Paving path for city's homeless

Minister: A former drug addict's talent for revamping shelter operations has earned him the nickname `Rev. Fix-It-Up.'

October 29, 2002|By Johnathon E. Briggs | Johnathon E. Briggs,SUN STAFF

The Rev. Lonnie J. Davis Sr. watched dozens of Seton Hill residents file inside a squat building in St. Mary's Park and hunker down in flimsy plastic chairs with full not-in-my-back-yard agitation: feet tapping, arms crossed, arguments prepared.

Members of the Seton Hill Association, they came to voice opposition to a homeless shelter Davis operates at 700 N. Eutaw St., one they blamed for attracting crime and blight.

"We are under an extra burden by that shelter. We need to get rid of it. That's it," said resident Tom Kravitz.

It didn't matter to residents that Davis had only recently taken over the 11-year-old shelter, or that he'd been nicknamed "Rev. Fix-It-Up" for revamping homeless facilities in Baltimore city and county.

As complaints flew his way at the June meeting, Davis, seated with his back to a wall, quickly realized what his next project would be: mending a community's broken trust.

It's a challenge that highlights the inevitable tension that will arise between neighborhoods and shelters in the coming years. In February, the Board of Estimates approved $440,000 to build the first of six resource centers to aid the estimated 3,000 homeless men, women and children in Baltimore.

But city officials say they have confidence in Davis, a formerly homeless heroin addict and ex-convict who has earned a reputation for putting mismanaged shelters back on track.

"If anyone can do it, he can," said Otis Rolley III, first deputy housing commissioner. "How he took his personal transformation and transferred that into an organization that is reaching out to others is very impressive."

Davis' emergence as a leader in providing homeless services is one of the reasons why Mayor Martin O'Malley appointed him to the city's Commission on Homelessness, Rolley added.

As founder and executive director of the nonprofit I Can Inc., he runs three of the agency's five shelters with the help of his wife, Pamela J. Davis, his daughter, LaQuisha, his son, Lonnie Davis Jr., and stepson, Vernon Wallace Jr. Employees run the other two.

Men he used to buy heroin from, whom he stole cars with, whom he met in prison now work for him - inspired to change by Davis' own transformation.

He has adopted a no-nonsense style of intervention: It's not unusual for Davis to bluntly ask addicts, in his characteristic raspy voice, "Are you a pipe-sucking crack head?" or order them to "get out of that male PMS."

He's just trying to get through.

A commanding, energetic figure who is as comfortable in double-breasted suits as he is in khakis, Davis restored the trust of homeless men at Oasis Station, a 24-hour drop-in facility at 220 N. Gay St., after its previous manager was fired by the city.

He overcame the fears of homeless women and families at the Hannah More shelter in Reisterstown after its former operator quit amid allegations its staff intimidated residents.

And, in the early days of I Can Inc., he battled for respect in the Midway/Barclay community when he proposed opening a 100-bed winter emergency shelter at 22nd Street and Greenmount Avenue.

The three-story shelter on Greenmount Avenue, housed in a former Catholic school, has evolved into a 60-bed, year-round shelter with a convalescent care unit and a 58-bed transitional housing shelter. Residents and business owners say they are satisfied with I Can, which stands for "Individual, Character, Attitude and Newness of mind."

"It's been a lot of programs over there, but this has been the best by far I've seen," said Larry Haleem, owner of a nearby clothing store. "It gives them a sense of hope and puts them back on the good foot."

Haleem's neighbor, Bernard Cox, owner of H&B Discount Store, said of Davis: "We thank God every day for his presence in our community."

Eleven years ago, no one would have said that of Davis.

Fired from his job in 1980 as a data teletype technician for Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co., the Navy veteran began selling drugs. He soon became his own best customer, fueling a heroin habit he picked up in the 1970s while on military duty in Diego Garcia, in the Indian Ocean.

Addiction was Davis' devil. "I would say, `Devil, it's raining outside,'" he recalls. "The Devil said, `Walk between the raindrops. Got to get my money.'"

One night in March 1991, Davis was on his stomach, pinned down by a police officer with a gun pressed to the back of his neck.

"Don't move!" the officer shouted. Davis and two other men were being arrested after fleeing a stash house near Lafayette Avenue and Bethel Street, tossing packets of heroin and cocaine as they fled.

Davis wound up serving seven months in prison, but he still wasn't ready to change. Not until he overdosed in the bedroom of his grandmother's apartment.

"I remember waking up humiliated," Davis recalled. "And from that humiliation I started promising her I was going to change."

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