Every winter, the Rev. Melvin Tuggle II and his wife buy 100 blankets and hand them out to the homeless people who huddle under the elevated Jones Falls Expressway in downtown Baltimore.
"It's not a lot, but we try to do something to help -- no matter how small," he said. "I just wished I could put them in a house."
Yesterday, in a partnership with four other churches, he did just that for a few homeless men. The Community Housing Partnership, financed largely by the state and by religious congregations, opened its first house to provide a permanent place for four homeless men.
The fully-furnished, completely renovated row house is located in the 200 block of North Fulton Street, and Community Housing Partnership organizers hope to open two other houses before the end of August. It's just a small step in combating a complex problem, says Mr. Tuggle of the Garden of Prayer Baptist Church. But it's better than no step at all.
One of the new residents of the row house on Fulton Street agrees.
"It's given me a positive outlook on life," said Kenneth E. Lee, 39. "When you're homeless, you feel like no one cares because you get turned away from so many people. But when I see all the people that have worked so this can happen, it makes me feel positive."
Mr. Lee, who lost his family, home and jobs to an expensive drug addiction, says he has been clean for 16 months. He showed off his new house, with comfortable furnishings donated by hotels and individuals. The house has five bedrooms, but one is set up as a conference room for weekly resident meetings.
"I want all issues and problems to be on the table," Mr. Lee says. "If I see someone slipping, I want to be able to tell them, and the same thing if they see me slipping.
The Fulton Street row house and the two others expected to open this summer were made available through a partnership of five churches: the Garden of Prayer Baptist Church, Govans Presbyterian Church, Shiloh Christian Community Church, Macedonia Baptist Church and Fountain Baptist Church. The churches will help pay the costs of maintaining the home for three years, after which they hope the residents will be self-sufficient.
The homes are made available to the city's Office of Homeless Services by landlords who agree to rent them at a fixed cost for three years.
Residents of the homes -- screened by staff at the Christopher's Place homeless shelter -- pay rent according to their income. The remainder of the cost is borne by the churches and by state rental assistance subsidies. Joanne Selinske, head of the Office of Homeless Services which is coordinating the project, says the cost to maintain each house is $4,000 a year.
Ms. Selinske says she is confident that a total of 25 partnership houses will be opened within the next year.
"The reception of religious leaders was so good that we know we'll get many more involved. It's only a matter of logistics," she said.
She said the project was initiated after many religious leaders had expressed concern to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke about the city's homeless problem. She said the congregations could not afford to establish shelters, but many have experience in refugee resettlement and could use similar resources for housing the homeless.
Advocates for the homeless were pleased with the program, announced as Mayor Schmoke campaigns for re-election. But many said that over the last four years Mr. Schmoke has been reluctant to use city funds to deal with homelessness.
"He believes that federal funds, instead of city funds, should be used to provide low-income housing. And he focuses on permanent housing instead of temporary shelter," said Norma Pinette, executive director of Action for the Homeless.
Jeff Singer of City Advocates in Solidarity with the Homeless, says the mayor's own Homeless Relief Advisory Board issued a series of recommendations on ways the city could generate funds to pay for an increase in year-round shelter beds -- such as implementing a 2 percent hotel tax that would raise an estimated million a year. But so far, he says, Mr. Schmoke has taken little or no action on those recommendations.
"Does Mr. Schmoke have a more progressive aura than his predecessors? I'd say yes," Mr. Singer said. "But has that translated into more progressive policies in dealing with the homeless? I'd say no."