A grand home for the homeless

Shelter: A turn-of-the century gift to needy women will finally house them.

September 27, 1999|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

A dowager grande dame of Baltimore society named Margaret J. Bennett died rich in 1900 and among her many charities left $150,000 to start a refuge for "homeless, needy and deserving female persons."

A healthy chunk of money at the turn of the century, her bequest would be more than $2.5 million in 1999 dollars. It paid for and then maintained for nearly 100 years the Margaret J. Bennett Home in an elegant Greek Revival townhouse at 14 E. Franklin St.

The Bennett house -- next door to Tio Pepe's Spanish restaurant -- survives splendidly intact from when it was built 170 years ago in "the most fashionable part of the city."

Still imposing with its Ionic columns, the Franklin Street entrance opens onto a marble foyer from which the original mahogany stairway sweeps up to the third floor.

A step away, next to a classic Baltimore marble fireplace with floral carvings, an oval portrait of Margaret Bennett, serene and benign in a Quakerish dress, monitors a 19th-century formal parlor of an expansive style almost extinct in Baltimore. A faultless mirror rises in elegant splendor in a gilded frame that is topped with a strutting sculptured bird amid golden floral boughs. The ceiling soars 18 or so feet above a 20th century Indian carpet.

In the empty silence you can almost hear the rustle of taffeta and the soft clink of fine china as 19th century ladies take tea.

This grand salon would have been quite a haven for deserving, needy and homeless women at the beginning of the 20th century. But until now the Bennett house has sheltered only proper young women from good families who had come alone to work in the big, sinful city.

These "female persons" lived boarding-house style in additions attached to the old townhouse, ate in an institutional dining room and received gentlemen callers in the formal parlor but never, ever, upstairs. Recently, the lodgers had been mostly art, music, medical and culinary arts students attending downtown schools.

Now the Margaret Bennett Home's trustees have turned over the house to the Women's Housing Coalition, which is as committed as Margaret Bennett was to meeting the needs of homeless women. The coalition will transform the house into a single-room occupancy residence for 30 "very low income, disabled women." Susan Thompson, the coalition's executive director, expects the $3.3 million renovation to begin in November or December and be completed by July 2000.

So almost exactly a century after her death in August 1900, Margaret Bennett's desire to help homeless women will finally come to fruition.

Quiet deeds

Tomorrow night the Women's Housing Coalition marks its own 20th anniversary of quiet, consistent commitment to finding housing for homeless women with a gala in Hampden, complete with a commemorative quilt, a gospel choir and a celebration of its founders.

"It was a grassroots group of women who recognized homelessness was not just for men," says Thompson. "I guess we're marking the fact that a small mid-sized nonprofit has lasted 20 years providing services and housing to homeless, low-income women in Baltimore city.

"The downside is that we've had to last," Thompson says. "The need is still there. That's not something to celebrate."

Depending on who's doing the counting, there are 3,300 to 5,000 homeless women in Baltimore. From the point of view of the coalition, any woman without a deed or a lease in her own name can be considered homeless.

Thompson says hundreds or thousands of women -- and their children -- without a space of their own drift like urban nomads from home to home among relatives or friends, endure violent partners, even prostitute themselves rather than spend a night on the street.

So the coalition serves 50 to 60 women on any day -- or night. It has helped about 1,000 women over the last 20 years, Thompson says.

Other dwellings

The coalition provides a 13-unit single room occupancy dwelling -- the first in Maryland -- at an old apartment building called the Calverton, at 25th and Calvert streets. Single, low-income disabled women live at the Calverton an average of five years, although they can stay as long as they want or need.

Three rowhouses in Remington offer communal living to 12 women in transitional housing, and there's semi-independent living for 24 women in the coalition's scattered-site housing in apartments throughout the city. A family program serves six families in scattered-site apartments, as women who "graduate" from, say, transitional housing are reunited with their children.

But the poor and homeless women of today may not be quite the same as those Margaret Bennett envisioned in 1900. They may be older women bewildered by sudden unemployment or the death of a husband on whom they depended. They may be abused, abandoned or battered, addicted or plagued by mental illness.

They tend to be 30 to 45 years old. And it's a mistake to think they're as uneducated as they are poor, Thompson says.

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