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Volunteers restoring home into day shelter

A rundown, vacant rowhouse in Southwest Baltimore will soon offer homeless and drug-addicted women a respite from the streets.

The house on Wilkens Avenue is undergoing extensive renovations that will turn it into a day shelter for women that will be known as Brigitte's Place. Pam Moniger, a recovering addict who said she spent 10 years homeless, will help staff the shelter.

"When I was out there, this would have meant so much," Moniger said. "Most of these women are just walking the streets and looking for a place to rest. We are not a detox center, but this may be where rehab can start. At least it's a way off the streets, even if it is just for a few hours."

Volunteers, many of them from Severna Park United Methodist Church in Anne Arundel County, are renovating the two-story brick house, located in the 2600 block of Wilkens Ave. in the Gwynns Falls area, and hoping to open it this spring.

Brigitte's Place, named for a young woman who died of an overdose, will offer counseling, if requested. And within its doors, women will find a spacious living room and modernized kitchen, showers, laundry facilities, and a resource room, which will be filled with clothing, toiletries and referrals to programs that can help. It will also have a garden.

"We can be a light here and a source of hope for these women," said Tom Yoo, a board member of Samaritan Women, a nonprofit organization that assists women in recovery with housing, meals and job training. It will oversee the shelter from its headquarters a few miles away, on a farm off Frederick Road.

The Rev. Paschal Morlino, longtime pastor of St. Benedict Parish, a few blocks from the planned shelter, said he supports any program to assist the homeless in the area, particularly the many young women involved in prostitution. The home was owned for years by an elderly parishioner who has since died.

"This is a great idea that I support 100 percent," he said. "I know the situation in the neighborhood really well, and I can see the need for this program. I am certain that this community will be happy that someone is trying to help these poor girls."

The volunteers have been candid with neighbors about the plans and found they would welcome the new use for the abandoned home, said the Rev. Nicole Christopher, assistant pastor of the Severna Park church.

"Everyone knows the problems in this area," Christopher said.

For now, the house on Wilkens Avenue is a gutted shell. Volunteers have secured all the requisite permits and are restoring wiring, plumbing, heat and air conditioning. They are also planning to refurbish the floors, paint the walls and furnish the home.

"It does not look it, but we have done so much already," Christopher said. "This home was obviously well-loved once, and it has layers of history. We want to bring it back."

The idea for the shelter grew from a street ministry that helps women whose addiction has driven them into prostitution, said Yoo. He drives a van that he used to reach out to women twice a month. He said he has met many who have come to the city from outlying areas, lured by drugs that led them to abandon their families and driven to homelessness.

"The need here is great," he said of the city's southwestern neighborhoods. "We see a lot of girls in prostitution to feed their drug habit. We offer them food, personal hygiene items and referrals for treatment. But we need a stronger, more frequent presence than the van."

Moniger plans to share her experiences with recovery. "I know what they are going through, how they think and how hard it is to get off drugs," she said. "Heroin is the enemy, and it has a fierce grip."

The Severna Park church's members include the plumbers, electricians and building contractors who are handling much of the work. Members have also donated much of the furnishings and are partnering with Woods Presbyterian, a neighbor church, in a kitchen remodeling project.

The plan includes renovating the home's existing bathroom and converting a second-floor bedroom into a second bath with two showers. A small bedroom will be prepared for emergency overnight stays.

"For us, this is a calling and a passion that we can't ignore," Christopher said. "Human trafficking is happening right in our backyard, and this is our attempt to do something to end it."

Yoo said if the shelter only helps one woman turn her life around, the effort will be worthwhile.

"These streets, this shelter, this is our church," he said.

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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