Baltimore officials are moving forward with plans for the first of at least six permanent daytime resource centers for the homeless, addressing an issue that Mayor Martin O'Malley said nine months ago would become a higher priority for the city.
An O'Malley administration bill to be introduced at tonight's City Council meeting would allow the city to buy a vacant lot on the edge of downtown in order to build what is expected to be the most comprehensive homeless center in Baltimore. It would include access to food, health care, mental health assessments and a long list of other potential services.
The city has up to $1.5 million in bond funds available for establishing the homeless center, which would be built on what is now a parking lot at the southeast corner of East Monument Street and the Fallsway, just across the street from the Central Booking and Intake Center. The city is appraising the property in anticipation of a purchase, and officials hope the center could be built in a year.
"It would be very service-driven," said Leslie H. Leitch, the city's director of homeless services. "This would not be a hangout place." She then ticked off some of the possible services: "Laundry, dental care, optical care ... a phone bank, a mail center where people could have an address and get mail, a resource library, showers, haircuts."
What's unclear is whether "soup kitchen" will also be on that list of services. Leitch said in May that the administration contemplated the site as a possible home for Our Daily Bread, the state's largest distributor of free lunches to the poor, which has considered moving from its central downtown location in response to concerns from neighboring businesses.
A spokeswoman for Catholic Charities, which runs Our Daily Bread, said she was unaware of whether the site would appeal to the nonprofit group.
"We have looked at a variety of sites, and we will continue to do that," said spokeswoman Kerrie Burch DeLuca. "Until we find a site that works for our guests, meaning that they could get there easily, and works for our volunteers, who make it all happen, we can't [move]."
Regardless of Our Daily Bread's future, homeless advocates said that they were pleased the city is moving ahead with plans for homeless centers, though they would have liked the city to have done so more quickly.
The centers were first recommended by a city task force in March of last year, and O'Malley had said in December that the first of the centers might be up and running this year.
In addition to the Monument Street site, Leitch said, the city plans to find a location to build another resource center, and to expand at least four "drop-in" locations for the homeless into full-service centers.
"It's good that they're getting started. One [center] down, five to go. But it's slow in coming," said Ralph E. Moore, vice president and director of community services for the Center for Poverty Solutions.
O'Malley announced the intention to create the resource sites shortly before Christmas, amid a spate of protests by homeless advocates against a ban on food handouts in front of City Hall.
Since then, advocates also grew upset with a City Council bill that would ban most nighttime panhandling.
Now, some welcome what they see as a chance to shift the debate over the city's homeless, which a task force estimated to number as high as 3,000 on any given night.
"We certainly think that provid- ing greater access to services at all times of the day is a more positive solution to public begging downtown than is the current anti-panhandling legislation also before City Council," said Kevin C. Lindamood of Health Care for the Homeless. "This [anti-panhandling effort] unfortunately has been the context in which the community has been forced to discuss issues of homelessness."
Moore, though, expressed concern that the site is too close to the jail and to the state prison complex.
"The concern that many people in the advocacy community have about locating services for poor people next to jails is just the suggestion that there's a relationship between poverty and crime that's specious at best, and it connotatively suggests that it is criminal to be poor," Moore said. "[But] at least it's accessible to downtown."
Leitch said the city looked at 31 sites and had difficulty finding one that would not provoke neighborhood opposition.
"We will always have opposition. It's just where does it make the most sense," Leitch said. "This is a nonresidential area. It's in a nonurban renewal area, and certainly borders residential ... but it's also close enough to downtown that people will be encouraged to go there."
The legislation allowing the city to buy the lot is one of two bills on tonight's agenda aimed at helping the poor.
Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., a West Baltimore Democrat, is proposing an earned income tax credit, similar to the state's credit, that would ease the local income tax burden for the working poor.
Mitchell said last week that he was waiting to hear from officials about how much the tax credit would cost the city.