Advocate for homeless defies officials to renovate rowhouse as a shelter

November 08, 1992|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Staff Writer

The sign outside of 1743 E. Eager St. proclaims: "The Riker (Rocky) McKenzie Human Development Center, Inc."

But Rocky McKenzie has been warned not to set foot inside.

The Housing Authority of Baltimore City, which owns the property, has forbidden Mr. McKenzie and his supporters from operating a homeless shelter in the once derelict building that they renovated with their own money.

Not only has Mr. McKenzie ignored the housing department's Oct. 26 order, but he intends to move a young welfare mother and her four children into the house this week.

A 44-year-old vice president of Local 333 of the International Longshoreman's Association, Mr. McKenzie believes he is putting something back into the neighborhood where he grew up.

The community near Johns Hopkins Hospital is plagued with drugs and crime and many of its buildings are boarded up.

"In less than six weeks, with our own money, a building that was vacant for three years has been made livable," Mr. McKenzie said yesterday as work continued on the building.

"And the city's going to give me a hassle about some red tape? If we went through all of their so-called proper procedures we would never have gotten this far.

"These people are going to be in a house with some damn heat and real beds and real windows and all the things a normal house should have. They can send the sheriff down here to lock me up, but we're moving them in."

The Housing Authority says that Mr. McKenzie's non-profit group renovated the building -- putting in new plumbing, electricity, heating and walls -- without proper permits, permit fees, or city approval of construction plans.

"These are very elegant squatters," said one housing source familiar with the project.

Bill Toohey, spokesman for the housing authority, said: "We were going to put out bids on the building this December to have it renovated for a permanent family to move in.

That block is not zoned for a homeless shelter. By federal law, that house is reserved for public housing."

But Mr. McKenzie argues that poor people have been waiting too long for something good to happen in the 1700 block of East Eager Street.

People like Geniece Brenner, 27, and her four young children -- the family that now lives next door at 1745 E. Eager St. in a $225-a-month rowhouse with boarded-up windows and a stove that isn't hooked up.

"The house is just no good," said Ms. Brenner yesterday, while filling out an application for temporary shelter at the McKenzie center. "The floors are coming apart and the kitchen ceiling could fall at any time."

TC The shelter next door was worse than that when the McKenzie project began. Mr. McKenzie has pictures of hypodermic needles littering the building before his group moved in on Sept. 12 and claims at least three people died from overdoses there.

He has collected more than 500 signatures on petitions supporting his work.

"I wanted to do something creative in this particular neighborhood where I grew up," he said, saying the shelter is the first step in a range of community programs he hopes to institute.

"To come back with other black men and get involved as positive role models. To say to the neighborhood:'We're here for you economically and spiritually.' "

Edith Thompson has lived in the 1700 block of E. Eager Street since 1934. She remembers when it was a solid African-American neighborhood of two-parent families where kids could get jobs at the corner grocery store.

"To me, it was elite," Mrs. Thompson said.

"Today I wouldn't sit out on my front steps. Who with good sense would sit out there now? I'm in jail in my own house."

Mr. McKenzie says he remembers that, when he was a child, Mrs. Thompson would keep the neighborhood kids in line.

"These things -- the drugs and the crime -- weren't happening when I was raised here," he said.

"Church and prayer are fine, but we need to do things to help each other. I'm not begging the city to help us. We came in with our own resources."

Mr. McKenzie said he has learned about such things from Bea Gaddy, the legendary East Baltimore woman who has fed and sheltered the poor from a Collington Street rowhouse near Patterson Park since 1979.

"She told me to make sure that I was ready to do this, because there's going to be times when nobody is going to be around to help," he said.

"She said that it would get heavy and there will be times when you'll want to throw up your hands."

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