After years of searching, a Catholic organization has picked a site for the relocation of a soup kitchen often criticized for drawing crowds of indigent men who some say have driven businesses out of Baltimore's cultural center.
But Associated Catholic Charities warns it must raise $25 million before it can move Our Daily Bread in Mount Vernon to an expanded center for the homeless at 358 E. Monument St., near the city's detention center.
Our Daily Bread, the state's largest feeder of the homeless, draws about 700 people a day -- at least 80 percent of them men -- to its cafeteria across the street from the central Enoch Pratt Free Library.
Catholic Charities plans to convert the cafeteria building, at 19 W. Franklin St., into a center called My Sister's Place that would provide meals and counseling to homeless women and their children.
The men who today eat at the soup kitchen would be encouraged to go about six blocks east to a new two-story building called the Our Daily Bread Employment Center, according to a proposal presented to city officials.
There, the homeless men would not just receive a meal, but also job training, life counseling and referrals for drug treatment and mental health services.
Hal Smith, executive director of Catholic Charities, said the project would allow for a significant expansion and improvement of services for the homeless.
The new 40-room center would include an employment training academy called Christopher's Place that would provide temporary housing for homeless men while they remained drug-free and took classes to learn job skills, according to the proposal.
Smith said the recession may make it difficult for the Catholic Church to raise the $13.5 million needed for construction and the $11.5 million needed for an endowment for continuing operating funds.
But he's optimistic that donors will see the value in providing better services for the needy. "We have a significant number of people who want to change their lives, and as a society we have an obligation to respond to that and give people a chance."
Business owners in the Mount Vernon neighborhood, who have long complained that Our Daily Bread draws large crowds of panhandlers who frighten away customers and vandalize the library, applauded the proposal.
"I think it's very encouraging that the church has been so responsive," said Pamela Wilson, co-chairwoman of the Historic Charles Street Association. "It's a good idea to create a multi-purpose center that would provide more for the homeless than just a meal."
Steve Appel, an owner of Nouveau Contemporary Goods on North Charles Street, said the relocation would be "great news" because few businesses remain in the city's cultural hub. Stores and restaurants struggle, despite being surrounded by the Walters Art Museum, Peabody Institute, Center Stage and other artistic institutions.
"You can do what you want to help Charles Street, but as long as you've still got people coming out of Our Daily Bread and peeing on the side of your building, you won't see much progress in the neighborhood," said Appel.
Advocates for the homeless had mixed reactions to the proposed new location.
"From my perspective the people coming out of the jail should be served, and there's nothing wrong with working near the prison," said Jeff Singer, president of Healthcare for the Homeless.
But Brendan Walsh, co-director of a soup kitchen in Southwest Baltimore called Viva House, complained: "The whole point of this is to hide the poor, hide the problems of Baltimore. The only place they think it's OK to have the homeless is near the jail."
A proposal in 1999 to move Our Daily Bread to the 400 block of E. Preston St. was abandoned when nearby organizations -- including an order of Catholic nuns -- objected. But the new proposed site is more isolated, with only the state prison complex nearby. And the prison's directors want the homeless center next door.
On July 25, the city bought a parking lot at 358 E. Monument St. for $440,000 to encourage the construction of a service center for homeless people, said Alex Boston, director of the city's office of homeless services.
The city is negotiating with Catholic Charities to build and run the center, with the city planning to contribute about $1.3 million toward construction.
"This project is moving ahead," said Boston. "And our hope is that within two years we'll have a resource center for the homeless at that location."