Neighborhood's activists get results in Congress

September 12, 1995|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Sun Staff Writer

Buried 468 pages into a federal bill that would erect a missile system to defend Americans against nuclear attack is a column of legalese dubbed Amendment 2442.

But the amendment has little to do with national security. It has more to do with a neighborhood squabble in the working-class Southeast Baltimore community of St. Helena.

When the amendment was approved last week by the U.S. Senate, the people of St. Helena found they could play winning politics all the way up to Capitol Hill.

The prize: a potential turning point in their battle against a Baltimore County church's plan for a drug and alcohol treatment center serving homeless men at the former Fort Holabird.

"When you're talking about a community such as St. Helena being able to move amendments through Congress, I think that indicates a great deal of sophistication," said state Sen. Perry Sfikas, who supports the residents in their fight.

At issue is a proposal to turn three ramshackle warehouses that had held Army criminal records into a 40-bed treatment center.

The plan, submitted as part of the federal government's process for dismantling Army bases, comes from Nehemiah House Inc., a nonprofit corporation controlled by Towson's nondenominational Rock Church. Nehemiah House operates a homeless shelter in Rosedale, and the Rock Church oversees ministries helping the needy from East Baltimore to Kiev.

The plan is not welcome in St. Helena, a neighborhood straddling the city-county line near Dundalk, just south of the fort.

It's a place where residents live in the shadows of the container cranes at Dundalk Marine Terminal, and work in the offices and factories of companies such as Bethlehem Steel, General Motors or Lever Brothers.

Residents complain that the project could bring an increase in crime -- they were particularly upset to hear that some of those receiving treatment might come from criminal court referrals.

They also say the project could depress property values, and would rather see the land used to create jobs as part of the Fort Holabird industrial park.

And they complain that they were unaware the church had applied last year to lease the property until a Sun reporter told them in April.

Charging that the church was trying to sneak the project past them, nearly 200 residents shouted down the plans at a May meeting with Nehemiah House officials. Senator Sfikas told the officials he would help "pull this thing through your nostrils" if they did not drop their plan.

But Rock Church and Nehemiah House officials have given no hint of backing down.

D. Robert Enten, an attorney who represents Nehemiah House, said yesterday that the organization's board has not yet met to evaluate the impact of the Senate action. He said the Senate vote was a "significant event," but could not say exactly how it would affect Nehemiah House's proposal.

"Nehemiah House's mission is to assist homeless people and to make them worthwhile members of society, to help them overcome their problems," he said. "Nehemiah House will continue to attempt to fulfill that mission."

Residents have talked of picketing the church, which recently opened a 3,100-seat sanctuary along the Beltway near Towson. They also have written more than 100 letters to the church and have repeatedly asked for meetings -- without a reply, says St. Helena Community Association President Gladys Cimaglia.

"This really has my nerves clucking," Mrs. Cimaglia, 72, muttered at one meeting.

Since that May meeting, residents have met regularly to devise a strategy to fight the plan -- seeking support at three levels of government.

One August night, St. Helena resident Joann Tepper gave Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke a tour of the area. She said the community tries to be self-sufficient -- even installing backstops on the neighborhood baseball diamonds -- and endures much without complaint.

But asking residents to accept the drug treatment center goes too far, she said.

"We're completely surrounded by heavy industry," she told the mayor. "There's a trucking company on practically every corner. . . . We are adamant about [the center]."

That night, Mayor Schmoke proclaimed his opposition to the Fort Holabird plan. And his chief aide for homeless services produced a letter accusing Nehemiah House of misrepresenting her position on the project in its application.

Told during his tour that residents suspect the 40-bed center would expand, the mayor said church officials should move the project to a community that would welcome it.

"They do some good things in the city but they've never asked us for a project of this size and magnitude," Mr. Schmoke said.

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