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Soup kitchens yearn to become unnecessary Now they're so busy they need more room


For Baltimore's soup kitchens, success leaves a bittersweet aftertaste.

Started more than a decade ago as a temporary service for the poor, the kitchens have ended up expanding, seeking larger, permanent homes as the demand for food grows.

Later this month, Beans and Bread, one of the city's oldest soup kitchens, will move to new headquarters on South Bond Street, a few blocks from its current, cramped site on Aliceanna Street.

Our Daily Bread, the city's largest and best-known feeding program, in January relocated to a $1.1 million brick building at Cathedral and Franklin streets.

The new Beans and Bread is to open with fanfare May 27, with Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke on hand for a ribbon-cutting. The next day, it will begin serving the more than 250 people -- homeless men, elderly residents from Fells Point, women and small children -- who have come to rely on its hot midday meals at the Aliceanna location.

John Schiavone, executive director of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, which runs Beans and Bread, concedes that the expansion is an odd victory at best.

"We have to do something to respond to the need. [But] when a soup kitchen has a grand opening, it's not all fireworks and celebration," Mr. Schiavone said. "The down side is that we have to exist at all."

The new Beans and Bread kitchen is a gracious, airy space, if not quite as grand as the new Our Daily Bread. It will have two handicapped-accessible bathrooms; its current site, a former laundromat, has none. The kitchen will have a 10-burner stove and two ovens, making food preparation much easier.

And, because St. Vincent de Paul owns the new location, Beans and Bread no longer has to worry about rent increases. In fact, rent from an upstairs apartment will help cover the mortgage.

But the real achievement would be to close down the city's soup kitchens, said Linda Eisenberg of the Maryland Food Committee.

"We have somehow decided that if we're nothing else, we're a charitable society and we will make sure people are taken care of," Ms. Eisenberg said. "But there isn't the same degree of attention to how people got there in the first place."

When Beans and Bread opened in 1977, there were fewer than 10 soup kitchens in Baltimore. There are more than 40 now, serving up to 6,000 meals on a typical day.

Beans and Bread started with fewer than 20 clients a day. Three years ago, when the kitchen's staff realized its rented headquarters were too small, about 125 people were lining up for lunch on a daily basis.

That number doubled while St. Vincent De Paul searched for an affordable location in the area.

The search was complicated by the charity's decision to work with

resident and business associations, which vetoed several sites, Mr. Schiavone said. And when the property at 402 S. Bond St. was purchased at a cost of $184,000 last year, it still took another eight months to guide the project through the zoning process.

Renovating the space -- a former synagogue that also has seen service as a furniture store and flower storehouse -- cost an additional $120,000, $41,000 of which is still unpaid.

Yesterday, Continental Realty and the law firm of Gordon, Feinblatt, Rothman, Hoffberger & Hollander donated an unspecified sum to the outstanding balance, challenging other Baltimore businesses to do the same.

But much of the renovation work has been donated as well. Richard Laszczak, 49, an out-of-work painter, volunteered his services. He knew about the project because he started eating at Beans and Bread when he couldn't find work this year.

"I always knew Beans and Bread was here," said Mr. Laszczak, who has lived in the Fells Point area most of his life. "I just can't find any work."

Too old for "swing" painting, which requires scaling tall buildings, Mr. Laszczak hopes he can find part-time jobs to keep going.

In the meantime, he relies on his lunch at Beans and Bread, and the brown bags of leftovers the nuns press on him when he leaves.

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