Some neighbors worry about Beans and Bread expansion

Fells Point soup kitchen to grow, despite community concerns

November 27, 2011|By Julie Scharper, The Baltimore Sun

Andre Scott sat at a wooden table fingering tattered documents — certificates from drug-treatment and job-training programs, a booklet from his girlfriend's funeral. With two dozen other very poor people, he was waiting to see a counselor at Beans and Bread in Upper Fells Point. Others seeking help stood outside in a cold rain.

The organizers of Beans and Bread say that a planned 14,000-square-foot expansion will let them better serve those who come for substance-abuse counseling, health care, life-skills training and a hot meal. Clients won't have to wait outside and everyone can be served more efficiently, they say.

But some community leaders say the expansion plans threaten the quality of life in their neighborhood — and their property values. They fear that the larger facility will lure the needy from across the city to Upper Fells Point, where they might linger in the streets after the soup kitchen closes.

"They're not serving the Fells Point needy, which is what they did originally, 20 or 30 years ago," said Deirdre Hammer, president of the Douglass Place Community Association. "They're bringing in an entire population of people, but there's nothing for them to do afterwards."

Hammer says that her neighborhood is home to hardworking people who, in many cases, renovated long-vacant houses. Poised between a public housing complex and gleaming Harbor East, residents are struggling to improve the area. An influx of homeless people will run counter to those efforts, Hammer says.

John Schiavone, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul of Baltimore, which runs Beans and Bread, says the program does not plan to draw more clients after the $5.2 million expansion.

"We're not looking to expand numbers," he said. "We're looking to better serve the people we already have."

Beans and Bread director Dorothy Askew-Sawyer said the addition will include plenty of space for people to wait to eat or to meet with a counselor, cutting down on the number of people outside. The dining room, which seats fewer than four dozen people, will be renovated but not expanded, Askew-Sawyer said. About 300 people eat lunch — the single meal Beans and Bread offers — each day, she says.

Scott, like others who come to Beans and Bread, describes the program as "a lifesaver."

Tall and gaunt, Scott, 52, says that he has been without permanent housing for nearly two decades, due to health problems and struggles with addiction. He stayed for a time with his mother, who has since died, and his girlfriend, who died last year.

Counselors at Beans and Bread provide case-management services for Scott, helping him seek more permanent housing than the shelter where he currently stays. His battered Manila folder contains a stack of forms and letters documenting his efforts to stay clean, attend medical appointments and search for jobs.

"This is everything I did this year," said Scott, thumping the folder. Like many others, he has his mail sent to Beans and Bread's address in the 400 block of Bond St., since the center is the most stable feature of his life.

Across the table from him, Chuck Wolferman and Joseph Long chat in hushed tones and look up expectantly when a case manager walks in to call the next client.

Wolferman, 47, eats a hot lunch at Beans and Bread and brings a sandwich back to his Highlandtown apartment for his wife, who he says can't leave the apartment because of a disability. Beans and Bread counselors helped him obtain a copy of his birth certificate and Social Security card and are aiding his search for a better apartment, he says.

Long, 62, who says he moved into a small apartment on Broadway in Fells Point a few weeks ago after his wife ordered him out of their house, says he eats his sole hot meal of the day at the soup kitchen.

"To me, it's the best meal I eat all day," he said. "If it wasn't for this place" and the Salvation Army truck that passes nearby in the evening, "I'd go completely hungry," he said.

A roofer by trade, Long says he suffered severe brain damage after falling off a roof in the 1970s. He says he was homeless for much of the 1970s and 1980s.

"I lived in empty houses, under bridges, cardboard boxes. I ran from here to California and California back to here," he said. "It's been hell."

Askew-Sawyer, the director, says that the expansion — funded by city and state money, private grants and other donations — will allow Beans and Bread to add showers and laundry facilities for the homeless, enlarge the kitchen and health suite, and create a larger waiting room.

When construction wraps up late next year, there will be more office space for nonprofit groups who come in to offer workshops, art therapy and recreational activities, like the weekly bingo games organized by volunteers from Loyola University Maryland.

"If you're homeless, these are things you don't normally get to do," said Askew-Sawyer.

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