Two lamps shine through the shaded windows of the Light House, a glowing beacon for the hungry and homeless, the weary and unemployed.
But the new lights could be switched off in an instant if neighbors succeed in stopping the homeless shelter from opening on West Street in Annapolis.
Fearing the project would hurt efforts to revitalize the neighborhood, two groups have filed a lawsuit challenging the zoning decision that allowed a former convenience store to be converted into an emergency shelter for the homeless.
Unable to settle the dispute out of court, the Light House submitted its answer two weeks ago. Both sides now are waiting for a hearing in Anne Arundel Circuit Court, said Wayne T. Kosmerl, attorney for the Presidents Hill Community Association and the Inner West Street Association.
The Light House, founded two years ago by Annapolis Area Ministries, is a roving emergency shelter that moves from church to church. The ecumenical group decided to find a permanent home for the shelter earlier this year and settled on the former Capitol Convenience store at 202-206 West St.
Although Annapolis Area Ministries received the green light from both City Council and the city zoning board, dismayed business owners and residents in the area promptly challenged the decision.
While the Light House remains in legal limbo, evicted families and homeless men can find an overnight refuge four days a week at the Charles Carroll House, a historic brick house owned by St. Mary's Catholic Church in Annapolis. The church agreed to continue hosting the emergency shelter there until the suit is settled.
Julia P. Simmons, acting shelter director, hopes the legal snarl can be untangled by the time the temperature dips into the teens, forcing the homeless to abandon hideouts in battered cars or in the shadows of concrete bridges.
"It's not an ideal situation right now because we're not really set up to offer shelter seven days a week," she said. "We never turn anyone away, but that means we end up spending a lot on motel rooms, especially in the winter."
Annapolis Area Ministries, a coalition of six churches, doled out more than $600 a month last winter, renting motel rooms for homeless families.
Because it has only eight beds, even single men occasionally have had to be placed in motels.
Plans to transform the dilapidated Capitol Convenience store into a 12-bed shelter and two overnight apartments have been on hold since the lawsuit was filed. But Simmons and the 350 volunteers who divide shifts at the shelter or cook dinners for the homeless are not discouraged. They have more than a little faith.
Simmons applied for a permit a few weeks ago to move the shelter office from her dining room into the two-story, red-brick building at the corner of West Street and Madison Avenue. Volunteers blitzed the walls in the front room with fresh paint and donated several desks, lamps and file cabinets to open the office.
The move confused some faithful shoppers and lottery players. Nearly every day, a puzzled customer walks in the door and looks dumbfounded at the barren deli counter, Simmons said.
"We've had a couple people come in who were very irate when they couldn't buy their liquor or lottery tickets anymore," she said with a chuckle.
Homeless men and women; stranded, newly-divorced mothers; and families who suddenly have their electricity cut off are more frequent visitors.
From behind her desk in the narrow entrance, Virginia Shea, a 31-year-old social work student at the University of Maryland in Baltimore County who is working part-time as a caseworker, fields a steady stream of requests for help.
Both she and Simmons resisted the urge to paint the chipping, mustard-yellow walls and install new carpeting by concentrating on the task of finding shelter and food for the "guests." The Light House already sheltered 136 homeless people, including a stranded, newlywed couple, in the first six months of 1990.
"In a way this may turn to be a blessing because we can deal with things on a slower pace and organize as we go along," said Simmons, who added that Annapolis Area Ministries now is ready to immediately start renovations if the suit is settled in the group's favor.
"Yeah, it would be nice to have the floor redone, but we're focusing our energies on other things."
Volunteers are using the enforced wait to raise money to pay off the low-interest, short-term $400,000 mortgage on the West Street building and also offset the shelter's estimated $74,000 operating budget.
Joyce Caughman Morris, a real-estate agent with Long & Foster Realtors in Annapolis, arranged to sell designer ceramic pins to raise money for the shelter. She wrote all 40 real-estate agencies in the Annapolis area asking them to carry the miniature house pins. From each $10 pin, $4 is earmarked for the Light House.
Simmons also spends time each week reassuring neighbors that homeless who are drunk or under the influence of drugs automatically will be turned away from the shelter and asked to leave the neighborhood. The shelter's board of directors drew up a detailed management plan to ease the neighbors' fears, agreed to set up an advisory committee and promised people only could use the food pantry by appointment.
Many neighbors remain unconvinced. But Simmons' efforts have paid off with at least one resident.
"Once I found out who's running it, I wasn't worried," said the neighbor, who asked not to be identified. "She's very efficient. Right now, I don't have any concerns."