Soup kitchen's location stirs Baltimore debate

Some blame facility, marking its 20th year, for area's problems

May 24, 2001|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

By 10:15 a.m., they were lining up in an alley - 1,200 people, mostly homeless men, some leaning against a brick wall, smoking cigarettes. One read a paperback, another guzzled a flask of vodka, a third wore a compact disc player and strolled down the line trying to score drugs.

After being handed red numbered tickets, each filed past a tuxedo-wearing maitre d' into the dining room of Our Daily Bread soup kitchen in downtown Baltimore. They sat at tables spread with white linen and decorated with daisies, where waiters served them plates of roast beef, baked potatoes and Caesar salad.

The meal yesterday marked the 20th anniversary of Maryland's largest distributor of free lunches to the poor. The record-breaking attendance suggested that Our Daily Bread could celebrate birthdays for years to come at 411 Cathedral St., across from the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

The soup kitchen remains despite protests from local business owners, who complain that since its expansion in 1991, it has flooded the library with homeless people and driven residents away from the city's cultural center in Mount Vernon.

The debate over the soup kitchen's future pits religious compassion of volunteers against the pragmatism of business leaders who say panhandling and vandalism by pantry guests threaten the city's efforts to convert downtown into a residential neighborhood.

Two years ago, Catholic Charities, which runs the kitchen, responded to these complaints in a report that said it would move the kitchen if it could find a location that would allow it to expand its job training services.

Since then, the organization has made no progress in finding a new home, which has angered neighborhood leaders.

Hal Smith, executive director of Catholic Charities, said he's looked at perhaps 30 possible sites in the past two years, including one in the 400 block of E. Preston St. and another near the state prison complex east of downtown.

The potential sites have not worked out because of neighborhood opposition and concerns that the new locations are too far for pedestrians, Smith said. The kitchen's organizers also want to be in a neighborhood - like Mount Vernon - that is attractive to suburban volunteers and has safe parking, Smith said.

"This location works because of the convenience of it," said Smith, pointing to the 380-space garage next to the kitchen. "To get volunteers who are living in Anne Arundel County or Millersville to come into Baltimore, we need to make it user-friendly for them. And they need parking."

Smith said that he's working to find a new home for Our Daily Bread but that it's a complex and difficult task with no deadline.

Mayor Martin O'Malley's administration wants to help the kitchen find a new home by using $1.5 million this year to buy property to create a "Day Resource Center" for the homeless, perhaps east of downtown, said Leslie Leitch, the city's director of homeless services.

The new center would be one of six planned by the city that would offer the homeless a variety of services at sites scattered around the city, Leitch said.

But whether Catholic Charities chooses to move Our Daily Bread into the center planned near downtown will depend upon whether the group likes the site, said Leitch.

Kemp Byrnes, president of the Historic Charles Street Association, said he thinks Catholic Charities isn't making a serious effort to move the soup kitchen. He also complained that the group has its priorities backward in demanding a location that is attractive to suburban volunteers.

"Hal Smith should be concerned about the less fortunate people and not the well-to-do volunteers," said Byrnes. "Our Daily Bread is hurting the poor where it is now, because it's hurting the city's tax base by driving away businesses, and almost 40 percent of the money for the poor comes from the city's tax base."

Steve Appel, an owner of Nouveau Contemporary Goods furniture store at 519 N. Charles St., said he's seen vacancies increase and property values drop nearby in the two years that Catholic Charities has pondered a move.

"When there are no businesses left on Charles Street, tell us how wonderful Our Daily Bread has been for the community," he said.

Reggie Johnson, a security guard at the Enoch Pratt Library, said the kitchen's guards create a problem by refusing to let the homeless hang out in front of Our Daily Bread. Instead, the pantry's workers drive them away and toward the library.

"It's a daily problem. They [the homeless] loiter in front of our building, scare away the library patrons, fall asleep in the library, tear up the bathrooms, urinate on the floor and tear pages out of books," said Johnson.

Passions run just as strong among soup kitchen supporters.

During the lunchtime celebration yesterday, guests filed into the bright and clean dining room in groups of 110. They sat at round tables decorated with flowers and balloons. Volunteers shuttled from table to table pouring lemonade and handing out slices of cake.

"This is the one chance of the day that these people get a smile," said Brian Connolly, a 23-year-old volunteer. "The rest of the day, they are shunned."

Jack Nolan, 74, a volunteer from Northeast Baltimore, wore a tuxedo while he served the poor. "The volunteers get more out of this than the guests do," Nolan said. "For most of those who volunteer, it means that we can put into action the [biblical] beatitudes. We're helping the hungry, the needy and the poor in spirit."

Many of the guests yesterday said it was wrong to blame them for crime in the neighborhood.

"This place belongs right here where it is now, because it's a convenient location for us and because it serves a very important function by feeding thousands of homeless people every week," said Robert Williams, 43, who is homeless. "It's not right to blame us for the city's problems."

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