Viva House Of Hospitality

November 27, 1992|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Staff writer

Viva House, like McDonald's, could hang a sign outside its Mount Street location: Over 250,000 served.

But the lay workers at this Catholic Worker House of Hospitality in Southwest Baltimore see little reason to exult over the seemingly never-ending need for the hot meals and bags of food they distribute each month.

Three times a week, an average of 200-plus neighborhood residents come to this Union Square institution for an early-evening meal or food to go. By month's end, as welfare checks and food stamps run out, the crowd grows to more than 300. Sunday's special Thanksgiving Dinner drew more than 400 people.

And, consistently, at least 20 percent of the diners are children.

That's quite a change, said director Brendan Walsh, from when Viva House opened in 1968. Back then, in a city with only a handful of soup kitchens, Viva House served perhaps 70 people at each meal. There were no children, no families. Just destitute, single adults, usually over age 50.

"When we moved in, people were going to work to some degree," Mr. Walsh said. "Now, we think half the neighborhood is never going to work again."

Mr. Walsh bases his claim on statistics from the 13 census tracts from which Viva House draws its clients. According to his calculations, the surrounding neighborhoods have a drop-out rate of 13 percent, crime is rampant, and a large portion of the housing stock is abandoned or vacant. The only work available, Mr. Walsh says, usually is part-time and without benefits.

So Viva House, with its six resident volunteers and 60 more volunteers from the community, goes on. The workers raise the entire $30,000 annual budget through their own fund-raising efforts.

"We figure if you don't take anything from the established charities, then if something goes wrong, you're free to criticize, or at least challenge," Mr. Walsh explained.

"We look upon it not as charity, but as justice," he said of Viva House's mission. "We think the food replaces what has been stolen from these people. Jobs, in this case."

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