Homeless find home, with privacy and dignity, at new Holden Hall

June 21, 1991|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Evening Sun Staff

The freshly painted room has just enough space for a single bed, dresser, small refrigerator, chair and night stand. The blue-striped top sheet and the brown-print bottom sheet clash. The only view is an overgrown, walled-in garden and the backs of houses on South Paca Street.

It looks good to Robert Millner. It looks much better to him than a 1979 Thunderbird or the Mercy Hospital emergency room, just two of the places where Millner spent the night last winter.

Millner, 48, is a resident of Holden Hall, Maryland's first single-room occupancy project for homeless men.

Twenty years ago, skid row motels and boarding houses provided similarly inexpensive accommodations, but most of those have shut down, forced out by development, gentrification and soaring real estate values.

As a result, non-profit agencies such as Associated Catholic Charities, the force behind Holden Hall, have taken what was once called a flop house and turned it into a social service project.

There are important differences. A social worker is available at Holden Hall, which can house up to 14 men. Those who live there must have been homeless, qualify for federal housing assistance and have incomes less than $9,100 a year.

Millner, who receives $205 a month in public assistance, pays $52 a month. This entitles him to his small but immaculate room and access to the communal areas of the three-story building: living room, kitchen, laundry room.

Most important to Millner, he gets a key.

"This key not only opens the door to my home and gets me off the street," he said at a ceremony yesterday celebrating Holden Hall's opening. "It also allows me to restore the dignity I lost on the street."

Slender and slight -- his beige trousers had to be belted tightly to stay on his narrow hips -- Millner was a construction worker when he cut his thumb on a cement mixer last October. A dark scar is still visible on his left hand.

His employer, Millner said, had not paid for workers' compensation insurance, so he received no benefits. Without his $375 weekly check, and without any savings to fall back on, he quickly found himself evicted from his Barclay apartment.

So he slept in his Thunderbird, until the car insurance lapsed. Then he started going to Mercy's waiting room at night. "I knew how it was in the emergency room. I just didn't sign my name on the waiting list, and I could stay there."

Eventually, Millner also worked his way through many of the city's shelters and missions. While he was staying at Christopher's House, he found out about Holden Hall and became the first to apply.

Holden Hall, which sits alongside St. Jerome's parish at West Hamburg and South Paca streets, is named for the church's first resident pastor, James P. Holden. Its coordinator, Sister Carol Rybicki, said it also has been known as "Hold On House" because she has been telling its would-be residents to hold on for much of the winter and spring.

Millner moved in June 6. His first night was, he said, "one of the best nights of my life." Although he no longer has to abide by a shelter's early curfews, he finds himself returning home every night by 8 or 9 p.m.

"It's like a dog at home," he explained. "If you tie the dog up, it's going to break the chain and run away, and you're going to be looking for that dog. But if you let it run free, that dog is going to be at the front door all the time."

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