It sounds like a zany plot from the TV sitcom "Seinfeld": Take the city's homeless and put them on a campus.
But that's exactly what an increasing number of U.S. cities are doing as downtown redevelopment efforts clash with a long-standing social and economic renewal roadblock: the urban poor.
Baltimore business leaders recently began talks with Catholic Social Services about moving the Our Daily Bread soup kitchen off Cathedral Street. The swelling food line -- blamed for rising crime and chasing city visitors -- is spilling into the path of a region planned for theater district revitalization.
In return, business leaders pledge to build a more comprehensive facility that would draw the poor away from downtown and provide medical care, housing, schools and job training.
Miami and Jacksonville, Fla., built such campuses, while Austin, Texas, and Houston are planning them. Baltimore joins Albuquerque, N.M., and New Orleans as the latest cities to explore one-stop service centers for the poor.
"If I'm going to buy a pair of slacks, I also want to get a pair of shoes," said Peg Reese, director of Unity for the Homeless, located just outside New Orleans' famous French Quarter tourist area. "It's the same with the homeless: They want to be able to get all the services at once."
When cities research the campus option, they visit Orlando, Fla. The popular tourist destination created what has become the model campus for the poor in 1987 through a nonprofit group called the Coalition for the Homeless.
Much like those in Baltimore, Orlando business leaders knew that reviving its sagging downtown to capitalize on nearby Walt Disney World tourism would require relocating scores of homeless who were sleeping in downtown parks and bathing in city fountains. The 3.3-acre campus built outside downtown is separated from the city's nightclub district by Interstate 4.
The campus holds as many as 200 families and 500 single men and provides a range of services from day care, laundry and shower facilities to boys and girls clubs, adult education classes and drug and alcohol abuse treatment.
"If you had to grade it, I'd still give it an A," said Michael Poole, an Orlando investment banker who served as coalition director between 1991 and 1995. "We've created for them a community, and when people come to town, they say they don't see any homeless. What do you think that does for economic development and tourism?"
As Baltimore government and business leaders try to extend Inner Harbor redevelopment success into downtown, Our Daily Bread stands as a key obstacle. The city's busiest and most visible soup kitchen feeds up to 900 people each day, seven times the 125 people that it was designed to feed when it opened as a 17 W. Franklin St. storefront in 1981.
The clash between business and the poor has risen because of the nation's economic prosperity. Developers are capitalizing on the robust financial times to expand. Several renovation projects are scheduled for downtown Baltimore, including the redevelopment of Charles Street, the Howard Street corridor and the Hippodrome Theater on Eutaw Street.
Two years ago, the National Law Center On Homelessness and Poverty issued a report called "Mean Sweeps" detailing growing anti-homelessness laws in 50 cities, such as Atlanta, which made homelessness a crime in order to clean up the town for the 1996 Olympics.
And homeless advocates say the problem likely will get worse. Later this year, the federal government's first deadline under the welfare reform plan will take effect.
Those not working will lose their two-year welfare subsidy. In Maryland alone, 14,000 families are expected to be taken off welfare rolls next year.
Many social agencies are consolidating to brace against the influx. Two weeks ago, the Maryland Food Committee and Action for the Homeless merged to form the Center for Poverty Solutions.
"We've got to reduce turf," said Robert V. Hess, who is leading the affiliated groups. "The substance abuse people don't talk to the housing people who don't talk to the mental health people. We need to do this because it's in the best interest of poor folks."
In New Orleans, homeless advocates attempted to purchase a hospital, which it planned to turn into a social services "mall" to relieve the poor from walking all over town for various services.
"There are a lot of reasons why it works," said Jean Flavelle, vice president of the coalition in Orlando. "You can share staff, you can share resources and there are safety in numbers."
The biggest hurdle, campus supporters say, is finding the best place to locate the site. Baltimore is in the early discussion stages with no proposed site. But because most of the urban poor are near the heart of the city, the facilities must be placed within walking distance for the poor, many of whom cannot afford public transportation.
Last year, Albuquerque chose a site to consolidate its social serv ice agencies and move the poor. But a nearby neighborhood group objected, sending that city back to the drawing board. For the city's downtown to prosper, locating a site for the homeless is critical, city leaders said.
"What we are looking at now is an industrial type zone on the fringes," said Randy Romero, a city planner who sits on the city's homeless task force. "A lot of the redevelopment of downtown hinges on it."
Pub Date: 6/15/98