A partial solution to the problem of sheltering the homeless may be floating off the gloomy docks of Fairfield in South Baltimore.
The Sanctuary, an old Navy hospital ship rusting away at the end of Childs Street, has been taken over by a new board of directors that envisions it as a shelter where addicts and alcoholics would have access to detoxification and job training.
The old board of Life International, a nonprofit group that bought the 49-year-old ship from Congress for $15 in 1990 with plans for Third World medical missions, resigned on Tuesday. It was replaced by a new board of local leaders in labor, banking, business and medicine.
Led by Steve J. Hammer, a 48-year-old Baltimore businessman who sits on the Private Industry Council, the new group wants the Sanctuary to begin sheltering hundreds of Baltimore's homeless as early as Thanksgiving.
The ship has languished at Pier 5 in Fairfield since 1990, because the old board of Life International never convinced anyone to donate money to refurbish it. The new group hopes to raise up to $400,000 by selling another former government ship for scrap metal.
Because Fairfield is such a desolate stretch of industrial waterfront -- nearly a ghost town since the public housing projects there were abandoned in 1991 -- the board doesn't anticipate community opposition.
"We came to the Sanctuary's rescue," said Mr. Hammer, Life International's interim chairman who recruited the new board and a promise of volunteer labor from union leaders. "The old board had wanted to put her off the coast of Africa. I didn't think it was relevant, because we have a lot of problems here at home."
Problems at home include an estimated 2,500 people homeless in the city on any given night, many of them uneducated, unskilled and addicted to drugs.
"Beds for single men and services like detox and medical care are desperately needed," said Ann C. Sherrill, program director for Action for the Homeless, a statewide advocacy group. "I hope they involve people that have experience with the homeless, but if the services and beds are there, this is a good alternative to being on the street."
Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's office was unaware of the project yesterday.
Mr. Hammer said that while he didn't think any job programs or drug and alcohol treatment would be in place by Thanksgiving, that shouldn't keep the group from settling people into warm bunks.
"We could take on 100 people right out of the gate without blinking an eye," he said, noting that there's room for about 1,000 people. "That would put some pressure on us, but at least it would get people out of the cold while we're working out the details."
The first hurdle is getting permission from the federal government to scrap the USS Donner, an old floating dry dock and landing craft now in mothballs on the James River near Norfolk, Va.
When Life International was given possession of the Donner by Congress, the organization promised to use it, like the Sanctuary, for humanitarian purposes.
Mr. Hammer is scheduled to meet Tuesday with Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, R-2nd, a member of the House Merchant Marine Subcommittee, to ask her help in getting approval to scrap the Donner.
"Once I have the OK, I think I can have it sold in 60 days, probably overseas for about $70 a ton," said John A. Andor, a Seattle ship broker who sat on Life International's old board for 15 years.
With the Donner sold, the money would be used to buy materials like electrical equipment and plumbing fixtures to renovate the Sanctuary, last refitted by the Navy in 1972 as a hospital and commissary for U.S. military families in Greece. The first job would be to have the 522-foot ship repainted white. Asbestos is also a problem.
"The [needed] renovations were extensive when I visited two years ago, and I'm sure a lot more is needed now," said board member William P. Kaczorowski, president of the Baltimore Building and Construction Trades Council of the AFL-CIO.
"Our main role would be providing labor for renovations and repairs," he said. "I hope they want to do this thing in phases. If they want to do it all at once, it's going to be difficult."
Mr. Kaczorowski said his group represents 12,000 workers in 19 local unions throughout the Baltimore area. Culling volunteers from those unions, he said, is more difficult in bad economic times than good.
The Sanctuary and the goodwill goals of Life International were the dreams of a former Presbyterian minister from Silver Spring named Robert N. Meyers. Mr. Meyers, the group's president and chairman who lobbied Congress for the Sanctuary, died in November without seeing the ship do anything but sit in the Patapsco River.
One problem was Mr. Meyers' stubborn conviction that the ship had to be used in the Third World, specifically Nigeria.
Mr. Hammer, however, always saw the ship as being what its name suggests.
"We need to paint it so it looks like a home for people -- a sanctuary," said Mr. Hammer. "It's a perfect name for what we want to do, a God-given name."
BOARD OF DIRECTORS OF LIFE INTERNATIONAL
* Steve J. Hammer, interim board chairman, owner of the Hammar & Associates Inc. consulting firm.
* Ernie Greco, president of the Baltimore Metropolitan AFL-CIO.
* Carl W. Stern, chairman of Provident Bank of Maryland.* William P. Kaczorowski, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of the AFL-CIO.
* Dr. Stanley Plattman, a psychiatrist at Union Memorial Hospital.
* Mike Whipple, general manager of the Inner Harbor Sheraton Hotel.
* John Clemons, president of Local No. 557 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.* Dave Dechant, a specialist in international marketing for the state Department of Agriculture.
* Vernon Thompson, executive director of Business Assistance for the state economic development department.
* Robert Mead, owner of a Baltimore public relations company.* Colleen Jenkins, a Hammar Services vice president.
* Lisa Martin, president of Hammar Services.
* Kevin Campbell, president of the Campbell Foundation, a Baltimore foundation for disadvantaged children.