A CHRISTMAS tree went up near City Hall last week, and the groups who feed hungry street people there got a note from the city telling them to move their operations over by the jail. The city distributed copies of its "winter plan" for the homeless to volunteers who give out sandwiches on Holliday Street, in front of City Hall, each evening. "Effective December 4," the city declared, "street feeding will be conducted at Fallsway and Madison Avenue."
That's a city lot by the Jones Falls Expressway, just east and south of the Central Booking and Intake Center, the Mussolini-inspired edifice that has been the focus of Mayor Martin O'Malley's ambitions to more quickly process criminal cases that choke Baltimore's court dockets.
Predictably, some advocates for the homeless believe the O'Malley administration's "winter plan" is aimed at purging Holliday Street of the dozens of grim-looking street people who make an unsettling political statement - to city officials and dignitaries visiting City Hall - with their presence. One poverty worker remarked at the symbolism - the association of homelessness and hunger with criminality -and joked that the "winter plan" might lower the Police Department's costs of transporting suspects to Central Booking.
But Leslie Leitch, director of the Department of Housing and Community Development's Office of Homeless Services, defends the "winter plan" as an opportunity to "better engage individuals to access services and end the cycle of homelessness." It's not an attempt to clean up City Hall plaza, though, Leitch says, "that would be an outcome."
Handing out sandwiches is a good thing, she says. "But we can do better."
It was a "Dear Outreach Provider" letter from Leitch, under the letterhead of O'Malley and the city's new housing commissioner, Paul Graziano, that went to volunteers on Holliday Street last week. The letter described the Fallsway location as "a more appropriate and secure environment." It promised tables, trash cans, portable toilets and a trailer for volunteers to use. Leitch also promised that "experienced outreach workers" from the city Department of Social Services would be stationed at the feeding lot each night to offer help to the homeless and the hungry.
These services could have been offered on Holliday Street, of course, but that would not have achieved the "outcome" of a more aesthetically pleasing City Hall plaza.
Rob Hess, president of the Center for Poverty Solutions, says he's "troubled" by the edict on street feeding. "We look forward with enthusiasm to working with the new administration, but this letter is of concern to us," Hess says. "It looks like an `out of sight, out of mind' attitude toward the poor."
Efforts have been made to rid other downtown areas of street people. Last year, there was an attempt, backed by Orioles owner Peter Angelos and others in the business community, to relocate Our Daily Bread's 900-meal lunch operation from Cathedral Street, next to the Basilica of the Assumption, across the JFX valley to a vacant building a few blocks from the Maryland Penitentiary.
Food has been handed out near City Hall for a few years. The exemplary Glen Burnie teen-ager, Amber Coffman, organizer of Happy Helpers for the Homeless, brought sandwiches, toiletries, Christmas and Easter presents there on weekends. A group of volunteers from Loyola College is among those who regularly hand out food on Holliday Street.
Friday, volunteers from Our Lady of the Fields Roman Catholic Church in Millersville distributed their last meals at City Hall about 7 p.m. As they packed up to leave, they said they planned to move their charitable operation to the Fallsway this week.
But at least one group, which calls itself the Environmental Crisis Center, says it plans to continue to conduct its regular Monday afternoon street feeding at City Hall, in defiance of Leitch's letter.
Leitch will not say how her order is to be enforced. "I'm going to have to remain vague about that," she says.
Along with her announcement last week, Leitch issued guidelines for the use of the new feeding lot on the Fallsway, including admonitions against "signs, banners, displayed advertising ... loud speakers, amplifiers and microphones .... helium- or air-filled balloons." I guess that means a Christmas tree won't be permitted either.
Bright white or multicolored
When Towson contractor Jim Ancel decided to hire workers to adorn with Christmas lights the fir on the lawn of his Roland Park home, taller than the tree at City Hall, he couldn't decide between that tasteful, all-white Martha Stewart look, or the multicolored, holiday-in-Hampden scheme. So he went with both. Some nights the huge tree, on Woodlawn Avenue, glows white; some nights red, green, blue and yellow. Ancel, who's had fun confusing neighbors and passersby with the switching, says the youngest of his six children get to decide which lights to use each night.
"It's so bright when the white lights are on," he says, "that you could read a newspaper under there."
Seeking boys of summer
The Roland Park Baseball League, which might be the oldest in the city, has launched a manhunt to locate every last RP lad who ever played the game - you know, back when the world was young and men were boys and boys worried about RBIs not IPOs. Spring brings the league's 50th anniversary and what organizers hope will be friendly softball games - not to mention a cocktail party - between teams made up of players from the past five decades.
The league has records of every kid who played, starting in 1951. But there seems to be a concern - probably an unreasonable one in this homebody town - that men in their 60s will not be found at the Roland Park addresses they gave when they were 10. So I've been asked to point RPBL alumni to www.rolandparkbaseball.com and the league office, 410-467-9182.