Homeless help now is under a single roof New Park Avenue facility combines three services.

May 26, 1992|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Staff Writer

The homeless man had a minor legal problem and a serious drinking problem. Staff at the Homeless Persons Representation Project tried to direct him to a clinic for the homeless, hoping he would walk the six blocks to find out about a detoxification program. Instead, he just left.

For Baltimore's homeless population, estimated at 2,600 on any given night, finding the help they need can involve an overwhelming obstacle course through city streets, as they trudge from agency to agency, in between the searches for shelter and food. Easily discouraged, they sometimes just give up.

But at The Center on Park Avenue, a former Equitable Trust branch, three non-profit agencies serving the homeless are now under the same roof: the Representation Project, which provides free legal aid; Health Care for the Homeless; and People Aiding the Homeless (PATH), which offers emergency assistance and job training.

This week, The Center will celebrate its official opening with the state and city officials who helped to make it possible. The state authorized a $600,000 bond for the $1.6 million project, allowing the clinic and PATH to purchase the building.

The consolidation of services puts Baltimore in the vanguard of homeless services nationwide, alongside cities such as Los Angeles, New York and Washington, all with significantly larger homeless populations.

But Norma Pinette of Action for the Homeless said that while the umbrella operation is a good start, the city still lacks a centralized system that could monitor the availability of shelter beds, for example, or reduce the number of social workers a homeless person must see.

"There still isn't that one number to call to get you somewhere," Ms. Pinette said. "It's nice that it's under one roof, but it's as much for cost-efficiency as it is for the homeless person."

Joanne Selinske, who runs the Mayor's Office of Homeless Services, said a report is expected within a month, detailing the possibility of "centralized intake" at one city site, which would be the equivalent of Ms. Pinette's "one number to call." The city also is looking into improving case management for homeless families.

If the city does pursue the one-site shelter information center, it probably will face some of the same problems and unusual considerations with which this trio of non-profits wrestled.

For example, in Charleston, S.C., a similar project ended up making services less accessible to mentally ill homeless people, overwhelmed by the larger space and increased number of people, said Jeff Singer of Health Care for the Homeless.

Such considerations fed into the design for the Baltimore facility, said Dawn Fisk-Thomsen of PATH, and led to discussions of how to create a comfortable place without making it inappropriately opulent.

"It would not be plush. It would not be excessive," she said. "There's always been some debate about working with poor people, whether you ought to be in poor surroundings. But they should not have to deal with broken chairs, scarred walls, elevators that don't work and cockroaches -- all things that we left behind in our old buildings."

The result is a simple, no-frills building with fresh paint (shades of mauve, gray and turquoise), industrial carpet and a few unusual "art objects" -- vault doors and etched panes of glass, one marked "Savings Deposit."

Clients have quickly found their way to the new location, up and running since April. On a busy morning last week, homeless men and women filed in and out of the lobby, but the high-ceilinged room was hushed, a serene place for those waiting.

William Brown, 33, had come for an eye exam. Although he most frequently uses the clinic, he also relies on PATH's crisis services. Once, trying to visit both in one day meant a walk of more than two miles, from the clinic on Liberty Street to PATH's offices on 26th Street.

"It's a lot more convenient since they are combined," he said. "It's a whole lot better. The security was necessary, I can say that."

Because of the cost savings, The Center can afford a security guard, as well as a receptionist who directs clients to the proper agencies.

Mr. Brown also is proof that the three agencies sometimes go above and beyond their defined roles. The workers at Health Care for the Homeless helped him sign up for disability pay and the waiting list for public housing. Two weeks ago, he moved into Lafayette Courts, after three years on the streets.

Of course, some may wonder why someone like Mr. Brown, unemployed for much of the time he was homeless, would need convenience. Time would seem to be the one commodity of which he had plenty.

Mr. Brown said people don't understand how homelessness defeats a person, making the simplest tasks seem impossible. "People have a tendency to give up on you," he said. "Then you give up on yourself."

Ms. Pinette, of Action for the Homeless, said discussing centralized services in terms of convenience misses the point. Nothing is truly easy for someone who is without shelter, she said.

"The system is very complicated to begin with. If you're worried about where you're going to sleep that night, it's hard to maintain the struggle," she said.

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