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Paul's Place serves Southwest Baltimore for 30 years

Habitat for Humanity International

Paul's Place began as a soup kitchen in the basement of a Southwest Baltimore church 30 years ago. It has expanded into a community outreach center that serves more than 75,000 hot lunches a year and offers more than 20 programs, including job training, housing assistance, computer classes, and family workshops.

"We help more than 80,000 people annually," said William J. McLennan, executive director since 2002.

He marked the 30th anniversary Thursday with a large decorated sheet cake, that, given the number of lunch guests at the center, disappeared in minutes. The lines grow longer at the end of the month, he said, but no one is turned away. More than 500 diners arrived through the lunch hour Thursday.

Paul's Place, at 1118 Ward St., occupies a 10,000-square-foot building with a commercial kitchen, a dining room seating 60, classrooms and offices. A landscaped side lot offers green space, with playground equipment for children. Inside, guests — McLennan prefers that word to "clients" or "patrons" — will find a warm meal, laundry and shower facilities, a health center and a helping hand.

"This truly is a community center where people ... get what they need to live," said Denie Dulin, president of the Paul's Place board.

With a staff of 14 and more than 100 volunteers, the center remains a constant resource for the low-income families in Washington Village/Pigtown, organizers said. Once home to a thriving middle class, Pigtown is now beset with high unemployment and crime, often fueled by the drug trade. The median annual income of residents is $22,000, and 70 percent of the families with children live in poverty, according to latest census figures.

"About 55 percent of those we serve are dealing with unemployment, and many are fighting substance abuse," McLennan said.

The center connects people to literacy classes in partnership with the South Baltimore Learning Center. It offers a computer lab and trains about 50 adults a year in life and job skills.

Junior, 20 (whose last name was withheld), is studying for his GED and taking job training and computer classes, while volunteering at Paul's Place. He has not returned to work since he was struck by a car and suffered severe injuries.

"They are helping me and I am giving back," Junior said. "I am getting ready for a job, thanks to programs here."

Habitat for Humanity has worked with Paul's Place to address the affordable-housing issue. Additionally, the organization has done some rehabbing of its own with the purchase of an abandoned rowhouse next door. It opens next week as a counseling center, adding 900 square feet and offices for the five staff counselors, who see about 400 families a year.

Paul's Place has reached $2.4 million of a $3 million capital campaign that helped fund the new space and expand its programs. The campaign goal is to keep Paul's Place as an anchor for Southwest Baltimore and make it a catalyst for change for the next 30 years at least.

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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