Oliver opposes winter shelter

East-side community says no to facility for homeless

Would open on coldest nights

City has been seeking site for effort begun last year

November 27, 2003|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

The city Health Department's plan to open an emergency cold-weather homeless shelter in an East Baltimore neighborhood is facing a chilly reception from elected and community leaders who want city officials to find a different location.

The NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) syndrome typically reserved for the suburbs has found its urban equivalent in Oliver activists who say their neighborhood has its fair share of such services.

"East Baltimore has become a dumping ground," said the Rev. Robert C. Burley Sr., president of the Oliver Community Association. "This was a done deal from the start."

Burley convened a meeting yesterday of nearly 20 Oliver residents who joined him at the group's headquarters in the city-owned building at 1400 Federal St., a floor below where the emergency homeless shelter is to open in mid-December.

"We are not against the homeless having shelter, we are against the lack of proper procedures about bringing them in here," said Burley, also pastor of New Life Missionary Baptist Church on Bond Street.

Also attending the meeting were state Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden and City Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young, whose districts encompass the Oliver neighborhood.

"I want the city to find another place," McFadden said.

Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, the city's health commissioner, said he has tried since last winter to find a new location for the city's "Code Blue" operation, which buses homeless people to a designated shelter on the winter's coldest nights.

The city inaugurated the program last winter at a city-owned recreation center at 1901 Pennsylvania Ave. after forecasts of record-low temperatures. The timing was right: Last winter's average temperature of 30.9 degrees made it the area's coldest since 1978, according to the National Weather Service.

A "Code Blue" night is declared when the temperature falls below 20 degrees, or 25 degrees with precipitation. On annual average, Beilenson said, the city records 12 to 15 such nights.

The shelter opened 34 nights last winter and served 3,751 people between its hours of 5 p.m. and 8 a.m. Fewer people froze to death in Baltimore last winter than in any winter of the past decade, health officials said in June, an accomplishment they partly credited to Code Blue.

The city cannot use the Pennsylvania Avenue facility again because the Recreation and Parks Department is starting a boxing program it had put off last year because of the shelter, said Melisa Lindamood, a Health Department official who runs Code Blue.

Lindamood said the Federal Street location provides everything the city needs: a kitchen for warm meals, adequate space for cots, bathrooms, a shower and private rooms for mental health and other services.

The city would staff the facility all night with three nurses and police officers for security. In addition, mental health, employment and substance abuse counselors are present until 10 p.m.

"We had no neighborhood complaints" last year, Beilenson said.

Beilenson and Lindamood have met or corresponded with the Oliver Community Association to gather its input. The group opposed the idea from the start, Burley said, because its members worried that when the shelter location became known, homeless people would gather there on nights not cold enough for Code Blue to be activated.

According to Burley and Young, health officials said they would not locate the shelter at Federal Street if the community opposed it. Burley said city officials were moving furniture into the Federal Street building while saying they were looking for a new location.

Beilenson said the city will provide Oliver with two additional drug treatment slots and a monthly visit from an immunization van as compensation.

Burley said the neighborhood did not need more drug treatment slots or immunization services. He said Oliver would be better served by such basic services as garbage collection.

Constance Smith, pastor of the Eastern United Methodist Church in Oliver, said she supports the shelter but said many in the community were not happy with how the city chose Oliver.

"We would have preferred a better process," Smith said.

Burley said his organization would try to work with the city and is holding a meeting Dec. 4 to develop a plan. He said that if city officials insist, he wants them to make it a one-time deal. But he held out hope.

"We still can stop this," he said.

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