Our Daily Bread patrons need much more than a good meal

June 08, 1998|By Laurie Schwartz

TWO FIERCELY committed groups are voicing conflicting positions on the possible relocation of Our Daily Bread, a downtown Baltimore soup kitchen operated by Associated Catholic Charities. This is an issue that has long needed resolution, but common ground is possible.

Everyone agrees that Our Daily Bread serves a vital need in the community and that Associated Catholic Charities has served that need well. They feed about 900 patrons each day.

But the surrounding community also has needs. It is time to re-evaluate how the needs of those who use Our Daily Bread and the needs of those who visit or live nearby are being served.

Our Daily Bread has created controversy since it opened as a storefront pantry feeding only about 125 people each day. As homelessness, joblessness and addiction became more prevalent, churches, volunteer agencies and service organizations stepped up to provide services. They've put shelters in one place, food pantries and soup kitchens in another, social services in yet another location. It was only a matter of time before Our Daily Bread outgrew its home.

When the new building opened in 1991, Our Daily Bread began feeding 400 people each day. That number has more than doubled. You see mostly single men congregating early in the morning and loitering after their noontime meal until well past dusk.

There are no showers for them, only one bathroom facility, and no waiting area to protect them from summer heat and winter cold. Patrons often walk great distances to eat their 15-minute meal, but they get little else. Many are drug addicts and unemployed, in need of substance abuse treatment, health care and job skills training.

All of these services must be available in more convenient locations. This should not be Catholic Charities' assignment alone.

This takes more than good intentions. It requires money, which can be generated in part by a vibrant, economically viable city, where businesses pay property taxes, where residents pay income taxes and shoppers and diners pay sales taxes.

The heart of any city is its downtown. But a city must have a soul, too, that includes those who live and work in the area -- patrons of Our Daily Bread, and also those of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, Peabody Conservatory, the Walters Art Gallery, Center Stage and Maryland Historical Society.

It must have room for students at the Baltimore School for the Arts and for parishioners of the Basilica of the Assumption, many of whom are increasingly concerned about the alarming frequency of aggressive panhandling, public urination and intimidation.

The mission of Our Daily Bread is to provide our city's poorest residents with a nutritious meal. It is difficult to acknowledge that such altruism may have a downside, but automobile break-ins occur at a higher rate in the area surrounding Our Daily Bread and, according to police records, 85 percent of those car break-ins over the past two years have been committed by people who, by their own admission, are going to or coming from Our Daily Bread.

No one is suggesting closing Our Daily Bread. Nor is anyone blaming the typical urban ills Baltimore faces on its patrons.

No one is trying to "put the poor where they can't be seen," as some have suggested.

This is not about being poor. Nor is it about trying to curtail the behaviors exhibited by some of those 900 patrons. It is not about poor people vs. business.

It is about serving more than a meal and better serving everyone in the community.

It is about making it possible for the more than 1 million citizens who visit the area's cultural institutions, schools and churches each year to do so without fear. Otherwise, they will patronize suburban stores instead of Charles Street, or the Baltimore County libraries instead of Enoch Pratt or suburban places of worship.

If the status quo continues, everyone -- from Our Daily Bread's patrons and the volunteers who serve them, to the Charles Street merchants -- will continue to suffer the consequences.

Decisions about this issue will affect the future of Baltimore. Those of us committed to its resolution must let facts -- not opinion -- and reason -- not emotion -- guide us as we search for answers that will be benefit us all.

Laurie Schwartz is president of Downtown Partnership of Baltimore.

Pub Date: 6/08/98

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