The future of Our Daily Bread Soup kitchen: Focus must be on feeding the hungry while easing impact on library and businesses.


THE DEBATE about Our Daily Bread -- the largest soup kitchen in Maryland -- is not about whether to serve the hungry or hide them. It is not about rich versus poor. It should not be a battle between Baltimore's downtown business establishment and social service providers.

The problem is that the emergency food operation of Associated Catholic Charities now serves about 900 people a day, seven times as many as when it began in 1981 out of a storefront on West Franklin Street. Its impact on the surrounding neighborhood and the nearby Charles Street retail corridor, struggling to regain its former luster, has grown worse, even in the few years since the operation expanded into its impressive $1.1 million brick building with Palladian windows.

Participants in this controversy -- including Associated Catholic Charities, which runs Our Daily Bread, the Downtown Partnership organization that promotes the central business district and the Enoch Pratt Free Library across from the soup kitchen -- need to reach a solution that both strengthens the neighborhood and protects the most successful emergency food outlet in the state. A win-win solution is possible.

Our Daily Bread has grown into, alas, the Camden Yards of hunger -- much more popular than its creators dreamed. People wait for hours to get inside. Demand is so large that people eat in 20 minutes or less so the next wave can be served. That isn't a big problem because when you're hungry, filling your stomach takes precedence over table chitchat anyway. Unfortunately, the ballpark analogy also holds to the makeup of the clientele -- increasingly families, as well as people employed full time who can't make ends meet.

The parallels end there. While businesses thrive on the spillover from Camden Yards, that is not the case with Our Daily Bread. Among those it serves are people who steal to feed drug addictions. The immediate area has a high incidence of car break-ins and petty crime. Vagrants launder clothes and bathe in restrooms of the Pratt library across Cathedral Street. Potential new businesses and customers are frightened away from nearby Charles Street.

One possible solution is two or three smaller Daily Breads, diffusing the impact. Indeed, most Marylanders are unaware of the 900 soup kitchens and food pantries now in their midst -- there were only 60 in 1980 -- because most operate on a small scale.

Another solution might be the establishment of a single facility that consolidates assistance for food, shelter, job training and drug treatment. This will cost money, and the business community will have to assist.

The influence of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who favors a multiresource center at a mutually agreeable site, must also be brought to bear on reaching a solution.

It is asking too much that Catholic Charities alone remake an operation that has been an engine of private humanitarianism in a jaded society that still recalls Ronald Reagan's anecdotes of Cadillac-driving "welfare queens." Volunteers from churches, synagogues, schools and offices bake and serve 120 casseroles a day in a setting that is orderly, mannerly and clean. For hundreds, a meal at Our Daily Bread is the most stable, secure and humane 20 minutes of their day.

Cardinal William H. Keeler, to his credit, is taking seriously the complaints about Our Daily Bread, where he and Pope John Paul II dined with the poor in 1995. The cardinal has asked George Collins, a Catholic Charities board member and former T. Rowe Price executive (best known lately for his entry in the Whitbread sailing race), to lead a committee to study the problem.

One rule for this civic discussion must be that participants not wield statistics like homemade bombs. For example, little is known about where the clients who use the facility live. Yet some opponents claim Our Daily Bread should "move to where its clients come from," apparently basing their case on an inadequate questionnaire done years ago that drew responses from only half the clients on a single day.

Sister Gwynette Proctor, director of Our Daily Bread, says she knows many users of the soup kitchen live nearby in the downtown area because she brought meals to some during the blizzard of '96, including an elderly man who lived in one room with one light plugged into the only electrical outlet.

Baltimore must have a vibrant business center. Maryland's main reference library shouldn't be a place patrons are uncomfortable visiting. And people, especially children, cannot go hungry. Any worthwhile solution about the future of Our Daily Bread must address all three concerns.

Pub Date: 6/07/98

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