A grand home for the homeless; Shelter: A turn-of-the century gift to needy women will finally house them.


A dowager grande dame of Baltimore society named Margaret J. Bennett died rich in 1900 and among her many charities left $150,000 to start a refuge for "homeless, needy and deserving female persons."

A healthy chunk of money at the turn of the century, her bequest would be more than $2.5 million in 1999 dollars. It paid for and then maintained for nearly 100 years the Margaret J. Bennett Home in an elegant Greek Revival townhouse at 14 E. Franklin St.

The Bennett house -- next door to Tio Pepe's Spanish restaurant -- survives splendidly intact from when it was built 170 years ago in "the most fashionable part of the city."

Still imposing with its Ionic columns, the Franklin Street entrance opens onto a marble foyer from which the original mahogany stairway sweeps up to the third floor.

A step away, next to a classic Baltimore marble fireplace with floral carvings, an oval portrait of Margaret Bennett, serene and benign in a Quakerish dress, monitors a 19th-century formal parlor of an expansive style almost extinct in Baltimore. A faultless mirror rises in elegant splendor in a gilded frame that is topped with a strutting sculptured bird amid golden floral boughs. The ceiling soars 18 or so feet above a 20th century Indian carpet.

In the empty silence you can almost hear the rustle of taffeta and the soft clink of fine china as 19th century ladies take tea.

This grand salon would have been quite a haven for deserving, needy and homeless women at the beginning of the 20th century. But until now the Bennett house has sheltered only proper young women from good families who had come alone to work in the big, sinful city.

These "female persons" lived boarding-house style in additions attached to the old townhouse, ate in an institutional dining room and received gentlemen callers in the formal parlor but never, ever, upstairs. Recently, the lodgers had been mostly art, music, medical and culinary arts students attending downtown schools.

Now the Margaret Bennett Home's trustees have turned over the house to the Women's Housing Coalition, which is as committed as Margaret Bennett was to meeting the needs of homeless women. The coalition will transform the house into a single-room occupancy residence for 30 "very low income, disabled women." Susan Thompson, the coalition's executive director, expects the $3.3 million renovation to begin in November or December and be completed by July 2000.

So almost exactly a century after her death in August 1900, Margaret Bennett's desire to help homeless women will finally come to fruition.

Quiet deeds

Tomorrow night the Women's Housing Coalition marks its own 20th anniversary of quiet, consistent commitment to finding housing for homeless women with a gala in Hampden, complete with a commemorative quilt, a gospel choir and a celebration of its founders.

"It was a grassroots group of women who recognized homelessness was not just for men," says Thompson. "I guess we're marking the fact that a small mid-sized nonprofit has lasted 20 years providing services and housing to homeless, low-income women in Baltimore city.

"The downside is that we've had to last," Thompson says. "The need is still there. That's not something to celebrate."

Depending on who's doing the counting, there are 3,300 to 5,000 homeless women in Baltimore. From the point of view of the coalition, any woman without a deed or a lease in her own name can be considered homeless.

Thompson says hundreds or thousands of women -- and their children -- without a space of their own drift like urban nomads from home to home among relatives or friends, endure violent partners, even prostitute themselves rather than spend a night on the street.

So the coalition serves 50 to 60 women on any day -- or night. It has helped about 1,000 women over the last 20 years, Thompson says.

Other dwellings

The coalition provides a 13-unit single room occupancy dwelling -- the first in Maryland -- at an old apartment building called the Calverton, at 25th and Calvert streets. Single, low-income disabled women live at the Calverton an average of five years, although they can stay as long as they want or need.

Three rowhouses in Remington offer communal living to 12 women in transitional housing, and there's semi-independent living for 24 women in the coalition's scattered-site housing in apartments throughout the city. A family program serves six families in scattered-site apartments, as women who "graduate" from, say, transitional housing are reunited with their children.

But the poor and homeless women of today may not be quite the same as those Margaret Bennett envisioned in 1900. They may be older women bewildered by sudden unemployment or the death of a husband on whom they depended. They may be abused, abandoned or battered, addicted or plagued by mental illness.

They tend to be 30 to 45 years old. And it's a mistake to think they're as uneducated as they are poor, Thompson says.

"Right now we have four people with bachelor's degrees," she says. "One person is working on a master's degree. Several people with high school diplomas are working on associate or college degrees."

But some come from drug rehabilitation programs and some from prisons.

"We get a couple of letters a week from people in prison, all handwritten letters," says Thompson. The prisoners often need housing as part of their "exit plan."

"It's hard," Thompson says. "It's hard to know what they're going through, that they're getting ready to be released, to know that they're writing out their story time and time again."

Maxine Summerville has come down that hard road.

"Oh my, oh my," she says. "I didn't really start going to jail until I was 25 years old. After 25 I was on the wrong. Every other chance I got I was in jail."

She lives in the coalition's Remington transitional housing. She's 47, and she started using drugs at 14. She's a recovering addict, clean about 20 months now, she says. Which is no doubt true: she's tested once a week.

Women have to be drug-free to live in a coalition home, says Andrea Medina, the residential counselor who monitors transitional housing.

The rules

"We have a lot of rules," Medina says. "There's a curfew. There are required meetings. They have to clean their rooms and help clean the house."

Residents sign a contract with rules that ban such things as physical or verbal harassment of fellow residents, weapons, theft in the house or neighborhood and, in an echo of the Bennett Home, no guests above the first floor.

Summerville cleans the kitchen in her home, which she shares with two other women. It's immaculate. All the coalition dwellings are extraordinarily clean and tidy.

She lived in vacant houses before her last arrest on drug and gun charges.

"Every other morning I would switch up houses," she says. "So I wouldn't stay in one too long. Because the police would be watching them."

She was arrested early last year in the back yard of an abandoned house. She detoxed cold turkey in a jail medical ward. At her trial, the judge gave her the choice of going to jail for three years or into a drug recovery program supervised by Drug Court.

She took Drug Court, which ordered a 30-day regime of acupuncture, counseling, educational tutoring and group therapy while she was in detention.

Joan Faulkner, a neighbor in the coalition house next door, had pretty much the same experience after using heroin, cocaine, marijuana and alcohol.

"I liked [acupuncture]," she says. "I do believe it takes away the craving for drugs."

After being an intravenous drug user for 12 years, she's been clean for eight months. She's got a good job in telemarketing, selling long-distance telephone service.

"I'm getting kind of good at it now," she says. "My sales are increasing daily."

Summerville just finished her first week in a GED program. And she's become house manager at her coalition home.

"She has a lot of responsibilities," Medina says. "She has to make sure the other residents make curfew every night, that they do their chores and things like that. That person's responsibility is, like, the day-to-day operation of the house."

Summerville says she prays a lot these days.

"I always prayed," she says. "Even in my addiction, I prayed. I used to want to get high, and I would pray for it. I don't do that anymore. I pray to stay clean, pray to treat people like I have been treated."

Margaret J. Bennett might be surprised by the new homeless women. But she might be pleased by their progress.

A century ago her will urged that her money be used so that needy female persons could be "stimulated in honest efforts to earn a livelihood and instructed in moral and religious truths."

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