Shipshape drug center remains a dream adrift

Ex-hospital ship Sanctuary's state lease expires in South Baltimore after lengthy battle with port

June 22, 2006|By MEREDITH COHN | MEREDITH COHN,SUN REPORTER

Its lines sagged in the water and there was no gangway to the USS Sanctuary, berthed several feet from a weedy state-owned pier in South Baltimore. Stephen J. Hammer had no way to board the former hospital ship one day last week and was frustrated at being so close.

That's been a near-constant state for Hammer. The former addict acquired the old Navy ship 13 years ago but has never quite realized his vision of using it to house recovering female drug users.

The 61-year-old Sanctuary has a rich history of service, bringing home prisoners of war after World War II and offering medical care to wounded servicemen during the Vietnam conflict. Hammer believed it could serve again, if the port of Baltimore hadn't fought his effort.

Over the years, the ship has become anything but a source of peace or comfort. Instead, it's become a 14,000-ton ghost ship on the local waterfront.

And the Sanctuary's future could slip further adrift. Its lease at the port of Baltimore expired yesterday. Hammer is without rent money or a government sponsor, and, for the most part, without allies on the waterfront.

Hammer once attracted powerful backers and millions of dollars, and he vows he'll do it again because there are people in need and he has a ship fit for rescue.

"There is still addiction all these years later," he said. "It hasn't gone away. I'm not going away."

Hammer's nonprofit group, Project Life Inc., took over the ship in 1993 from another group, Life International, which acquired the Sanctuary a few years before from the Navy for $10 in exchange for putting it to good use.

Hammer got to work negotiating with the port, where it could get space and services it needed.

Port leaders said then - and maintain now - that a drug treatment program has no place among the heavy and dangerous equipment of a working marine terminal. Some tenants and local lawmakers also bitterly opposed the project, saying it wasn't the ship's residents who needed protecting, but the port.

They feared damage to the image of the port as it was seeking more business. And they feared cargo theft. One terminal operator noted that there were thousands of imported cars parked yards from the Sanctuary that were valued at up to $40,000 each, with keys in the ignitions.

"To my knowledge, we've never agreed to such a use," M. Kathleen Broadwater, deputy executive director of the Maryland Port Administration that oversees the port, said last week about a residential treatment program.

"There's heavy equipment. There's a lot of movement and you can't always see people on the street. You've got to control traffic, even more so since [the terrorist attacks of] Sept. 11."

Undeterred, Project Life filed a lawsuit against the port in 1998 that landed in U.S. District Court. It accused the port of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act and other statutes for denying recovering addicts space among the cranes and cargo.

To the port's astonishment, it lost the costly battle. The suit involved years of motions, briefings, delays and appeals that stretched into 2003 - about 8,500 hours of litigation involving dozens of lawyers and assistants that the judge in the case labeled a "colossal waste of resources," according to court documents.

The port was ordered to pay just $12 in damages to Project Life but $1.1 million in fees to Project Life's lawyers. Most importantly for the Sanctuary, the port also was ordered to sign a lease with the group. It did so on June 21, 2001, for a berth in Locust Point, away from the auto terminal but in the midst of a facility that handles another of the state's major imports: paper.

The location still irritates Morgan C. "Trip" Bailey, president of BalTerm, which handles paper products for the port.

"We handle on a daily basis an average of 125 trucks in and out of there," he said. "When a ship is working, there's a lot more activity. It's a dangerous environment, and we need to limit who has access."

The port does not want to use Pier 6, where the Sanctuary is berthed, for anything else because the dock has become too deteriorated, posing another problem for Project Life, which is responsible for upkeep.

The property also abuts former industrial land now being developed for upscale townhouses, whose owners could become new opponents of the ship.

The fight wore on Hammer, who at one point sold scrap lead and other metals from the ship's bowels to help support himself.

Broke and exhausted, he began to feel as though everyone from dogcatchers to housing-code enforcers were after him. He moved his family from Maryland to Pennsylvania a few years ago. Until recently, he focused more on his job as a freight broker.

The litigation also hurt fundraising, said Betty Jo Christian, Project Life's lawyer and a partner in Steptoe & Johnson LLP, a Washington law firm.

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