The Mount Vernon house spent decades as one of several 19th-century millionaires' mansions. But in the last 25 years, the Patrick Allison House has found another mission.
Once a church office, it is now a sanctuary for the homeless where a neighboring congregation once served breakfasts. Its role changed to fit a need, and its rooms are now a year-round residence. The spacious bedrooms house homeless men who have given up drugs and alcohol and are making their way into the workforce, often after release from prison or jail.
"If you have a nice place to stay, it helps brings your life back together," said Toni Field, the Allison House's executive director.
The house operates under a structured environment. The men all sign in and out; they work during the day and sleep in their own rooms at night. They receive counseling and encouragement.
There is a common kitchen. The place is tidy and clean. And while there is no mistaking its no-frills institutional feel, there are reminders of its Victorian former life – old mantelpieces and fancy plaster decorations on ceilings as high as 16 feet.
Field said the residents, once they have been released from prison, must be sober to live at the Allison House. They will have gone through a 28-day rehabilitation program at a drug and alcohol treatment center.
"By the time they get to us, they are motivated to succeed," she said.
Her staff works with contacts, usually at the Living Classrooms Foundation, to find jobs. The residents work as cleaners and in maintenance for the city and for the Maryland Zoo.
The residents pay a program fee of $35 a week to live here. They are required to save 50 percent of their wages so that when they leave the house, they will have some funds to begin renting on their own. They usually stay six to eight months.
Field said she realizes hers is a small operation. "But it is better to help seven or eight men than to do nothing," she said.
The house, named for Patrick Allison, an 18th-century pastor of First Presbyterian Church and owned by First and Franklin Street Presbyterian Church, is run as an independent operation with a board of directors separate from its adjoining religious institution. The church charges the home a token $1 per year for rent.
The Park Avenue building, for decades a church office, also has daunting financial overhead issues. The utility costs run $17,000 a year, and there is a need for a fire sprinkler system. Help recently came from the mission committee of the Roland Park Presbyterian Church, whose members underwrote the cost of one room's refurbishment.
"We are looking for other organizations to adopt a room," said Field, the home's executive director. "Almost everybody is affected personally by substance abuse in a loved one or friend. We have had people make gifts to help."
Paul E. Burke III, who serves on the Allison House board, said that many of the men here "lived in the shadows of life."
He recalled one former resident who had been arrested nearly 35 times for metals theft. "He lived in the woods," Burke said. The resident lived at the house for six months and now works at a scrap yard. He is sober and rents his own apartment.
The house also receives support from the city's Baltimore Homeless Services, the Associated Jewish Charity's Krieger Foundation, the Maryland Affordable Housing Trust, the Weinberg Foundation, T Rowe Price and the Middendorf Foundation. But there are some 900 private donors who also contribute.
"We feel we have accomplished our purpose when our men leave us and can live on their as contributing members of the community," Field said.