Backers of a plan to open a live-in homeless outreach center in Southwest Baltimore presented hundreds of letters and signatures of support Saturday to City Councilwoman Helen Holton, in hopes of overcoming the objections of some area residents.
Project PLASE (People Lacking Ample Shelter and Employment), a 38-year-old program based in the North Charles neighborhood, wants to expand its programming and has set its sights on a closed Catholic school at St. Joseph's Monastery Parish on Old Frederick Road.
The church, which saw its school close in 2010 on orders from the archdiocese, is eager to sell the building and has joined forces with the nonprofit in an attempt to win over nearby residents.
Mary C. Slicher, executive director of Project PLASE, organized a petition and letter-writing drive as part of a broad outreach campaign. She expressed hope Saturday that the effort to bring around people in the surrounding neighborhoods — Irvington, St. Joseph's and Allendale — would ensure the project's viability.
"In anything, there's going to be some people who aren't for you — that's just life," said Slicher at a breakfast at the church. "We've worked very hard to educate the community. There were a lot of misperceptions. I think having this extra time is a plus; it gave us the opportunity to ... have a dialogue."
The community breakfast was designed to lobby Holton, a Democrat who represents the area, to introduce zoning legislation needed for the project. Holton introduced the bill last year, but withdrew it after neighborhood opposition developed.
Holton said Saturday that the letters of support from residents, local business owners and parishioners "will certainly have some bearing," but was noncommittal about reintroducing the zoning measure. Holton said she would review the submissions that PLASE officials say consisted of hundreds of letters of support and petition signatures, as well as submissions from opponents.
"I do think it's a worthwhile project," she said. "I'd much rather see that building used than boarded up."
But, she added, "Helen Holton's personal opinion is not important. It is the majority of the voices that are heard that will determine the future of this project."
Karen Taylor, president of the St. Joseph's Improvement Association, did her own neighborhood survey with different results. She said of the nearly 250 people she questioned, about 70 percent opposed the project. She also submitted her findings to Holton.
"I'm on the fence with it," said Taylor. "I really like the program. But people are worried about safety. There's a need for help in the community, but at what cost? People want to know, 'If I say yes to this, what else is coming?'"
Delores McKnight, who opposes the project, stood in the church parking lot, passing out copies of a letter she wrote to Holton and the rest of the council.
"It's the wrong location for it," said McKnight, an Irvington resident who runs a day care center in the neighborhood. "It's a residential area. This community has already decayed a lot. We already have enough drug users and ex-offenders walking around the neighborhood. I'm in support of helping them — it's just the wrong place for it."
PLASE has offered $1.4 million for the former school building and would spend an additional $6 million on renovations. The school makeover would create 60 transitional apartments for the group's clients to live in while they make use of services such as job counseling and addiction and educational programs.
Though it would maintain some services on Maryland Avenue, the nonprofit would move most of its work to the St. Joseph's site if the sale goes through. The organization estimates that it serves about 450 people annually.
PLASE officials say the neighborhood concerns are unwarranted. They said the center's residents, who are supervised by case workers, are subject to 24-hour supervision, random drug tests and curfews, and are frequently gone from the facility during the day, seeking employment or participating in training programs.
Shirley Fonseca, who has lived near the church for 52 years, was one of about 80 parishioners who fanned out across the area since November, to promote the project among community residents. The volunteers wanted to change minds, one at a time, she said.
"After they got the facts, people couldn't understand why anyone would be against it," said Fonseca. "People invited us into their homes. They see people right in the neighborhood sleeping on porches. …There's a lot of need out there."