Youth shelter planned

West-side site to aid young homeless trying to improve

Sun follow-up

December 24, 2006|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,Sun reporter

After three years of continuous discussions, a residential center for homeless teenagers and young adults - believed to be the first of its kind in Maryland - is closer than ever to being built on Baltimore's west side.

A dream of committed leaders from private and public agencies, the project is designed to provide a place for young people who have little support from their families to receive adult supervision and help while they pursue an education or job training.

The project is called Restoration Gardens, and it is on track to open in 2009 at 3701 Cottage Ave. in the Park Heights community, just west of Television Hill.

The expected $5 million cost includes the demolition of an old schoolhouse donated by Delta Sigma Theta, the service-oriented sorority of college-educated black women, and the construction of 40 efficiency apartments, according to Julia Pierson, a consultant hired in June to bring the project to the development stage.

"I am very optimistic that this can work," said Pierson, who also worked on Stadium Place, a senior housing development on the site of the former Memorial Stadium.

The complicated financing is incomplete, but Pierson said she believes some money will come from a combination of low-income housing tax credits, foundation grants and federal money available through the city.

The aim, she said, is to have as little debt as possible, so that the tenants are charged a very low monthly rent.

The concept was developed over several years by Leslie Leitch, executive director of AIDS Interfaith Residential Services Inc; Alice Cole, director of career development services with the Mayor's Office of Employment Development; Ross Pologe at the Fellowship of Lights; and Laura Gillis who formerly worked for Baltimore Homeless Services.

Out of their discussions and those with others came the Baltimore Youth Initiative, whose first project is Restoration Gardens.

The group also hopes to create a drop-in center for homeless teens seeking simple comforts such as a shower, food and a place to wash their clothing, as well as other community services.

The building would have efficiency apartments as well as common space, including an Internet cafe where residents could learn to use computers and socialize, a kitchen and a room that can serve as a gathering place.

Outside would be a garden and recreation area.

The students would be required to do some work at or near the facility, and to adhere to regulations on alcohol and drug use.

Adults would be available to provide counseling and supervision.

But the young tenants wouldn't be thrown out for failure to pay rent or other missteps, said Pierson.

"Our goal is to continue to provide support and guidance to these young people even as they may make mistakes, because they have already been abandoned so many times," she said. "Our intention is to bring them closer, to bring them more adult support, to bring them the tools they need to be on their own."

Leitch said they expect residents to live in Restoration Gardens for three or four years until they have the education or job skills to live on their own.

Currently, Restoration Gardens is targeted for those between the ages of 18 and 24 who have no place to live. Some could be 18-year-olds who have outgrown the foster care system and must leave their families or group homes, while others might have parents who are in prison or who have abandoned them.

They might be moving from one family member to another or be couch-surfing, a term used to describe people who stay with one friend one night and move on the next.

Leitch said the group hopes to take some 16- and 17-year-olds, but a number of policy issues have to be worked out. Under state law, educators, social workers and others who work with teenagers are required to report any minor without a home to the Department of Social Services.

The question, Cole said, is: "How do we help those who don't want to be in social services but they are still young people who need help?"

No formal count of homeless teens has been done in the city, in part because some of them try to hide their homelessness from teachers and social service agencies. But hundreds of teenagers in the city public schools have identified themselves as homeless in any given year to school staff or have spent time in a shelter.

The Baltimore Homeless Initiative is now working with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health to conduct a census of homeless teens and young people.

Planning for the facility has taken so long in part because of the search for an appropriate site.

The group wanted to make sure that the center was in a neighborhood - rather than in a vacant warehouse in a corner of the city that didn't have connections to a community. And they wanted the surrounding community to be supportive.

A web of connections led to a solution.

While the Baltimore Homeless Youth Initiative was looking at sites, Delta Sigma Theta began considering what could be done with a rundown building next to its center in Park Heights.

Cole, the employment development official and a sorority member, saw a solution.

The sorority purchased the building at a tax sale from the city. At first, it seemed the structure could be renovated, but because of water damage and extensive mold in the first and second floors, group leaders now believe the building should be torn down. They are working out a dispute over a water bill and soon hope to have the deed to the 1 1/2 -acre property.

Homes for America, an Annapolis-based nonprofit developer specializing in low- and moderate-income housing, has been chosen to develop the site.

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