Some neighbors worry about Beans and Bread expansion

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.

But neighbors, including Hammer, whose property abuts the expansion, fear that the improved facility will bring more homeless to the neighborhood.

"Beans and Bread is no longer the community soup kitchen," she said. "It has now opened its arms up to people across the city."

Hammer and Victor Corbin, president of the adjacent Fells Prospect Neighborhood Association, have spearheaded the battle against the expansion for more than two years, challenging the project before Baltimore's zoning and historic preservation boards and, most recently, the city's spending board.

"This is not benefiting the community, and it's detrimental to property values," said Corbin. "A lot of people have spent years putting value into their homes, and that's all they have."

Hammer bought her home more than two decades ago, before a nearby stretch of abandoned warehouses was turned into the prosperous Harbor East area. She bought two more adjacent properties, combined two into a larger home, and created a garden and pond.

She says her story is typical of those who own property in the neighborhood, which is near the Perkins Homes public housing complex and lacks the quirky shops and restaurants of waterfront Fells Point.

"There's been an investment, blood, sweat and tears in our neighborhood. We're not talking about people with a lot of money, but people who have rolled up their sleeves" and renovated homes, including many once-vacant properties, Hammer says.

"We have put all those homes back on the tax rolls, and the city should be very grateful for that," she said.

The community groups have brought their fight to the state's second-highest court, the Court of Special Appeals, challenging the city zoning board's approval of the plans. That case is expected to be heard early next year. Beans and Bread has, with the city's blessing, moved ahead with construction, which began this month.

Hammer recalls when Beans and Bread occupied a tiny storefront on Aliceanna Street, a space now home to the Blue Moon Cafe. She says she welcomed the program's move to Bond Street, and supported two previous expansions.

However, Hammer says, she lost patience with Beans and Bread after the second expansion, in the late 1990s when, she says, leaders also promised that people would no longer be lining up outside.

Hammer and Corbin chafe at the idea that supporters of Beans and Bread have labeled them as "not in my backyard" activists. They say the program has outgrown the neighborhood which, although it contains an auto repair shop, is zoned residential.

"This is his third expansion," Hammer said, referring to Schiavone. "If you're really getting that big, then you need to move."

Schiavone and the community leaders agree on one topic — attempts to work out a compromise were frustrating. The community leaders say St. Vincent de Paul walked away from mediation. Schiavone said the community leaders were unyielding in their demands.

"It just became clear that their desire was to stop the project, not to compromise," he said.

City officials, who back Beans and Bread, extended a $450,000 loan to the construction project this month.

Thomasina Hiers, director of the city's Office of Human Services, says that Beans and Bread is an integral part of the network of nonprofits that supplement publicly funded programs for the homeless.

"We could not do any of the work that we do without strong nonprofit organizations, and St. Vincent de Paul is one of many that we have in that network," said Hiers.

Hiers stressed that Beans and Bread is just one of many nonprofit programs scattered throughout the city that serve the homeless, and said city officials have no plans to direct more people to the site.

Askew-Sawyer asks that the neighbors consider the dire needs of those who seek help at Beans and Bread.

"This is not a political issue. This is a human issue," Askew-Sawyer said. "These are human beings who are less fortunate than others."