Church, City Reach Deal On Park

Once Refurbished, Homeless Will Have To Leave Area Next To St. Vincent's From 7-9 A.m.

August 09, 2009|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

For the first time in at least 40 years, there are no homeless people sleeping on the scrubby patch of dirt outside St. Vincent de Paul Church in downtown Baltimore.

The vacancy could herald a new era in the long-tense relationship between city and church officials, who this week signed a contract laying out new requirements for cleanliness on a plot of land that features an uncomfortably visible homeless encampment of a dozen or more people, some in large tents and lean-tos.

The agreement, reached after months of negotiations that involved the Baltimore Archdiocese and signed Wednesday, requires the church to beautify the park, a process it says will take $45,000 and six weeks. The city Board of Estimates must also approve the contract and is expected to take it up Wednesday.

"We commend St. Vincent's Church for taking the steps needed to improve the conditions in the park, and we hope that this will reduce the number of people staying there," said Diane Glauber, director of Baltimore Homeless Services. "This represents a concerted effort by the Archdiocese and the city to work together toward our shared goal of ensuring that homeless people have access to housing and resources."

In anticipation of the new plan, homeless people were evicted Aug. 1, replaced by yellow caution tape and contractors. Once the renovation is complete, the homeless can come back - but they must completely leave the park, taking all of their belongings with them, every morning from 7 to 9. Downtown Partnership workers will spend those two hours cleaning the park each weekday, and church volunteers will take up the task every Saturday and Sunday.

The church will pay Downtown Partnership $15,000 a year for its services. The pastor, the Rev. Richard Thomas Lawrence, says the expenses take a substantial bite out of the church's $250,000 annual budget, and it is trying to line up donations.

Church and city officials acknowledge this cleanup is an experiment that might not work and designed the contract to expire 60 days after the park reopens. But the intention, they say, is to discourage people from sleeping there and, at the very least, eradicate the unsightly tents and rudimentary structures.

The space, at the intersection of the Jones Falls Expressway and Fayette Street, and the needy are tightly entwined. Before the 1960s, there was a church-run orphanage on the site. It became a city park after that structure was torn down, and immediately started attracting so many drunken vagrants that it became known as "Wino Park."

When the church bought the land in 1999, the congregation allowed homeless people to continue staying there. In recent years, it took on the appearance of a full-blown shantytown.

Well-meaning churchgoers and passers-by left tents and building materials and food at the site, attracting rats and other vermin. More and more homeless people started living there, particularly when the city cracked down on other gathering spots, such as the plaza in front of City Hall.

The church refused to enforce no-trespassing laws that could clear out the park by locking up vagrants, drawing the irritation of prominent developers and past city officials over the years, including Gov. Martin O'Malley when he was mayor, Lawrence said.

Mayor Sheila Dixon has pumped millions into funding for homeless services. The city is breaking ground Monday for a building on the Fallsway, a few blocks north of the park, that will include 24-hour shelter and counseling.

At first, Glauber's office tried sending teams of outreach workers to St. Vincent's to help the homeless there move directly into housing. They placed more than 20 people that way, but workers were frustrated by the transience of the population.

Glauber said the cleanup contract is a better option.

For Lawrence, pastor at St. Vincent's since 1973, it was the only compromise that made sense. Allowing the homeless to sleep outside the church shows Christian kindness, he says, and he won't give that up. But he also says he understands that "we walk a fine line between compassion and enabling."

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