Gaddy shelter averts closing over violations

January 19, 1994|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Staff Writer Staff writer Melody Simmons contributed to this article.

One of Bea Gaddy's homeless shelters, facing 10 violations of the city's housing code, was almost shut down yesterday by city officials as temperatures fell well below freezing.

Officials had found other shelter beds for the 55 people staying at the converted West Baltimore warehouse and had promised to send a bus to take them to those shelters. But Ms. Gaddy and the residents refused to budge, forcing a showdown with Daniel P. Henson III, the city housing commissioner.

"I am not leaving here," Ms. Gaddy said at one point, surrounded by TV cameras, as U.S. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, a candidate for governor, worked the telephone, calling Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and an electrical company hired to make the necessary repairs.

"I will barricade myself in the building," said Ms. Gaddy, who alleged a city conspiracy to shut her down. "I will be locked up tonight, but I am not leaving here."

After the confrontation, Mr. Henson gave the shelter until Friday to correct the housing code violations -- and even promised to pay for a rear fire exit door.

"But I am not going to sleep very well tonight," he said after touring the cavernous building in the 2400 block of W. Baltimore St., where up to 70 beds sit inches apart, separated in most cases by nothing more than bedspreads on clotheslines.

"I'm homeless, and I sleep very well here," said Vella Pope, a mother

of three who has been staying at the shelter for several weeks.

Mr. Henson said later that he takes the matter seriously and will hold the shelter to the deadline.

Even if the building is repaired to meet housing code standards, it still will lack a permit to operate as a homeless shelter, one of the most difficult zoning variances to get in Baltimore. But Mr. Henson said the shelter can stay open while that issue is pending before the City Council.

The shelter is in an industrial neighborhood, and one of its closest neighbors is a methadone clinic.

City property records list another owner, but Ms. Gaddy says the warehouse was donated to her nonprofit organization, the Patterson Park Emergency Food Center, about two years ago. She first used the warehouse last winter as a shelter, she said, and moved her "furniture bank" to there last summer.

She decided this month to reopen the warehouse as a shelter. On Jan. 10, city housing inspectors visited and identified 10 violations -- including a lack of smoke detectors, improper storage of propane, extension cords used as permanent wiring and trash strewn throughout the building.

They gave the shelter a week to correct the problems.

Yesterday afternoon, a city housing inspector returned and ordered Ms. Gaddy and the homeless residents to leave the warehouse.

Ms. Gaddy went on the offensive, calling advisers including Mrs. Bentley, R-Md.-2nd. Although none of Ms. Gaddy's properties lies within the congresswoman's district, Mrs. Bentley has helped with the homeless advocate's annual Thanksgiving dinner.

No one seemed eager to proceed with the eviction. Police officers, drawn to the site by the commotion, seemed uncomfortable. Ms. Gaddy said the housing inspector who brought the order had tears in his eyes.

"I'm not comfortable with this; she is a nice person," said Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres, a Fire Department spokesman. "You're talking about a situation where she's trying to do a good thing for people in need, and unfortunately we have a job to see that they are safe wherever she houses them. Unfortunately, this building is not safe."

Today, workers from the city Housing Authority will visit the shelter to determine whether the residents are eligible for public housing, according to a joint statement issued last night by Mr. Schmoke and Mr. Henson. Federal guidelines allow homeless people to be given priority for such housing, and the city has 51 units available.

The officials also said city crews would be assigned to handle the most serious code violations.

"This was not a confrontational meeting, but an exploration of our mutual concerns regarding assistance for the homeless," Mr. Henson said in the statement. He added that the city was "put in a very difficult position" because Ms. Gaddy opened the shelter without complying with zoning regulations, and health and fire codes.

An electrical contractor is scheduled to begin work at the shelter today, at an estimated cost of $10,000. Ms. Gaddy said she will pay for that work with money donated to her nonprofit agency, which she estimates got $200,000 to $300,000 in cash donations last year.

The repair bill will practically wipe out her bank account, she said, adding that she has used recent donations to buy supplies and kitchen equipment for the shelter.

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