Homeless center earns recognition

Director wants to expand the drop-in Project HOPE, which offers mental-health services

Baltimore & Region


When Frederick L. Jennings' therapist told him there was a place in the city where he could hang out with other people who also suffered from mental illnesses and were homeless, he thought she was the one who needed therapy.

"I couldn't believe such a place existed," Jennings said.

It has been nearly a year since his initial referral to Project HOPE, the city's only daytime drop-in center for homeless men and women. For the first time in his life, the 59-year-old artist says he feels connected to a community that understands him.

"Every caseworker here is a person you can talk to," said Jennings, who has bipolar disorder. "I noticed that right away. They have compassion."

Project HOPE - Helping Other People through Empowerment Inc. - has been around for about five years but is still relatively unknown outside social services circles. That's about to change. Recently, the nonprofit organization was one of 12 programs in the nation recognized for "outstanding achievements" in mental health and homeless services.

Although the recognition by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration at a ceremony in Washington last month didn't come with a cash award, Project HOPE Director Clarissa Netter is moving forward with plans to improve the center and expand its offerings.

"This is a place where people can come and be themselves," Netter said. She said many Project HOPE clients feel uncomfortable in traditional shelters because those around them don't understand their mental illness. In her program, however, "They can feel comfortable and not feel ostracized," she said.

Project HOPE, which is open from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week, serves about 50 people a day, she said. Clients must show proof of mental illness - in most cases, a referral from a therapist or psychiatrist - to participate. The group also runs a 20-bed shelter on Belair Road.

Netter said she and her staff of five - all of whom have also coped with mental illness and homelessness in the past - have applied for grants that could allow them to buy the building they lease at 1426 E. Fairmount Ave.

The plain cinderblock structure is in need of repairs and renovations, but Netter has dreams of one day opening a cafe and day care center that would benefit her clients, as well as the larger Upper Fells Point community.

Project HOPE is supported by grants from state and federal sources, money that is distributed by Baltimore Mental Health Systems Inc., an arm of local government that provides mental health services.

At a Thanksgiving-style meal Wednesday, Project HOPE clients said they were grateful for the help they've received, including access to counseling, shower and laundry facilities, and telephones to track down jobs and apartments.

"I've found some very supportive people," said John Herritt, 47, of Baltimore, who is trying to get his life back together after years of battling depression. "I feel like I'm on a good path."


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