Soup kitchen thriving, and that means the city isn't

This Just In...

May 25, 2001|By Dan Rodricks

HAD THERE been a full-scale attack on poverty and drug abuse in Baltimore two decades ago, there's a chance we'd see Our Daily Bread scaling back its service and moving out of Mount Vernon instead of "celebrating" its 20th anniversary there. And we might see the end of the long, not-pretty effort to blame ODB for blocking efforts to make downtown a more attractive place to - as the billboards say - live, work, play!

The poor who come to ODB have been blamed for just about everything from committing crimes to providing bad scenery. We've heard it all: They smell, they pee in public, they deal drugs, they smash car windows and steal stuff, they drive shoppers and diners away from North Charles Street (though you wouldn't know that from lunch hour at Sascha's), they lean against the wall of the library across the street, they panhandle aggressively. Let's face it: If not for the poor who go to ODB each day at lunch hour, Baltimore's population would top 1 million, the schools would boast the highest test scores in the nation and the crab harvest would return to record levels.

A little refresher course:

Our Daily Bread opened in a modest storefront, set up to serve about 125 hungry people a day, on West Franklin Street in 1981. By then, the well-intended but miserably executed deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill was well under way, the Me Generation had emerged, and Ronald Reagan had told lots of stories about welfare queens and other moochers on his way to the White House. His administration sounded retreat from the war on poverty, turned its back on cities and pushed a trickle-up national economic policy. There was also a recession, and as unemployment grew, so did the lines at Our Daily Bread.

For years, ODB served hundreds of people a day and became Baltimore's most media-exposed soup kitchen. Money was raised and, when the "new" Our Daily Bread opened in 1991, it seemed to become the "permanent" Our Daily Bread. With its institutional look, like a bank branch, at Cathedral and Franklin, it seemed to answer St. Matthew's assertion that "the poor ye shall always have with you" by declaring, in brick and mortar, that "Our Daily Bread shall always be with Baltimore."

I always thought we should strive for something more, such as: "Our Daily Bread shall be with Baltimore until such time that we can reduce our services and return to a smaller, more modest location."

Victor Hugo was right: "The ideal is terrible to behold." So we don't do nearly enough ideal-beholding in this town, unless you're talking about sports stadiums and franchises, and Inner Harbor hotels, and the 2012 Olympics.

Changing people's lives - breaking the cycle of poverty and drug addiction - requires the hard-sweat of human action and political will. Bill Clinton and various governors like to crow about reductions in the welfare rolls, but the long-term impact of welfare reform remains to be seen. Are single-parent families going to be able to make it with the wages offered by the service economy?

Drug addiction remains this city's most serious issue. It festers at the root of so many problems here, and not just the homicide rate. It contributes to family dysfunction, unemployment, the spread of disease, the numbers of school dropouts, the abandonment of neighborhoods, the rate of illiteracy, the number of panhandlers, the number of guys showing up at Our Daily Bread each day. Baltimore, with the highest concentration of poverty in the state, needed 20 years ago and needs now a standing army of social soldiers to attack poverty on the most intimate levels.

There's no easy way to do that.

But it's something we should have done - or done better and more comprehensively - during the 20 years of Our Daily Bread's existence. There's opportunity to do this now.

This wealthy state, this prosperous nation - and our standing army of millionaires and billionaires - certainly have the funds to pay for it. The Bush administration, bullish on the faith-based solution to the nation's social woes, might even be willing to get behind it. This might be a place for the suburban Republican congressman, Robert Ehrlich, to help the mayor of Baltimore. It was Ehrlich who recently blew fresh air across party and geographic lines when he said: "The quality of life enjoyed by the people I represent is directly proportional to how successful [Martin O'Malley] is in this city, and everybody knows it."

Here's a modest proposal: That, if Our Daily Bread moves out of downtown, it avoids relocating into another large building that will draw large crowds. It ought to break into a half-dozen satellite locations, small neighborhood lunchrooms affiliated with churches, Catholic and otherwise. More than lunch, these intimate settings should have a full-time paid staff to offer the guests a way out of hunger, homelessness, illness, addiction, unemployment, underemployment, whatever it is that brings them in for a meal.

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