Homeless men find hope at Harford House

July 11, 1995|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,Sun Staff Writer

Two years ago, after three suicide attempts, a losing battle with alcoholism and too many nights in too many homeless shelters, Anthony Pinder checked into a hospital for treatment for what doctors said was manic depression.

Mr. Pinder later moved into a rehabilitation center. But he says his future was uncertain until he applied to be a resident at Harford House, a 7-month-old community on North Avenue for formerly homeless men.

Residents, counselors and city officials say Mr. Pinder is one of a growing number of success stories at Harford House, which since opening in December has filled 21 of its 26 single rooms. Most residents have found or are actively looking for jobs, and no one has had to be asked to leave.

The facility has more than enough applicants for remaining vacancies, which should be filled within two weeks, according to Anthony Vaughn, development administrator for the nonprofit Housing Assistance Corp., which manages the property.

"I was a traveler, moving through the shelters," said Mr. Pinder, as he sat in his room yesterday afternoon, wearing a freshly ironed dress shirt and smoking a cigarette. "I wanted a better life, and didn't want to go back to that. . . . This house is a safe environment."

Now Mr. Pinder, 28, has his own room, with a fish tank (he keeps "an Oscar and three Jack Dempseys" as pets), a personal computer (for programming and dialing into a commercial Internet service provider) and a picture of his bride-to-be, Rebecca, who is seven months pregnant.

He finished his classes at the rehabilitation center last month, and is studying at Catonsville Community College while searching for a job as a computer programmer.

"I feel my future is strong," Mr. Pinder said. "With the career I'm going into, I think Becky and I will be able to get our own place."

It is a cooperative venture, with residents paying 30 percent of their income as rent and electing a council of five to govern the house. Bernie Summers, a 54-year-old resident with experience in building work, has retiled the floor of the first-floor room used for meetings, pool and sessions in the computer education lab. He is also working, he says, on sanding a worn-looking piano in the corner.

Harford House, in the 1500 block of E. North Ave., gets federal, state and city funds, as well as gifts from churches and charitable organizations.

Even as they praise the fledgling program as money well-spent, officials acknowledge that one key to Harford's success is the careful screenings of candidates.

The men who are admitted to the house are interviewed for their willingness to live in a cooperative community and have been clean and sober for at least six months.

Residents, with the help of counselors employed by the nonprofit Govans Ecumenical Development Corporation (GEDCO), set written goals for their future careers, health care, education and volunteer work, and then follow them.

"You need to map it all out," said Lin Romano, the Harford House coordinator and only full-time staffer. "Many people have lost that skill. People see their goals on paper, and then say, 'I can do this. I can follow that map.' "

She said her ultimate goal is for residents to become so self-sufficient that most of the staff can move on to a new Harford-type house.

Residents of Harford House may live there indefinitely. Harford House residents were homeless for a variety of reasons. Mr. Summers was forced out of his apartment after losing his job with a realty firm. Frederick Douglas Sampson, "Sam" to fellow residents, is now a bus driver after a long period of drug abuse. Mike Jacoby, 43, is a Vietnam veteran who arrived two weeks ago from a homeless shelter. He has a bachelor's degree in chemistry and spends much of his time in the computer lab.

"I liked the privacy [of Harford House]," Mr. Sampson said. "I had already stayed in homeless shelters where you share rooms, and this is much better."

On its dreary section of North Avenue, Harford sparkles. Inside, the residents, who do the cooking and cleaning, keep the blue-gray carpets free of even the smallest speck of dust, and the fully furnished rooms offer cozy seats for views of Baltimore through small bay windows.

Last year, neighbors complained that the proposed house would bring undesirable people into an already troubled area. But Rosie Keene, president of the Oliver Community Association, a local neighborhood group, said relations between Harford and its neighbors warmed after Harford residents helped clear the sidewalk of snow and ice last winter.

"People were very leery at first," said Ms. Keene, who now works with the Harford House advisory council. "But there's no problem with them. They even keep the street clean."

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