Project PLASE tries to quell neighborhood fears in S.W. Baltimore

Brigades of parishioners at St. Joseph's Monastery in Southwest Baltimore have cataloged their roles in the mission on a spreadsheet. Each team is tasked with convincing different neighbors that the only offer for the congregation's empty school building — from a group that helps homeless people get back onto their feet — will benefit the community at large.

"We're trying to do away with any misperceptions and lack of knowledge," said Mary Slicher, executive director of Project PLASE (People Lacking Ample Shelter and Employment). "We're here to help people get stable — medically, economically."

The 38-year-old nonprofit, which wants to offer a mix of temporary housing, apartments and social services for its residents, is working closely with St. Joseph's congregants to win over local businesses, other churches and nearby homeowners. But they're fighting an uphill battle. Some residents of the struggling blocks surrounding the school — in the St. Joseph's, Irvington and Allendale neighborhoods — oppose having a program for the homeless so close.

"I just don't want this to be a dumping ground," said Barbara Pettigrew, a lifelong neighbor who attended a meeting on a recent Saturday afternoon in the school's basement cafeteria to hear about the proposed sale. Her sister, Brenda Pettigrew, who also lives in the neighborhood, chimed in: "If there are people who aren't successful in the program, where will they land?"

PLASE, which has offered $1.4 million for the former school building on Old Frederick Road, would spend an additional $6 million on renovations. The group wants to create 60 "transitional" apartments, where people could live for two to 12 months while they used the group's services — GED classes, job counselors, addiction specialists — to develop more stable lives. The school also would house 30 permanent apartments. Case managers would help residents stay on track.

The nonprofit offers similar housing and services in three buildings on Maryland and North avenues in the city's Charles North neighborhood, where there is room for about 65 residents. The organization estimates that about 450 people are served over the course of a year. Though it would maintain services on Maryland Avenue, the nonprofit would move most of its work to the St. Joseph's site if the sale goes through.

Since the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore closed the school on St. Joseph's campus in 2010, windows have been broken, bullet holes have appeared in the sign out front and the building's copper pipes were stolen, flooding the floors that students roamed for decades.

The sale of the building would financially help St. Joseph's Monastery, which had to take on the costs of keeping up with the building suddenly, said the Rev. Bill Murphy. The nearby St. Bernardine's parish, on Edmondson Avenue, had been paying for the school's upkeep for the previous 13 years, he said.

"It's a small parish, and it cannot afford to maintain a large, vacant building," said Lynn Case, who is on the church's finance committee. "Neighbors say they want a recreation center to go in here, but that's unlikely. Who's going to invest in that when [city] funds for those are going the other way?"

At community meetings, some residents have expressed frustration over the church's sparse advertising of the school sale, which they said limited the organizations that may have known it was on the market. Although the real estate was not extensively promoted, said Murphy, because PLASE was interested from the start, there was significant news coverage of the archdiocese's overall plan to close schools.

And PLASE would prefer to stay in the area of Baltimore it has been for the last four decades, said Slicher, but real estate prices make that unrealistic. It wasn't until the school at St. Joseph's Monastery was put on the market that the nonprofit found a location that is the right price and size and easily accessible by public transportation, making it an ideal fit for PLASE's needs, she said.

The main impediment to PLASE's acquisition of the school is zoning. The church and PLASE expected the necessary zoning changes to be made swiftly, until opposition by some neighbors delayed the process by at least six months.

"My impression is that they're going to put it up and then they're going to prey on us," said Betty Carr, who lives about a block from the school building and is concerned about the welfare of her granddaughter. "If I could move, I would. We're going to have some people in recovery, but put them right where there's drug dealers?"

PLASE residents are subject to random drug tests and curfews, have 24-hour supervision and are largely gone from the facility during the day, working, seeking employment or taking part in training programs elsewhere, said the organization's staff members. Those restrictions discourage residents who are recovering from addictions to be tempted by drugs that may be available nearby, they said.

"There's a real misconception as to what Project PLASE is," said Mary Ellen Jernigan, a longtime St. Joseph's congregant. What comes to mind, she said, are lines of people waiting for food outside the building and transients who are only in the neighborhood for a single night. "You say the word 'homeless' and everyone thinks of it as a nighttime shelter."

Baltimore City Councilwoman Helen Holton introduced a bill requesting a "special use variance" for the zoning of the building in mid-August. A hearing was scheduled for October on the zoning change, but following several hostile community meetings, Holton withdrew the bill.

She expects to reintroduce it next year, she said, after more members of the community are informed of PLASE's plan. Church members have proposed presenting her with petitions signed by neighbors.

A community breakfast meeting with Holton is scheduled for early February. By that time, Slicher said, she hopes the tide will have turned in PLASE's favor.

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