Old police station will be new home for center that helps poor families

April 19, 1993|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

For decades it was Baltimore's Eastern District police station, a proud symbol of law and order amid of one of the city's poorest communities.

Now it will be the symbol of a different kind of law and order, but still a haven for those who need help starting out in life.

The Family Place is the name of a $1.4 million family support center that will open this fall inside the former police station at 1809 Ashland Ave. -- an 1885 structure that has stood vacant for the past decade.

The General Assembly appropriated $500,000 to ensure that construction begins this spring. The recipient is the Family Life Foundation Inc., a 4-year-old nonprofit organization committed to improving the quality of life in the city's Middle East neighborhood, through educational and support programs for young families.

The foundation is now based in a three-story town house that it leases at 801 N. Broadway. But the group has been raising money for more than a year to rehabilitate the city-owned police station for use as its permanent home.

The state money, combined with other public and private funds already committed to the project, brings the group within $100,000 of its $1.4 million fund-raising goal, said Executive Director Jessica Strauss.

"We're all ready to go," she said. "The capital campaign is not finished, but we finally have enough to proceed with development."

The foundation's project is one of 15 family support centers statewide that are coordinated by Friends of the Family Inc.

The Broadway center was created by a consortium that included the Kennedy Krieger Institute, James Rouse's Enterprise Foundation, and the Middle East Community Organization (MECO). It primarily serves young mothers with children up to age 3, offering "family skills" courses such as parenting, nutrition, budgeting and adult literacy. It also helps participants obtain high school equivalency certificates and find jobs.

Bounded by Broadway, Patterson Park Avenue, and Biddle and Orleans streets, Middle East is one of the city's poorest communities, with an unemployment rate of 24 percent.

In 1992, the Family Life Foundation's Middle East support center served 840 people -- up from 650 in 1991 and 350 in 1990.

"The whole idea is to get these young mothers up on their feet so they can take care of their own families," said Lucille Gorham, president of the board of the Family Life Foundation and head of MECO. "It also provides a place for community meetings, after-school programs and other activities.

"These are not traditional social service, handout, fix-it, temporary solutions," Ms. Strauss said. "What we're trying to do is help people make their dreams, turn them into goals, set a path and then remove the obstacles to them. . . . The community really wants to see it happen."

When complete, the refurbished police station will provide four times as much space as the town house on Broadway and will enable the center to serve an estimated 2,000 people a year, Ms. Strauss said.

It will also solve a long-standing problem for MECO, which has been looking for ways to remove the blighting influence of the boarded-up police station.

Ms. Gorham said the building was last used by the police department in the 1960s, before the present Eastern District station opened at 1620 Edison Highway.

The Ashland Avenue building was then used as a branch of the city's Urban Services Agency until a decade ago.

"It was a great place for the Urban Services Agency," Ms. Gorham said. "It was always a community service center, a social building. We want it to be a beacon of hope for the neighborhood."

Ms. Strauss said the expanded center will have room for additional services, including health screening clinics, job training and other employment assistance programs, and possibly child care.

She said she believes the project received state funding because legislators see the program's long-term value.

"We're a prevention-oriented program," she said. "We're trying to help people build their lives in such a way that they won't need public assistance later on, such as welfare. It costs $6,000 a year in welfare support payments for the average baby born to a teen-age mother. Foster care costs even more. If you can prevent that kind of expenditure, you're saving the state a lot of money, and the legislature responds to that."

The Family Life Foundation has set May 25 as the date by which it hopes to raise the final $100,000 of its $1.4 million capital campaign. On Wednesday, the city's Board of Estimates is expected to vote on a request to provide $324,000 to begin construction. The city has already donated $26,000 for preliminary roof work.

Other donors include the Abell Foundation and the Merrick France Foundation.

Donations for the police station conversion can be sent to the Family Place, 801 N. Broadway, Baltimore, Md. 21205

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