Legal Aid, shelter battle over eviction

October 08, 1992|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Staff Writer

In late July, a woman living at an Annapolis shelter missed a meeting when she went out to buy milk for her infant daughter. The shelter told her to leave. Then, when she sought legal recourse, it closed.

The woman's plight has led to a bitter dispute between the Lutheran Mission Society of Maryland and the Legal Aid Bureau Inc., two statewide, non-profit organizations that help the poor.

Worried that she would end up on the street after being told to leave, the woman turned to the Legal Aid Bureau in Annapolis to avoid being evicted. Now she's the only mother left in the West Street shelter run by the society.

Attorney Mary Agnes Sheehan, representing the homeless woman, had notified the Lutheran welfare organization, which is run exclusively with money from churches and private donors, that it would have to follow state eviction procedures. She argued that the woman has a lease because she signed an agreement to pay the charity $45 a week for an apartment.

Richard L. Alms, executive director of the Lutheran Mission Society, claims the paper was strictly a "program agreement," not a lease. He also says the woman refused to participate in religious classes and counseling. The woman could not be reached for comment.

In a strongly worded letter to the bureau's board of directors, Mr. Alms said he was forced to discontinue the program for pregnant women and homeless mothers because the woman is still at the shelter.

"Legal Aid through intimidation tactics has jeopardized the entire program for unwed mothers indefinitely," he wrote in the Sept. 28 letter, which was sent to state and local officials and obtained by The Sun.

"What is most disturbing to me, and absolutely without excuse, is that due to action by Legal Aid a young lady is reportedly living in a Mission Society shelter in a lifestyle we would term 'mortal sin.' "

Mr. Alms declined to elaborate on the comments he made in the letter, other than to say the woman exhibits "blatant disregard" for the society's rules and regulations.

Charles H. Dorsey Jr., executive director of Legal Aid, which was organized in 1911 to provide legal services for the poor, said he was taken aback by the letter.

"We said this is a lease, and they have to follow the law to terminate the lease," he said. "I don't know how this makes us permitting her to live in sin. And I don't understand why they shouldn't let others in. Is she going to contaminate them?"

Mr. Alms said the mission on West Street is still providing food, clothing and counseling for poor families, but the three upstairs apartments have been temporarily closed. The society was organized in 1905 to help immigrant families in Baltimore and has continued to work with pregnant women, unwed mothers and needy families across Maryland, he said.

"Here are a couple of organizations trying to work together, but we're working at opposite ends," he said.

Women who apply for shelter must agree to participate in religious training and "really want to turn their lives around," he said.

Ms. Sheehan said her client was eager to participate in religious classes and simply missed one meeting while running an errand.

According to Ms. Sheehan, the woman upset Mr. Alms by missing an appointment with his wife. When the woman returned from signing up for free milk through the federally subsidized Women, Infants and Children program, she found a note under her door rescheduling the appointment for that afternoon. But she came back too late in the day to keep it, Ms. Sheehan said.

Ms. Sheehan said she has tried unsuccessfully to contact Mr. Alms for several weeks now. In his letter, Mr. Alms wrote that Ms. Sheehan "has not responded to a fax message or phone calls," and that she failed to understand the program's "spiritual meaning of 'tough love.' " Ms. Sheehan says she was never told that the shelter was a "tough love" program."

Meanwhile, Mr. Alms warned that "others desiring admission into the program will be refused until [the woman] has left the premises."

The case illustrates the difficulty in solving conflicts between homeless people and shelter providers, said Peter Sabonis, an attorney with the Homeless Project, a legal advocacy program for the homeless in Baltimore. Homeless people have been evicted from shelters for infractions as simple as failing to make a bed, said Mr. Sabonis.

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