Outreach center expands Pigtown services

Paul's Place construction offers hope in an area struggling with poverty

April 10, 2000|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

Robert "Peanut" Morton Jr. has never had a copy of his birth certificate. Never had a driver's license, either.

As a homeless drug addict, Morton, 42, didn't need them. But now that he's in recovery at Paul's Place Outreach Center, he's applied for his birth certificate. He's trying to get "on the grid" -- back into society -- again.

For three years, he's volunteered as a dishwasher at Paul's Place during the center's free daily lunches, and he recently started working as a night janitor in a downtown office building.

"I dropped out of society for a long time," said Morton, his hands wet from dishwater. "Now, I have a sense of purpose in my life. I walk around with my head high, and people look up to me."

Morton's success and optimism are more the rule than the exception at Paul's Place, which provides services including literacy classes, support groups, financial assistance and child care for residents of Pigtown -- one of America's poorest neighborhoods. The former one-room soup kitchen just expanded, adding a building that is the first new structure in Pigtown in at least five years. The center held a ribbon-cutting ceremony yesterday at 1118 Ward St. for staff, volunteers and Pigtown residents.

"We instill dignity and pride back in the community," said executive director Tom Bonderenko.

Paul's Place was founded 18 years ago by Helen Martien and was run from a room on top of St. Paul the Apostle Church on Washington Boulevard. Three years ago, it moved to the Ward Street site, once a gym for Sugar Ray Leonard when he trained in Baltimore.

Paul's Place purchased and demolished the adjoining three houses to build the $770,000 building, which has an expanded kitchen and dining area, showers, a clinic, a kids' play area, and conference rooms for substance abuse meetings and adult literacy classes.

About 65 percent of the center's funding comes from private donations, 15 percent comes from foundations and the rest from corporations and churches.

When Donna Armolt walked into Paul's Place as a volunteer 2 1/2 years ago, a program director quickly found out she couldn't read. She had dropped out of school when she was 16.

Armolt, 41, enrolled in adult literacy classes at the center and started attending a women's support group in one of the conference rooms.

"I couldn't hardly read when I got here," said Armolt, who was volunteering as a head counter during free lunch last week. "Now, I know how to read more better and write more better and do math."

Paul's Place mirrors the struggles and poverty in Pigtown, as well as the neighborhood's resilience.

According to the 1990 census, the Southwest Baltimore neighborhood has the seventh-highest density of poverty in the United States. About 53 percent of residents in this ethnically diverse community live below the poverty line, which is $18,000 for a family of four.

"The people who come here are survivors," said Bonderenko. "The programs we offer are just tools to get them in here. We are about building bridges and relationships to improve lives."

Monday through Friday, the center serves about 125 people hot lunch. One day last week, it was filet mignon, salmon filet, green beans and Spanish rice -- leftovers from a fancy fund-raiser the center sponsored, in which it raised $50,000.

"I used to come here every day, but today, I'm just here to see old friends," said Cynthia Brown, 52, as she looked at the plate where her lunch used to be. "And the money's low."

In addition to lunch and other programs, Paul's Place spends about $4,000 a month paying electric bills and rent for people who are about to have their services cut or be evicted.

Paul's Place has difficulty reaching some needy people because many won't ask for help.

"There's a tremendous need, and part of the problem is pride," Bonderenko said. "Because we serve a homeless population, we're stereotyped. They think, `When I put my foot across that door, I'm like `them.' "

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