An oasis in West Baltimore grapples with its own crisis

Burst pipe at Echo House disrupts some programs that help addicts and neighborhood children

October 21, 2007|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,sun reporter

Surveying the flood-damaged Echo House last week, contractors paused when they reached the second story: ruined floors pockmarked with craters, tangles of wires where the ceilings had caved in and crumbling walls.

"This is where it really got it," said Kevin Maggio, a restoration expert.

"No, this is only the second-worst floor," said Janice Lockwood, executive director of Echo House, a center in West Baltimore that provides a food pantry for the neighborhood, after-school programs for 80 children and treatment and counseling for hundreds of drug addicts.

But since a pipe in a third-floor bathroom burst last month, sending rivers of water down the walls and into the basement, Echo House has scrambled to serve its neediest clients -- a group of which there is no shortage in the desperate blocks of Franklin Square, Penrose and Poppleton.

"We need to pull together as a society and work with the people who need help," said Lockwood, who has been at Echo House for 31 of its 43 years. "Our teenagers don't have anyone to turn to. Why should society throw them away?"

The center has run an after-school program for elementary school-age children for years, with much success: 75 percent of its participants end up graduating from high school. And this year it began a program for high school students. Forty enrolled, and they spend their afternoons and early evenings at the center. But since the flood, that program is on hold.

Echo House operates out of a three-story building constructed in 1825 on West Fayette Street. The rooms where drug treatment groups met and children gathered are now gutted. In most, only the wood studs remain -- the computers, TVs, video game systems, groceries, all ruined.

"It was absolutely a mess," said Kenyona Moore-Saunders, an Echo House employee who was among the first on the scene after the flood. "Water was just running down the steps. There was a pond in the conference room. It was a disaster zone. We were like, `God have mercy, what are we going to do?'"

Two community institutions -- St. Martin's Roman Catholic Church and a Bon Secours community support center -- have offered space for Echo House group meetings. But Echo House staff are worried their insurance may not cover a full rehabilitation.

Because of its location, on a street where an open-air drug market once flourished, in a neighborhood where most of the houses are boarded up and just two blocks from the place that was the subject of David Simon's and Ed Burns' book The Corner, Echo House has insurance that will not cover the replacement value of items.

That means computers, televisions and air conditioning units will be covered at their value at the time of the flood, not what it would cost to replace them.

But at the moment, the primary concern is putting the building back together. On Wednesday, Lockwood led Maggio, of Integrity Restoration of Eldersburg, on a tour of the three stories and the basement -- each a study in devastation, but also history.

The 2-by-10-foot wooden beams that support the floors are actually 2 inches wide, not 1 1/2 , like most 2-inch beams sold today. The brick walls that are exposed now that the drywall and plaster have come down are beautiful examples of quality masonry. All the floors have 12-foot ceilings.

"This is the kitchen," Lockwood said, taking Maggio to the rear of the first floor, "and as you can see, there's nothing left to it."

When the flood was discovered on Sept. 23, a Sunday, Lockwood immediately called St. Martin's and Bon Secours. Both had space, and both welcomed Echo House.

"Anyone who can use our facilities, we're very open to have them come in," said the Rev. Mark Carter of St. Martin's. The church is slated to close next year, meaning there will no longer be Sunday services. But Carter said the archdiocese will hold onto the church building, which dates to 1865, and make it available to community groups.

"They provide essential services," said George Kleb, executive director of the Bon Secours of Maryland Foundation. "It's a house. It's not imposing. It's a place on Fayette Street that people know they can go to."

The need is endless, so Echo House has been planning a new building across Fayette Street from its current location. The plans are still in the works, but the city has given Echo House the land, and the center has received $2.2 million from the city and state for construction money. Lockwood is trying to raise another $70,000 to hire an architect.

The new center would expand services to the homeless, in addition to providing more assistance through the food pantry, after-school programs and drug treatment. Lockwood, who rose through the ranks at Echo House over three decades, says it has changed her worldview.

"When I came to work here, I was very young, and I was raised on the American dream -- if you work hard, you're going to succeed," she said. "But here I see people who work hard and don't always succeed because of other factors."

She speaks of children who must stay home to take care of sick parents, of the lack of opportunities even for those who graduate from high school. Though the flood has set Echo House back, she is still determined to help them.

But sometimes it seems forces are aligned against her. One recent night, while Echo House was cleaning up from the flood, someone broke into the center and stole three of the still-functioning computers.

Lockwood isn't deterred. On Friday, Echo House staff took the teenagers in the after-school program on a field trip to a bowling alley, just to remind them the center is still there.

"They need to know someone cares," Lockwood said.

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