Our Daily Bread is under pressure to relocate, again Area merchants blame crime on poor fed at soup kitchen

May 29, 1998|By John Rivera and Gerard Shields | John Rivera and Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Ernest F. Imhoff and Rafael Alvarez contributed to this article.

Our Daily Bread, one of Baltimore's busiest and most visible soup kitchens, may be moving as the result of efforts by merchants and community leaders to get rid of panhandlers and revitalize the Charles Street corridor.

No decision has been made to relocate the soup kitchen where Pope John Paul II dined with the poor and others in October 1995.

But Catholic Charities, which operates Our Daily Bread, has formed a committee chaired by George Collins, the former CEO of Baltimore brokerage T. Rowe Price, to study its options.

Peter G. Angelos, Orioles majority owner and a Baltimore attorney who is redeveloping a Charles Center office tower, is participating in the discussion.

One of those options, according to sources, is to move Our Daily Bread from Cathedral Street next to the Basilica of the Assumption to a lower-profile neighborhood. A likely site may be near the offices of Health Care for the Homeless in the 100 block of Park Ave. as part of a proposed comprehensive resource center for the poor.

The impetus for the changes comes primarily from downtown merchants who are fed up with the crime and panhandling that they say is caused by some of the 900 people who come each day to eat lunch at the soup kitchen.

Jimmy Rouse, president of the Charles Street Association and former owner of Louie's the Bookstore Cafe, said some merchants had taken to following people who shoplifted in their stores.

"Over and over again, when we follow these people, we follow them down to Our Daily Bread," he said.

Rouse and his predecessor as president of the Charles Street Association approached Cardinal William H. Keeler with their concerns nearlytwo years ago and began discussions.

On May 6, several business people, including Angelos and Downtown Partnership executive director Laurie Swartz, met with the executive director of Catholic Charities and its board of trustees.

"They wanted to and did express concerns they had about the large number of homeless and poor people drawn to Our Daily Bread, about panhandling in the area, about car breaking and related problems," said Fran Minakowski, a Catholic Charities spokeswoman. "Our Daily Bread, the facility, was the focal point."

At the conclusion of the meeting, the board of trustees formed the committee to look into the soup kitchen's options.

"A number of possibilities may be developed. One may be moving Our Daily Bread to another location," Minakowski said.

The committee will meet when Collins returns from Europe after participating in the Whitbread 'Round the World sailboat race.

Angelos said yesterday that he is one of several business owners who have told Catholic Charities they would contribute to the relocation and upgrade of Our Daily Bread.

He said Charles Street, the city's main thoroughfare for decades, isn't the best place to treat the poor, who would be better served in a facility that could offer a wide range of services.

"Business needs an environment in which it can prosper, and what we're trying to do is accomplish both goals," he said. "I don't believe we're pitting one against the other."

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke did not respond to requests for comment.

Controversy has surrounded Our Daily Bread since its founding in 1981 in a storefront at 17 W. Franklin St. that was designed to feed about 125 people a day. Merchants and residents fought bitter court and zoning battles to keep it from opening.

In late 1991, Our Daily Bread moved into a $1.1 million brick and mortar building. It was built in cooperation with the Downtown Partnership, which agreed to help expand Our Daily Bread in conjunction with building an adjacent 350-car parking garage.

Today, Swartz, the Downtown Partnership executive director, regrets the agreement: "I dealt [downtown] a blow that they've never really recovered from."

Carla D. Hayden, director of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, said people who go to Our Daily Bread often end up in the library.

"We have to remove people for excessive sleeping and being intoxicated and some altercations with the staff," she said. "If they moved [Our Daily Bread], the balance of the type of people who use the library would change."

Sister Gwynette Proctor, director of Our Daily Bread, said it is not proper to blame her facility for all of downtown's ills.

"We see this as a problem much larger than Our Daily Bread," she said. "The poor who come to eat here aren't responsible for the jobs that have left Baltimore City. They're not responsible for the jobs that don't pay a living wage. They're not responsible for the lack of treatment centers for drug abusers.

"To have the problem focused simply on them is a concern for us," she said.

She noted that Our Daily Bread brings about 700 volunteers into the community every year. "After they volunteer here, they go to Charles Street to shop and eat lunch," she said.

Homeless advocates welcome the idea of a "campus" that would provide multiple services, such as food, medical care, addictions treatment, job training, adult education classes and child care. Consolidation would make such services more accessible.

"I think a multipurpose center would be wonderful, exactly what the city needs," said Robert Hess, president and CEO of Action for the Homeless and the Maryland Food Committee. "It would be a mini opportunity fair. It could be a national model."

But Jeff Singer, president of Health Care for the Homeless, urged caution if the idea is to make poverty less visible.

"We certainly need more services, but I'm concerned about the impetus behind it," he said. "To move the poor out of the way of 'ordinary' citizens. It's good if ordinary citizens see that poverty really exists."

Pub Date: 5/29/98

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