone, we could accommodate the kind of shelter we needed to have in our community” and would offer opportunities for employment and transportation access.

“We looked at all of those things and thought, ‘This is where we need to go,’ and ... that has brought us to this point.”

Commissioners’ President Reuben B. Collins II (D) has said that one of the county commissioners’ goals is to improve services for the county’s homeless and financially vulnerable residents as well as increasing the county’s affordable housing stock.

According to a recent study by the American Planning Association, nearly 7,000 households in the county spend more than half of their gross income on housing in a given year

The study found that last year Charles County had an “unmet demand” for 1,375 affordable housing units for households that earn between 30% and 80% of the median family income of $110,300 for a family of four, as established by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Twitter: @PaulIndyNews

Twitter: @​PaulIndyNews