Violations force shelter to close immediately

Those aided by I Can Inc. say facility gave homeless more than just refuge

December 21, 2006|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,Sun reporter

A year ago, Gary Matthews walked into a Greenmount Avenue homeless shelter with a 40-year-old drug habit and 8 cents to his name.

But in nine months, Matthews, 60, has managed to stay clean. He's earning a degree in social work at Sojourner-Douglass College, and for the first time in his life, he holds down two jobs.

Yesterday, Matthews began doubting his accomplishments when city agencies shut down the shelter that he credits with his transformation, citing it for code violations. The Baltimore Health Department has arranged for the approximately 70 occupants of the shelter operated by I Can Inc. to stay at the city's emergency shelter temporarily, but the uncertainty has Matthews fearing the worst.

"Any setback can send you back to the street, doing everything you were doing before you got your life together," he said. "Everything you worked hard for could be gone in a minute."

The Rev. Lonnie J. Davis Sr., I Can Inc.'s founder and executive director, has a contract with the city to operate the men's shelter in the 2200 block of Greenmount Ave. He said he was outraged that the facility was ordered to close. Davis said he received no warning from the city fire and housing departments until yesterday that the building had been out of compliance.

"Why now?" he said. "During Christmas? Is this the Christmas present the city has for the homeless?"

But city officials said yesterday that the Greenmount location, one of four shelters run by Davis, has had numerous problems leading up to yesterday's closure. Acting on a complaint, city health inspectors visited the shelter Nov. 8 and ordered Davis to close its kitchen after finding unsanitary conditions, including mouse and roach infestations, said Olivia Farrow, assistant commissioner for environmental health. In addition, the shelter lacked a food permit, she said.

The Health Department shut down its overnight emergency program - a 42-bed area located in the same facility - because of worn mattresses, Farrow said.

Davis fixed the kitchen violations and obtained a permit, but the emergency shelter has not reopened.

Then yesterday, inspectors with the city fire and housing departments arrived to find multiple problems, including malfunctioning smoke detectors, broken emergency lights and inoperable exit signs. The building also lacked an occupancy permit.

"We will gladly work with them to get them up to compliance," said Fire Department spokesman Kevin Cartwright. "But that is not the issue. The primary issue is that this is a major, significant code violation. Our concern is for the health, welfare and safety of all the individuals occupying this building."

Davis, who said he has a reputation for getting homeless services back on track, was appointed by Mayor Martin O'Malley to the city's Commission on Homelessness.

"The city has asked me to take over facilities," he said "One time, when we had a boiler problem, the city offered to work with us until we got it fixed. They make the request, and we do what we need to do. After all these years, they shut us down?"

Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, the city's health commissioner, said the health department could have done more to reach out to I Can Inc., which receives about $700,000 a year from the city, in addition to state and federal grants. But he called the violations "very concerning."

"We have to be assessing the fire inspections status of our grantees to avoid problems like this in the future," Sharfstein said. "There is probably more of a role that we could play so that people know what they need to do. But it's ultimately the responsibility of the people who are running the facility."

Last night, the city offered transportation for clients to its emergency shelter, but at midafternoon, Davis and his staff of 13 were uncertain if their clients would have a place to spend the night.

Another city shelter agreed to house the 12 clients in I Can's shelter for the sick, which serves people such as James W. Johnson, a 64-year-old with congestive heart failure, high blood pressure and diabetes.

"The nurse comes here two times a week and makes sure that I take my medication," said Johnson, who was recommended to the shelter three months ago through Health Care for the Homeless. "They don't have another place like this."

Charles Wilson, a senior case manager, worried most about the men in his transitional housing program, which serves up to 58 men for up to two years, many of whom have struggled with substance abuse. The program connects clients with abuse services and teaches them to compose resumes and find jobs.

"I've seen hundreds get on their feet - sure, a few end up back - but most of them are doing well for themselves and living sensible lives."

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