Taking care of poor and of business Our Daily Bread faces dilemma common in downtown districts

May 30, 1998|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Allen Wilson takes one last drag of his cigarette before passing it to Tyrone Savage, their eyes squinting through the smoke as they ponder some food for thought: What should be done with Our Daily Bread?

What should be the future of Baltimore's most famous soup kitchen, which feeds 900 inner-city poor a day on Cathedral Street, a path of downtown business and cultural resurgence.

What should happen to the facility that over the past decade has tripled the number of people it feeds while the neighborhood complains about a rise in car window smashings and robberies.

The men wonder what should be done about people such as them who rely on the place.

Even Wilson and Savage differ over whether Our Daily Bread should move. Catholic Charities, which operates Our Daily Bread, has formed a committee with downtown business leaders to discuss the options.

Savage likens the inner-city poor to sprouting weeds: Unless the roots of poverty are treated, the poor remain.

"You have to put the services where the most need is, and the most need is usually in the heart of the city," said Savage, 50, who walks to the red-brick soup kitchen from a mile away. "What they need to do is something for the people out here."

That's the opportunity Wilson sees. Sure, businesses want to rid downtown of the emaciated poor languishing on corners, at bus stops and the reading tables of the Enoch Pratt Free Library. If merchants are willing to pay to expand or provide additional services for the poor, he says, Catholic Charities should take the money and run.

"If Our Daily Bread is going to benefit, I think it's a wonderful idea," said Wilson, 32, who said he lost his job two weeks ago.

The complex problem comes down to whether Charles Street businesses, along with civic and cultural agencies, can come up with enough money to make moving Our Daily Bread worthwhile to the poor.

Fending off blight

The question has been posed over the past two decades in dozens of American cities that, like Baltimore, are trying to save their urban core by fending off blight with business, tourism and cultural redevelopment.

Shirley Callahan knows the tale. The Severna Park resident owns a travel agency in downtown San Francisco, a tourist city that has made the national television evening news regularly for pushing its homeless around the city to find the best way to balance compassion and economic growth.

Callahan stepped out of Baltimore's Basilica of the Assumption yesterday and watched the last lunch guests trickle from the adjacent Our Daily Bread dining hall. She says that she can almost detect the stench of urine on her California shop windows and the "surprises" that night vagrants have left in her mailbox, yet she empathizes.

"People dressed in black tie and white shirt don't want to see them," Callahan said. "But they have to have some place to go."

'Get rid of them'

Across the street from the church, a chrome hot dog stand glimmers in the sun outside the main library at Mulberry and Cathedral Streets. Sweat drenched the brow of stand operator Wally Lovell, who is emphatic about where he stands on the Our Daily Bread argument.

The soup kitchen's lunch guests make his job tough, the 24-year-old vendor said. Not only does he stand all day working in a metal toaster, but the desperate hordes force him to constantly watch the candy, chips and sodas against pilferers.

"Get rid of them," Lovell said, jerking his head toward the soup kitchen.

On nearby Mulberry Street, Joanne Carr talks about the Baltimore police seminar she attended two months ago. The police were trying to teach business owners how to avoid being crime victims.

Breaking into cars

As the desk receptionist at the Baltimore International Hostel, the 25-year-old Virgin Islands native has seen robberies increase.

"That's the No. 1 crime around here, breaking into cars," Carr said. "If there is a nice car parked on the block, someone around here tries to let them know before their window gets smashed."

The argument over Our Daily Bread probably will focus on whether it has brought crime.

"Crime is everywhere," Wilson said. "It's not because of this place."

No problems

Irene Williams has been visiting the basilica at lunchtime for years and hasn't had a problem. She often carries casseroles into Our Daily Bread before walking the 100 paces that take her past the statue of Jesus with his arms open wide inside the basilica.

As a Christian, Williams sees links between economic growth and the fate of the poor.

"If you're not taking care of each other, are you taking care of yourself?" Williams asked.

Note of caution

Jeff Singer waits. As president of Health Care for the Homeless, he watches the debate over Our Daily Bread with interest. Discussions include suggestions that Our Daily Bread be moved near the Health Care site at 100 Park Ave. as part of a comprehensive resource center for the poor.

"Coordinating services helps," Singer said. "But it's a little illusionary to think that we'll have a four-story building for the homeless, and we won't have to worry about it anymore."

Pub Date: 5/30/98

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