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Homeless find shelter at church's doorstep

It's hard not to notice the huddle of men who live under tarps and comforters in the tiny park wedged between Baltimore's main post office and the Jones Falls Expressway.

Some have lived in the park for years, relying on the kindness of strangers for clothing and meals. Others crash there for a night or two until something better comes along.

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For the 10 or so regulars, the park is a community unto itself, with a "president" who keeps order and "guards" who watch for intruders. Benches are "apartments." A graffiti-strewn picnic table is conference room and guesthouse.

The tarp city is part of the outreach mission at St. Vincent de Paul Roman Catholic Church. The park has belonged to the church, which is next door, since the 1990s. The church bought the land from the city for $1 -- an easement prohibited development -- with the goal of keeping it for the homeless. People can stay there as long as they want, provided they follow a few simple rules.

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Those who question the practice -- including police officers and city officials -- are met with Bible verses:

"Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, 'Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,' but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?"

The Rev. Richard Lawrence, who has headed the parish at 120 N. Front St. for three decades, often quotes the Book of James when explaining his church's outreach. He calls his version of the biblical passage a "free translation," but the point is not lost.

"If you see someone in need, you damn well better help," Lawrence said.

The church takes a mostly passive role in helping the men who live in its park. Members don't often push the men to seek treatment for drug or alcohol addictions. They also don't provide regular food or clothing. They say they help by just allowing the men to sleep, play chess or read in their park.

"There's a fine line between compassion and enabling," said Lawrence, a Baltimore native and graduate of St. Mary's Seminary and University whose forefathers ran steamers up and down the bay. "We try to find the line between the two."

Tradition of helping

St. Vincent has a long tradition of helping. The church, which was built in 1840 and is the city's third-oldest Catholic parish, once ran an orphanage as well as an elementary school.

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In its early days, it had separate seating for slaves and African-Americans who had bought their freedom.

For much of the past century, it served as the spiritual home for immigrants from Ireland and Italy. Annual homecoming festivals once brought dozens of families together for food, drink and dancing.

Today, the congregation numbers about 600 families, Lawrence said, many of them from the suburbs. The socially conscious members -- some of whom have traveled to Third World nations to help the poor -- recently hung anti-war banners so thousands of passing motorists could see them.

Helping the poor is a piece of the parish's homegrown mission.

The homeless "need some place to stay, and I think the park is as good a place as any," said David Myers, 54, of Aberdeen, who has been a church member since 1974. "I am proud of the work we do here. I wouldn't be coming to St. Vincent's if I felt otherwise."

The church is also an active force in the Jonestown community, which was founded in 1732 and is one of the oldest sections of the city. Bounded by Orleans Street on the north, Pratt Street on the south, Central Avenue on the east and the Jones Falls on the west, the area is being reshaped -- yet again -- by a wave of development that will bring townhouses, medical suites and a culinary college.

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As part of its work to improve the historic community, the church has also helped to bring in new homeless services. When retired Army Col. Charles Williams wanted to open a shelter for veterans in the area, he went to Lawrence to help win the support of neighborhood merchants.

"Even the rats don't move without Father Lawrence knowing about it," said Williams, whose Maryland Center for Veterans Education and Training has served 5,000 men and women since 1994.

Over the years, other shelters have cropped up as well. They provide a network of services -- including toilets, showers and medical aid -- that makes it relatively easy for the men to stay in the park. Most everything -- from bus routes to District Court to City Hall -- is within walking distance.

"It's comfortable," said Michael Preston, 38, who has lived in the park for about two years off and on. "It's better than a shelter. No one tells you what to do and what not to do. As long as we keep the place clean, we're fine."

Robert Love, 30, is a regular. He has his own "apartment," which he has furnished with quilts and blankets. Love said that he and another man serve as "guards" because their benches are located nearest the Jones Falls. They ward off teenagers who throw rocks, and they take special care of the only woman at the park. The men built a raised wooden floor under her bench so she could stand without getting her feet dirty or wet.

"As long as we keep the place clean and no fights break out, we're fine," said Love.

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Cordial relations

The homeless group and the church members rarely interact, but when they do, everyone is cordial. Those who live under the tarps are always invited to coffee and doughnuts after Sunday Mass. They are also encouraged to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in the parish hall. Church members sometimes ask the men to leave the park for special functions such as weddings or picnics. Recently, the men cleaned the park in preparation for Easter Sunday.

"I just thank the father for it," said Love. "He has been a real cool dude, for a priest."

Still, not everyone is pleased with the camp, which is located across the street from the Baltimore Police Department and Shot Tower. Thousands of motorists pass it every day as they enter or leave the Jones Falls Expressway. Over the years, police and city officials, as well as local merchants, have tried to move the men out of the park. Postal authorities have also voiced concern.

"There is a sort of regular migration of homeless people into the post office," said Frank Schissler, a postal inspector at Baltimore's main post office at 900 E. Fayette St. "Sometimes they camp on the property and have to be escorted off the property. Occasionally, we have found weapons on them, and there have been confrontations with customers."

At a city garage and car wash next door to the parish, a manager said he and his crew used to let homeless people use the shop restrooms until they found syringes and dirty clothes.

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Still, most everyone agreed that it is impossible to tell whether the men who have caused problems in the past are the same men who stay at the park. Most praised Lawrence and the parish for helping the homeless in a city where thousands go without shelter every day.

"He's a good man," said Jerry Schnitzer, co-owner of Hillen Tire and Auto Service on the Fallsway. "He's a good guy. His heart is in the right place, I'm sure."

The St. Vincent de Paul parish isn't about to clear out the park. Said Lawrence: "I'm not going to throw them out. Everyone has to be some place."


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