Refugee services center in Highlandtown spot draws some resistance

Aid officials try to allay residents' fear of an influx of homeless, cheap labor

May 21, 1999|By Amy Oakes | Amy Oakes,SUN STAFF

Cell phone in hand, Dominic Wani cruises in his satellite office -- a black Toyota Corolla packed with paperwork -- for up to 10 hours a day.

The Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service's Baltimore representative drives from one city or state office to another to get new refugees the services they need.

When he's out of the car, his Randallstown home serves as a makeshift office.

His work should get a little less convoluted with next month's opening of the Baltimore Resettlement Center in Highlandtown. Organizers say the center, in a former Pic-N-Pay shoe store in the 3600 block of Eastern Ave., is the first cooperative effort between a city's department of social services and four national agencies that resettle and provide job placement for refugees.

The center will make Baltimore a leader in handling refugees, officials said.

"The good thing about having one center is that you have all the services in one building," said Wani, 28. "We don't have to run around all day; and it gives us more time as case managers to deal with our clients."

The United States takes in between 78,000 and 140,000 refugees each year, and in years past, fewer than 100 refugees were placed in Baltimore annually, said Patricia Hatch, community liaison for the Maryland Office for New Americans, which will oversee the center. This year, Maryland will receive between 900 and 1,200, with Baltimore getting about 300, Hatch said.

Many of this year's refugees are coming from Bosnia and African countries. "Next year, it could be an entirely different group depending on what's going in the world," said Hatch.

Some Highlandtown residents are concerned that the center will bring more homeless people or potential workers to take away jobs.

"We have enough problems to take care of," said Alan Pressman, 48, who lives in the 500 block of S. Conklin St., after a heated Highlandtown Community Association meeting Monday.

Lynn Heller, the center's project director, assured the association that the agencies will not accept refugees if there is no housing for them. And, she added, some refugees could opt to live in other counties.

She promptly dispelled a neighborhood rumor that 4,000 to 8,000 Kosovars would be pitching tents in Patterson Park.

Some residents -- who learned of the project through community newsletters -- asked why they weren't told about it sooner. Association President Don Arnold said he wasn't opposed to the center, but thought it would be better suited for a different Highlandtown location.

"When I think of Eastern Avenue, I think of stores and other retail," Arnold said.

Ed Rutkowski, executive director of Patterson Park Community Development Corp., said the influx of residents should boost business and homeownership in Highlandtown.

"I expect them to reinvigorate the area," Rutkowski said. "You have to have this continuous stream of people to bring new life to the area."

The organization, which for the last three years has bought and renovated almost 90 rowhouses in the Patterson Park area, received two private grants for a total of $25,000 to fund a housing coordinator to work with the refugees to find homes in the city, specifically Southeast Baltimore.

"In a year, you'll hope they will stay," Rutkowski said.

The resettlement center was the brainchild of Frank Bien, the now retired head of the state's office for New Americans. About nine years ago, the federal office of refugee resettlement considered privatizing services and asked the state offices to examine models for dispensing funding on a local level.

Bien proposed bringing together social services and as many of the 10 national refugee resettlement agencies as possible. With a three-year federal grant, starting with $500,000 the first year, Hatch said the department purchased the Eastern Avenue site and converted the first floor into office space. Eventually, the center might be called the "New American Welcome Center."

Along with social service representatives, the four agencies that committed to the project are the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, Immigration and Refugee Services of America, the International Rescue Committee and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services. Church World Services and Episcopal Migrant Ministries have expressed interest in joining.

"Each volunteer organization has its own strength," Hatch said. "By specializing in different areas, we believe there will be a real economy in time and effort."

Wani's eager to move his files and papers to his new office.

"I've been waiting for the center to open up," he said. "I just told them to put in a desk and a phone and I'll be ready."

Pub Date: 5/21/99

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