City tells group to leave building

HARBEL is given two months to vacate home of over 20 years

`Doesn't make any sense'

June 08, 1999|By Amy Oakes | Amy Oakes,SUN STAFF

City government may kick out one of Baltimore's most respected community organizations, just as it's being recognized for continued success.

With its lease due to expire at the end of next month, the city informed HARBEL Community Organization Inc. late last month that it had to be out in two months. Within 24 hours of that notice, Baltimore Substance Abuse Systems, a quasi-public agency, offered HARBEL money to expand its successful substance abuse treatment program.

"It [the conflicting messages] just doesn't make any sense," said Pat Stabile, director of HARBEL's prevention and recovery programs.

The city Department of Housing and Community Development wants to move the Northeast Neighborhood Service Center from Northern High School to the HARBEL building in the 5800 block of Harford Road. HARBEL, an umbrella group of community, alcoholism and social services organizations, would be forced to find a new home after providing housing, neighborhood and substance abuse services to Northeast Baltimore for more than 20 years.

While several City Council members vowed to fight to keep HARBEL where it is, Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III said he has no choice because no other city-owned space in the area can house the one-stop city service center. And, he added, the organization did not renew its lease in time, an allegation HARBEL disputes.

"There's no other place," Henson said. "I have significant budget cuts and no money to rent at market rates" for Northeast Service Center.

If put out, HARBEL will try to relocate its programs in Northeast Baltimore, Stabile said.

Finding homes for the housing and neighborhood services will be easier than moving the substance abuse treatment programs, which must conquer not-in-my-back-yard attitudes and require special zoning approved by the City Council.

But, with council out of session from Monday until the end of September, Stabile said the clock is ticking.

As a precautionary measure, HARBEL will not accept new clients after Saturday.

Still, Stabile said, she fears that current clients, many from the neighborhood, will be left with nowhere to go.

"Both the mayor and the commissioner of housing have shown a commitment to drug recovery, so to essentially put 232 more slots [clients] out on the street seems to not fit with the philosophy of supporting treatment," she said.

Sharing Stabile's frustrations are neighborhood and business leaders who value HARBEL's presence. Richard Marsiglia, president of the Hamilton Business Association, said HARBEL not only offers successful services but also provides meeting space for community organizations.

"It seems crazy for the city to come in and say your services aren't needed when they are packed and full," Marsiglia said. "It will have a major impact on the community."

Former HARBEL clients said the treatment programs were crucial in overcoming their addictions and getting their lives in order.

Elizabeth, 27, a former drug abuser who declined to give her last name, said she began going to HARBEL after her mother died 12 years ago. Counselors helped her to overcome addiction and finish school. She's now a nurse in Anne Arundel County.

"If it wasn't for this place, I wouldn't be where I am now," she said. "It's important for them to be in that community."

City officials said they hope a resolution can be found before HARBEL's lease ends. City Councilman Robert Curran, who represents the 3rd District, said the administration needs to explore all options before stripping the community of a valuable resource.

"I believe Commissioner Henson is very resourceful," Curran said. "If he wanted to find another home for the service center, he could."

Anthony J. Ambridge, the city's real estate officer who wrote the May 21 notification to HARBEL, said the housing department has offered HARBEL 2,168 square feet -- one quarter of its current building. But, Ambridge said, he realizes that it probably won't be enough space for the nonprofit organization and has suggested an alternative site for Northeast Neighborhood Service Center near HARBEL.

"It's not a done deal," Ambridge said. "I believe it can be worked out amicably to maintain service levels."

A first step toward resolution could occur tomorrow.

State Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, a 45th District Democrat, has set up a meeting involving city, school and HARBEL officials, said Judith C. Fritsche, HARBEL director.

Private lawyers are examining HARBEL's lease agreement, Fritsche said, adding that she sent a letter March 17 informing the city that the organization wanted to remain in the building. "In past years, we've notified them as late as March 30," Fritsche said.

Clinton R. Coleman, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's press secretary, said Schmoke is reviewing the situation, but that the city needs a new location for the neighborhood service center. Schmoke "appreciates the work HARBEL has done and wants to make sure they can continue to be of service to that community," he said.

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